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Platinum prices for Iranian weddings poke at revolutionary norms

One in three marriages in Tehran now end in divorce. The luxury wedding industry is a window onto Iran's shifting social values and a challenge to official rhetoric in the Islamic Republic.

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An Iranian bride poses for a photo at a luxury wedding with mixed dancing and removal of headscarves, at a private garden tailor-made for the purpose west of Tehran, Iran, on September 14, 2015. Such weddings are booming business in Iran with an average price tag of $20,000, though they also often break Islamic rules and can be shut down by police if they do not have a permit.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

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In the wedding planner’s lair, the Iranian bride-to-be sits on a black leather couch, dolled up in a tailored yellow jacket and red lipstick, flanked by her parents.

The news isn’t good.

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Their wedding venue – a remote garden, tailor-made for lavish weddings – had been shut down the night before by police for breaking all the rules that are typically broken at such events in Iran. Men and women danced together; headscarves disappeared; there was no permit. Now they were scrambling to find an alternative for their $20,000 nuptials, the going rate here these days for a luxury wedding.

Such conspicuous displays of wealth are testing Iran’s revolutionary norms, both because of the economic divide that they showcase as well as a broader shift in social attitudes that underpin a surge in divorces. The wedding industry offers a window into these shifting mores and into the efforts by officials to curb or corral them, with limited success.

Most Iranians are unlikely ever to peer inside the walled gardens of platinum-priced weddings. But social media and satellite channels are bringing the images to the masses at a time when Iranians were supposed to be tightening their belts to combat nuclear-related sanctions. And the rising divorce rate cuts across social class – one in three marriages in Tehran end in divorce, a fact not lost on Iran’s clerical establishment. 

The Tehran Friday prayer leader 10 days ago, for example, even started his sermon with a lecture on the importance of marriage in Islam, before moving on to the routine anti-US, anti-Israel rhetoric. Iran is plagued by 500 divorces a day, he said.

Couples need to “know God” and be revolutionary, said Ayatollah Ali Movahedi-Kermani. “Unfortunately the priorities have changed.… The basis has turned into materialistic stuff, so if pleasure is disrupted they just divorce.… What happened to patience?”

Gold coins and sexual satisfaction

Divorce numbers have more than doubled in the last decade, according to official statistics. To slow the trend, the Ministry of Health in recent months added education about sexual satisfaction to mandatory pre-marriage courses.

Dowry laws have also been changed. Two years ago, the maximum legal dowry was reduced to 110 gold coins, roughly $29,400, in order to make the proceeds of such action less appealing to women and to deter defrauding of men by unscrupulous women. Brides can demand a dowry before or during marriage, and certainly if things turn sour. Last month another law was changed so that men are not immediately sent to jail for nonpayment of dowries – a move aimed at easing pressure on prisons.

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An older Iranian man who recently re-married said he had to pledge a dowry of 100 gold coins to impress his bride’s family, though the couple privately agreed not to exchange gold. He described his ceremony as simple, in contrast to others that seek to “show the worth and honor of the family, in competition with others,” even if it puts a family into debt.  

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, this groom says, even the richest Iranians “drove ordinary cars and ate normal food, but had fat bank accounts. Now we have the exact opposite.” 

A Mercedes-class wedding

It is relatively easy to marry in Iran, with a straightforward civil ceremony overseen by a cleric recognized as legal. Couples need to take blood tests, a short pre-marriage course, and get the approval of the father of the bride. The wedding celebration itself is a cultural tradition, and as religious – or not – as a family wants it to be.

For those in search of glitz, there is the demimonde of the wedding planners. At an unmarked home office in an upscale Tehran neighborhood, groups sit on clusters of couches in the living room and hallway, taking turns with a planner whose hard-sell tactics tap into each family’s desire to sparkle on the night. When the family that lost its venue starts quibbling about the band, the feast, the white-gloved service – and the chances of a police raid – they are told: “I am selling you a Mercedes! It will be the best."  

Demand is strong for alternatives to official wedding halls, where men and women must stay on separate floors, and mixed dancing is taboo. Such alternative venues come and go: In the past one-and-a-half months alone, 154 gardens used for luxury weddings, or nearly half the total available, have been shuttered.

“Our families are traditional, but what we see on satellite channels is modern and we are stuck in the middle,” says the wedding planner. Social media helps sell his business, but opulent scenes also prompt crackdowns. A policeman from a special judiciary unit that was raiding one wedding told him: “They brought me from the Kurdistan frontline fighting Islamic State, to deal with this!” 

Health Ministry research published last week shows that marriage ranks only the seventh priority for young Iranians, with a job and money topping the list.

“The idea is this new generation is quite irresponsible, because they’ve been living off their parents and were not responsible for doing anything on their own,” says Nasrin Izadpanah, a lawyer who has handled divorce cases for a decade. 

She has seen couples together for years “realize they can’t live under the same roof even 24 hours,” and seen a lack of both commitment and honesty. The fact that couples legally can’t live together before marriage, she says, and emotional decisions made with little forward thinking, keep divorce numbers high. 

Quickie divorces and alimony payments

Divorce is straightforward in Iran, provided the man agrees. In the past, women would have to repeatedly petition a court to get an unwilling spouse to accept. Now a deal is usually reached first, for example over alimony, so that divorce can be granted quickly. Couples must first visit an official marriage counselor, and there’s a three-month window before annulment to allow for a change of heart.

Most divorce cases of young newlyweds, says Ms. Izadpanah, are over small-bore disagreements; few are as civilized as the couple depicted in the Oscar-winning film “A Separation.” She adds: “Before people were more flexible, they were willing to compromise. But nowadays it seems they just want to hurt each other."

Avoiding such hurt is the job of Ahmad Basiri, a white-turbaned cleric with a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard who has served as a religious marriage counselor for 27 years. He has been married 29 years, and says Islam has a structure that divides life into segments, with marriage being a critical one. 

Social media and satellite channels, he says, “are poisoning our families” by “making immoral relations seem normal” – a view widely held among conservatives. Satellite dishes are illegal, but widely used.  

Luxury weddings are a sign of “getting far from religious beliefs,” says Mr. Basiri, sitting on the carpet of an ornate blue-tiled mosque. “The Iranian people have shown throughout history, that in the end they will do a U-turn and return to those Islamic beliefs.”

That was not the expectation last week at one luxury wedding, 20 miles west of Tehran, in a leafy garden with high walls deliberately made to look from the outside like just another industrial compound, so as not to invite police attention. Inside the manicured grounds, as the couple sat before a spread of glass ornaments and candles, gifts were announced with competitive flair: The bride’s sister gave two gold coins; an aunt – spoken very loudly – had “just come from America” and gave $600.

Then inside a hall the band began playing a pop song with traditional beats and a pounding bass line. Wedding-goers rose from their glittering tables, women removed their headscarves – if they still had them on – and jokes about a police raid died away as they joined the bride and groom on the dance floor.