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Iran Feature: Seeking Acceptance as a Single Woman (Erdbrink)

Thomas Erdbrink writes for The New York Times:

When Shoukoufeh, an English literature student from a backwater town, set out to rent an apartment for herself here in the capital, she first stopped at a jewelry store and picked up a $5 wedding ring.

Accustomed to living with lies to navigate the etiquette of Iranian society, where women are traditionally expected to live with their parents or a husband, the 24-year-old would prominently flash her fake white-gold band to real estate agents and landlords who would otherwise be reluctant to lease an apartment to a single woman.

“To them and my neighbors, my roommate and I are two married women away from their husbands to pursue our studies,” she explained. “In reality, we are of course both single.”

There are no official statistics on the number of women living by themselves in big cities in Iran. But university professors, real estate agents, families and many young women all say that a phenomenon extremely rare just 10 years ago is becoming commonplace, propelled by a continuous wave of female students entering universities and a staggering rise in divorces.

The shift has left clerics and politicians struggling to deal with a generation of young women carving out independent lives in a tradition-bound society, away from the guidance of fathers and husbands. Desperate to stop the trend, the government introduced a campaign to promote quick and cheap marriages — but it backfired, experts said, by cheapening an institution deeply anchored in Iran’s ancient culture.

That has left the young women to develop strategies to fend for themselves in a society where social codes are often based on deep suspicion of female sexuality. Shoukoufeh, who would not give her full name for fear of losing her lease, said that prying eyes often peek through the cracks of doors whenever she walks down the hallway. But she said she draws strength from her parents, who support her choice to live alone.

“They know I want to be independent,” she said decisively. “They understand times have changed.”

In the not-so-distant past, single women had to endure severe social stigmatization, suspected of having loose morals or dismissed as spinsters who were failing to fulfill their role in life.

But that is changing in the big cities, in large part because of their sheer numbers, but also because of the prevalence of satellite television, social media and cheap foreign travel, many Iranians say, which have helped to change attitudes.

University enrollments have been rising strongly in Iran over the last decade, and women now account for nearly 60 percent of the total. Having raised their horizons in four years of college, many of these women have trouble finding husbands they consider their equals.

In the same period, divorces have increased by 135 percent, forcing society, if not its leaders, to begin to accept single women. “Many of my friends, especially those who came from small towns to study in Tehran, are living by themselves,” Shoukoufeh said. “For many girls of my age group, living single is the norm now.”

Big city life, with its opportunities and freedoms, has created new ambitions, she said, and allowed her and her friends to lead lives completely different from their parents’.

“When my mother was young, finding a husband and having children was the only measurement of success,” said Shoukoufeh, who is planning to leave Iran to pursue her studies. “Now — at least to me — it is the least important factor.”

Politicians and clerics are warning that an entire generation is growing up with values that are anathema to the traditional ones upheld by the state.

For those in power, who promote motherhood as a holy virtue, but also see higher education as a nationwide ambition, marriage is the only solution for the growing number of single women.

“Young people who are not married are nude, as marriage is like divine clothes to cover them,” a leading ayatollah, Kazem Saddighi, said last week in a sermon. He also urged all Iranians to have children and follow the example of the household of the Prophet Muhammad.

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