A sexual awakening in Iran, freedom in India, but a step back in Turkey

Pictured from left are Radhika Sanghani, Sharmila Chauhan, Ramita Navia and Elif Shafak at the event titled 'The Good Wife' at Asia House

Pictured, from left, are Radhika Sanghani, Sharmila Chauhan, Ramita Navia and Elif Shafak, discussing the position of women in Asia at the literature event titled 'The Good Wife' held at Asia House

A sexual awakening in Iran, freedom in India, but a step back in Turkey

19 May 2016

By Naomi Canton

Women living in cities in India are almost on a par with western women when it comes to relationships and liberation. Meanwhile women in Tehran are experiencing a sexual awakening  but Turkish women are becoming more conservative and less liberal. These were the views about the position of modern Asian women by three top authors at an event during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival titled The Good Wife chaired by Radhika Sanghani, who writes about women’s issues for The Telegraph‘s Wonder Women and is also the author of millennial comedy Virgin and Not That Easy.

“The upper classes in India are on a par with London,” said London-based playwright Sharmila Chauhan, whose plays include The Husbands, Born Again and 10 Women.

“There is everything in India now: Tinder, Internet dating, live-in relationships,” she said, adding women living in Indian cities were much more educated and liberal than before.

Divorce was also much more common in India and much more accepted, she said, though it also depended on what strata of society the person was from, she added.

"Divorce is much more common in India," says Sharmila Chauhan

“Divorce is much more common in India nowadays and more accepted,” says Sharmila Chauhan


What about the acceptability of being a single woman in India? “In rural areas there are less opportunities for education. Girls marry younger and they have a sell-by-date. But in big cities, it’s different. They are ultra-liberal and women can marry after 30. However, the ultimate goal of any relationship is always marriage – it’s so entrenched in the culture. So even if a couple lives together before marriage, marriage is the goal,” she explained.

She said child brides and female infanticide and foeticide were still a problem in rural India and added that arranged marriages were still very common across India, though they took place on a sliding scale from complete strangers getting married, to being introduced by parents and going on multiple dates then reaching a decision, to both parties simply using matrimonial websites.

Radhika Sanghani, who writes for The Telegraph's Wonder Women, chaired the event

Radhika Sanghani, who writes for The Telegraph’s Wonder Women, chaired the event

“The old systems of introductions have pretty much moved online but they are still very caste and class conscious and there is a desire to keep those elements,” she said. “Bollywood has a massive influence on relationships too because it’s about love without sex,” she said.  As a result of this Indians felt a sense of “shame and guilt” about sex “even though India has such a rich history of sexuality and openness about sex,” she said.  “Yet conversations are non-existent nowadays,” she said. “Girls feel guilty and repressed.”

Chauhan described how pre-colonisation India had a long rich history of sexuality, sexual awareness and openness about sex.  “Then women were much more powerful,” she said.

“India has a rich history of goddesses and of matriarchy and polyandry,” she continued.

This is a subject that interests her  and is covered in her play The Husbands set in a fictional world in south India. “Polyandry became illegal after colonisation,” she pointed out.

But there was still more that needed to be done to emancipate urban educated women once they become mothers. “In India the default is that you are educated, but once you have kids your place is at home, unless you come from an ultra-liberal family,” she said.

Iran meanwhile is not just experiencing a post-sanctions euphoria but also a “sexual awakening”, according to Ramita Navai, author of City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran.

“Iran is such an exciting country and it’s changing so fast,” Navai said. “This is changing women’s roles too,” she said.

“Sex became a way of rebelling after the 2009 protests,” she said. “For the young it was an act of rebellion because the Iranian state tries to exercise so much control over its citizens, it was the only way they felt they had control and could be free,” she added.

“There is a growing youth culture that lives on the Internet and soaks up Western TV and Turkish soaps and wants to live like Westerners. It’s not just confined to the elite,” she continued. “This is happening among the middle classes in Tehran,” she said.

“Tehran has changed. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution Tehran consisted of the working class and the elite,” she pointed out.

Now most of Tehran was middle class and this sexual awakening was happening among the middle class, not just the elite and also happening among the more religious traditional conservative Iranians, she said. “They are pushing the boundaries within the confines of what is acceptable and Islamic,” she explained.

There is a "sexual awakening" taking place in Tehran, according to Ramita Navai

There is a “sexual awakening” taking place in Tehran, according to Ramita Navai

She insisted it wasn’t a sexual revolution taking place in Tehran, rather a “sexual awakening” that was “bubbling up”. But the rest of Iran was much slower to change.

Being a single woman was still difficult in Iran and women considered to be on the shelf were referred to in derogatory way as “pickled”.  But the age of pickling was going up. “I am well and truly pickled, “ she joked. “More and more women are getting married later, society is accepting this change.”

“Some places won’t rent to single women and they assume you have dubious morals in certain parts of town if you live by yourself but more and more single women are living on their own from all social levels so society is really changing. Flatshares are also becoming more acceptable,” she said.

She said virginity was no longer taboo except among conservative Iranians. “There will always be some Iranians who want to marry a virgin but its changing among young people,” she said.

Many Iranian religious women told her they were “having sex whilst remaining virgins,” she said.

This pushing of the boundaries could be seen, she said, through a sharp rise in so-called ‘temporary marriages’ known as sigheh under Islamic law. These short-term contracts allow sexual relations and can last for as little as a few minutes or they can span 99 years, but when terminated they don’t end up with expensive divorces. She said this suited people from religious and conservative families.  These certificates are often shown when unmarried couples want to share hotel rooms.

