Sex, drugs and street parties in Tehran

indepth1It’s 2:30am when the shrieks and car horns fill the air. Completely awake, I lie on the floor waiting for the noise to die down, unsure of whether or not I should get up and look out the window. The longer I listen, the more apparent it becomes that this is not the sound of a crisis unfolding below, but rather the thumping music and hollers of the moving street party.

For at least 15 minutes, I stood there, quite creepily staring out the fourth floor window in a generally sleepy suburb of Tehran at a slow moving procession of cars pumping dance music with hijabless women and drunk men dancing openly in the street. For 15 minutes, I waited for the police to show up and arrest everyone involved, my mind racing with thoughts of what would happen to those people below, why they would be so reckless.

This is Iran, where contradictions lie in every conclusion you reach; a place where the more information you have about life the more confused you get. It turns out that the midnight bloc party was in fact the aftermath of a wedding party that spilled out onto the streets. This is a fairly common occurrence that was laughed off the following morning by my local friends.

The police never showed up, but, if they had, the party could have faced time in prison, a fine or a number of lashes, determined by the presiding judge. These are the harsh punishments that people can and do face all for the relatively mundane acts of drinking alcohol or dancing with the opposite sex. These laws can even be enforced inside your own home, the invasiveness of the Islamic Revolution that pervades every facet of your life.


Despite this, parties happen a lot. Much like here, alcohol is intrinsically linked with many Persian celebrations, most of which date back thousands of years. Prior to the revolution, Shiraz wine was some of the best in the world and the centre of Tehran was well known for its teeming nightlife. Even today, family gatherings, such a child’s birthday, are stocked with homemade alcohol for the adults. I was lucky enough to be invited to one such party, where I was shocked to arrive to a professional DJ blasting Iranian dance music, both modern and traditional, to a packed garden with barely a child in sight. Beer was flowing, brewed at home from the store bought non-alcoholic variety, and was liberally handed out to us western guests who were immediately welcomed as if long lost family members. The famous hospitality continued overnight and into the next day as we were invited to stay for a family BBQ, a BBQ with liberal amounts of homemade grappa and many shisha pipes.

Still, initially, the relative ease and nonchalance with which people discuss illegal parties and drinking alcohol came as a complete surprise. Talking to liberal Iranians (which seemed to be every Iranian who wanted to speak to us), for the most part put you at ease. They saw drinking as no big deal; everyone does it. Then the conversation turned to drugs, of which opium is the major player at the moment.

In a country where opium is non-existent, my open-mouthed stare gave away my ignorance of the drug and its effects. According to my Iranian sources, it’s very far removed from heroin and doesn’t always involve old  Chinese men sporting Fu Manchu beards. Even though they claim it is far from heroin, there is a growing problem of addictions. The government has even conceded as such, despite the fact that they’ve a total ban on alcohol there is now a government sanctioned rehabilitation centre.

Equally intriguing is the increasingly liberal sexual encounters between the young, which have been so strangely impacted by the oppressive laws designed to enforce the “morality” of the nation. With unmarried relationships illegal for everyone, young couples have the constant hassle of being harassed by the police. While the punishments are very harsh, they’re rarely given out.

A situation has arisen where the police have the state’s backing to enforce laws which are almost impossible to fully enforce. A situation thus develops where the mood of the policemen and hundreds of other variables come into play as to the probability of being charged. While it certainly can go as far as flogging, imprisonment or even worse, for the most case it amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist from a righteous policeman.


The fear and hassle from the police obviously has a strong impact on the lives of young Iranians, of whom, the liberal ones possess most of the same values, views and desires as young Irish people. One friend stated that these laws, like many others, has created a social cleavage in the country, creating a liberal promiscuous youth who have more sexual partners on average than the majority in Ireland. He said that it was not uncommon, for a youth who goes to (illegal) parties to have as many as 30 partners a year. This is obviously the opposite of the desired reaction from the moral laws, yet how he describes it makes sense. For him, a young, entrepreneurial male in his mid-20s, it makes little sense to try and have a girlfriend, who he would have to keep secret from the police and sometimes even his family. Unable to live together unless married, a move he does not yet wish to make, casual sexual encounters make complete sense.

Of course, this one anecdote can in no way reflect the whole Iranian youth, but it does highlight the very real contrasts between an increasingly liberal youth, in both ideological and numerical terms, and the hardened state apparatus, whose only response is a reduction in enforcement rather than alteration of any laws.

Illustration: Naoise Dolan