Investigating the Iranian Paris Hilton
A sex scandal tape leads a journalist to explore Iran's sexuality
New America Media, Q&A, Amir Soltani Posted: Sep 22, 2007
Editor’s Note: Forget Iran’s nuclear program; that is not the talk of the tea shops in Tehran. What has Iran buzzing these days is a pornographic video of a popular Iranian soap opera starlet having sex. The videotape has sent shockwaves through the Islamic Republic. New America Media editor Amir Soltani speaks to Pari Esfandiari, founder of Irandokht about her investigation into the sex life of Iranians for an article published in the May issue of Playboy.
What made your write this piece in Playboy? What happened?
A video appeared on the Internet which shows three love-making scenes from a very famous Iranian actress – actually, she was not very famous – making love to a man. The segment was very revealing and over night suddenly she became famous. She is known now as the “Paris Hilton of Iran.” What was very interesting was that in a very short period of time, according to the Iranian head of police, the sale of this DVD broke the sale of any film in the history of Iranian cinema.
You mean this DVD is available. It was being sold in Iran?
It is black market. When I heard that, it was very interesting to me. How could a black market sex DVD, in a country that is supposedly a nation of devotees, who do not approve of porno movies, break the sale of any film in the history of cinema. So that was the first thing that grabbed my attention. I started to investigate it. I myself knew that there was an alternative lifestyle going on but nevertheless the extent was interesting and the fact that the police were admitting to this was also interesting. So I decided to do more investigation.
What do you mean by an alternative lifestyle. An alternative to what? What is the alternative that you decided to explore?
Well, in the West people have this perception that Iranians are a sort of group of devotees of Islam and the majority of the population believe in a hard interpretation of Islam. This perception is not just created by western media but also Iranian propaganda have helped. The government tries to promote a view of Iran as a nation of devotees to hardline Islam but right away this story and many other stories show that no, while we have a segment of society that believe in hardline Islam, also we have a segment of society which believe in a different lifestyle, a different interpretation of it, if they believe in Islam. Some of them don’t even.
So how did you go about exploring this story? Did you do it yourself?
I had a co-writer but I had three reporters inside Iran. It was a thorough investigation. I sent specific questions, specific topics, the kind of people I wanted interviewed. I employed several reporters to do that. We investigated how porno is regarded in Iran. Are people interested in watching these movies? How they obtain it, we interviewed someone who delivers porno movies to people's houses and how they do it. And how difficult it is. And they told me the penalty is death, so it is quite difficult. We looked at people who are having this alternative style. For example, my reporters went to dormitories and realized that shots of this DVD were all over in the boys’ bedrooms and in the university.
So what happened to this actress? Was she killed? Has she been executed? Flogged? Has she been punished? What’s happened to her?
You see that is the difficulty because Islamic law and regulation was formed when people could not make a home DVD. Apparently she has not done anything wrong. She was in the privacy of her room. She’s not married but she could say “I had a short contract,” which I assume that is what she says and she has since. She actually first denied and said that this was not her DVD. Then there was some rumors that she accused her boyfriend who was not at the time in the country. Then again came the [assertion] ‘this is not my DVD.’ Because she is not allowed to give interviews we do not know exactly what she says. But apparently it seems that she is denying it. But the DVD is out there and it’s pretty convincing. So if it is untrue, somebody has done a good job.
What is a short contract?
A short contract or sigheh is a kind of marriage which could last from one hour to many years where two partners can get together and agree and there is a financial aspect of it that money or something will be exchanged for a union of man and woman.
So it is permissible. If you want to have sex, you can have sex as long as you have it contractually confirmed somehow.
So what are some of the discoveries that you made in the course of this exploration? In some ways it seems like the Kinsey report on sex, only about Iran.