“The state is worried about the threat to the institution of marriage and society in general,” she said.

“I think 20 per cent of marriages in Iran end in divorce. Divorce rates have tripled in the last 10 years and it’s no longer taboo,” she said “even among conservative families. It’s no longer shameful.”

“It’s much harder for a woman to get divorced than for a man as it’s not a country where there is sexual equality.”

Cohabiting  – commonly referred to in Iran as ‘white marriage’ – has grown so much that it’s talked about in the press, she said and the chief of staff to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even issued a statement denouncing it.

“Couples don’t want to commit, they want to leave the family home and have their own place to have their independence, but not get married,” she said. “It’s like booze, you can get punished for it but it happens throughout Tehran. Iran has such a huge young population and there is nothing the Government can do about it. They can’t control the young people, so many of whom are soaking up Western culture via the Internet. Even Grinder (the gay hook up dating app) and Tinder are in Iran. The Internet has really transformed the way young Iranians date. There are some arranged marriages but there is rarely pressure to marry someone you don’t want to marry in the cities. Both sides have to agree to the marriage so it’s normally an introduction by family and they agree on the woman’s pre-nup of gold coins to protect her in the case of divorce.”

Similar to India, she said there were lots of child marriages in Iran outside Tehran and arranged marriages were more common in rural areas where there was more pressure to marry whoever your parents tell you to.

She said there was no issue with women working in Iran but there were few graduate level career jobs for women.

Many women were getting married later and society was also more accepting of that. She said Iranian women “had never wanted to cover up” so they often wore tight and short tunics known as manteau , their hair fell out of the headscarf and they might wear five-inch stilettos.  “That is also a form of protest for the young,” she said.

The Good Wife event was sold out

The Good Wife event, which was held in partnership with the Pan Asian Women’s Association (PAWA), was extremely popular and was sold out

The situation in Turkey is more depressing, explained renowned Turkish author Elif Shafak, whose books include The Forty Rules of Love.

“In Turkey there is a negative movement going backwards and that’s very depressing,” she said. “I feel very demoralised. Turkey was never colonised and for a long time we never had anti-Western sentiments, which you might encounter in some parts of the Middle East which had been colonised,” she said.

She said Turkey had lots of positive and progressive laws and many women worked in professions such as media, medicine, business, advertising and academia but women were “non -existent” in politics at a local, regional and national levels and those who wanted to find their feet in these sector had to “defeminise themselves.”

Like Iran, Turkey is a patriarchal society but households are very matriarchal. For example old women earnt lots of respect once they were longer associated with sexuality, she said.

But she was worried there was now a Conservative backlash to the “Turkish modernisation project “ which was in fact modelled on France.

“Even women’s equality is being abandoned, women are being pushed back to the private space, being told there are roles for women and men and that women should have three to five children,” she said.

“Motherhood is being promoted as the primary career for women and abortion has suddenly become an issue. There is rape, incest and lots of sexual harassment. In some places there are honour killings and wives battered and bruised by their husbands or ex husbands. If you complain to the police about domestic violence the police lecture you on the role of a good wife and you go back home. We have very few shelters for women or children suffering from abuse but we are busy making shopping malls. There is nowhere for women and children to go.  Most cases of domestic abuse and killing start when the woman wants to break up. If you go to court and complain about being attacked, the court will reduce the punishment of a man if a woman happens to be in a short skirt for example or if she said something that might offend his masculinity. What we are lacking is a bottom-up women’s movement that encompasses all classes.”

Interestingly, a counterculture to the West now and there are many young people in Turkey that are much more covered than their mothers, she said. “It’s a reaction to the West, to Europe, to their parents. However you see it, it is a reactionary thing.”

She said Turkey had become a very polarised and divided society and the police were encouraging neighbours to keep an eye on young people if they were living together outside of marriage. “This is very new. We never used to have this kind of discourse in Turkey,” she said.

She said the huge influx of refugees had also led to a “tremendous increase” in the number of  child brides.

“We are seeing 13-14 year old Syrian girls married to Turkish men as their first, second or third wives even though polygamy is illegal but no one does anything.”

“We are trapped in a duality – people who are very biased towards Islam who see it as a monolithic whole and people who won’t accept any different views. This is extreme ideology. We need to speak about misinterpretation and the gender discrimination present in this culture and also in the interpretation of this religion.”

“Huge political clashes are happening over women’s bodies,” she said. “It is a divided society. The streets and public squares are becoming more and more male-dominated. The sex harassment in Cologne – that is happening in Cairo and Istanbul too. We are so used to that kind of sexual harassment! It’s like a joke among us. You go on a bus and you take safety pins with you. In the past we used to be ashamed and now we are trying to shame the men and I see women supporting each other and that’s good.”

Books, art, music and films are a big way of breaking the official narrative that’s imposed on us. I admire the way that in London children learn about all religions and cultures. We don’t have that in Turkey. “

This event was held in partnership with the Pan Asian Women’s Association.


On Wednesday 25 May we will welcome author Susan Southard whose book Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War chronicles the lives of atomic bomb survivors from 1945 to the present day. Click here for more information.

On Tuesday 31 May Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong reveals the true cost of China’s controversial one-child policy her book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. To book tickets click here.