It was very interesting. Some of the discoveries were the attitude of people towards sex. One thing I noticed that at the end of the day it is a chauvinist culture. So I noticed that people feel much more comfortable to see this so-called Paris Hilton as a victim and then sympathize with her case than seeing her as a woman who is enjoying sex. What I saw in the video actually, I did not see any victim. I saw a woman aggressively participating in a lovemaking scene. But majority of the people did not like that aspect, so they ignored that aspect, and saw it as someone who is in many ways forced and is a victim, etcetera, etcetera. So that was one part of it, that still regardless, people often see it this way. The other thing is the lifestyle in Iran. For example, one of my reporters interviewed some students and they were having sex parties, basically a group of people getting together for one night stands in parties which one person organizes. They are kids, they are very very young sort of students, and there assumption was that this is the norm in the West and therefore this is the norm for us. Nevertheless, still, they had their limitations. For example, my reporter asked, “Ok, in one night, do you have orgies?” And they said “Oh no, we are Iranians – we would not do that, you know.” And then, the same guy says that even in the West I think it happens only in the movies. I do not think people do this, as though if ordinary people in the West did it, it would be okay for them as well. There were interesting layers of attitudes and views which came across as well. And I must also emphasize that these things happen in a limited segment of our society. By no means is it the norm to have sex parties. That is not what I am trying to say here. What I am trying to say is that extremes are there in both aspects, in terms of going to lead a totally carefree lifestyle and also in terms of living a totally rigid, you know, lifestyle and in between we have all different aspects. But the fact remains that a different lifestyle exists and not to a limited extent.
So, is there a general kind of hypocrisy going on in Iran concerning sex? What is the tension? Is the hypocrisy breaking down? Is it being affirmed? Is it about women’s liberation or is it about their oppression? How is this being interpreted?
I think the issue of sex goes beyond women’s liberation. There was a stigma attached to sex even before the revolution. Sex was a non-spoken topic in our household, even now often people don’t speak about it before the older generation, in front of the parents. The topic of sex entered our bedrooms after the revolution when a lot of discussion on TV, right after the revolution, was about the rules and regulations attached to sex, openly discussed on TV. And I remember it was quite uncomfortable, even as a young girl, I was quite uncomfortable sitting in the living room with my parents and listening to what was coming out of TV after the revolution.
What was coming out?
Well, discussions about the limitations. What is allowed in sex and what is not allowed. That was not something that we would talk about in our living rooms with our parents.
Why did it become normal after the revolution?
Because there was these ayatollahs who would come and explain what Islam and does not allow in sex. And in fact it was very, very popular. They used to call these shows the Gilli show, the name referring to the Ayatollah. It was something people would not miss.
In the Sufi tradition, with Iran’s poets, poets like Hafez and Rumi, sexuality is actually quite often spoken about in all kinds of poetry, wine and women and love and God, they are all intertwined. Where is that? Where is that kind of sexual consciousness?
Those discussions are not sexual as such. They are more of a romantic discussion, like a high cultured Shakespearian style when Hafez talks about women, etcetera. But, nevertheless, those taboos were within the context of poetry. But this actually was an everyday discussion. Suddenly all layers of sophistication were taken away and pure and simple it was talking about the sex of a man and a woman. It was not any more a romantic discussion and all the layers that would cover it were taken away. It was bare, out there, discussed.
So what is happening to this woman now? Where is the discussion about sexuality in Iran going?
These discussions about sexuality are no longer an issue. The taboos were broken at that time. A lot of things have become more simple. For example, discussion of short contract, or discussion about what a woman’s hair does to a man. These discussions were a bit uncomfortable before the revolution. After the revolution they are the norm to talk about. What happens to her or what this DVD did, this DVD came along and went. The issue of sex is not the focus. It brought to the light the lifestyle of a generation born after the revolution. This revolution originally thought that it cannot really change the mind of older generation, so they washed their hands of them. They thought that as long as they comply with the rules and regulations we will be happy. We focus on bringing a generation of devotees who really believe in Islam. And yet this generation has grown up and they have sex parties. This is their creation. It is their failure right in their face out there for everybody to see. And there is no way you can deny it. When your own head of police says the sale has broken the sale of any film in the history of Iranian cinema. How can you deny that?
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