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Living In Iran #3 – The Porn Star Look

Authors note: The following is part of a monthly blog that I wrote whilst living in Iran from 2012 to 2015 and has merely been re-edited for accuracy purposes. This particular piece was originally written in late 2012/early 2013.

Iran is a society where physical beauty is highly prized and competition amongst women for a ‘good man’ is fierce. Cosmetic surgery is so commonplace among the middle and upper classes that one will rarely walk down the street without noticing several women with surgical dressings on their nose as a result of recent rhinoplasty surgery. Either this or eyebrow waxing or facial surgery. Iran reportedly has the world’s highest rate of nose surgery, with evidently some 200,000 women per annum undergoing the knife of some 7,000 odd cosmetic so-called surgeons operating in Tehran alone, many of them unlicensed.

This very visible obsession with physical beauty is probably another of the many ways in which revolutionary ideals have backfired on the Ayatollahs’ and Mullahs governing this Islamic Republic. Far from focusing on internal spiritual values, young girls are having cosmetic surgery in the hope of attaining ‘baby doll faces’. This is driven by the desire to look like the actresses they see on the banned western films, MTV music channels and the literally thousands of illegal satellite television channels, including bizarrely, and incongruously the many illegal porn channels.

Seems also that there is a “fever for modelling” in Tehran right now, with every woman wanting to become a “status maker” in this vanity-driven culture. And the look that’s in vogue among female models is far from what many would consider natural Iranian beauty, which in my opinion in its natural unaltered state is absolutely stunning. What is evidently ‘in’ is a highly doctored, surgically altered appearance that many would describe as “the porn star look”. In addition to the previously mentioned nose and eyebrow enhancements, cheekbones are also de rigueur; and my personal hate, Botox injected lips to make them thicker and more pronounced.

Quite why these women would aspire to become models is a puzzle in itself, as those not in a hijab are legally barred from appearing in magazines or TV commercials or on catwalks. Even fashion shows that observe the hijab rule must receive an official permit from the ultra conservative Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is evidently difficult to attain. In any event, female catwalk shows can only be attended by other women. However it seems that there is a modelling scene for the wealthy few beyond the hijab, that is, underground or behind closed doors (like so much of Iranian life!) Working under the authorities’ radar is simply “modelling Iranian style”, with many finding acclaim behind closed doors within the elite north Tehran fashion community, where western brands such as Bulgari, Zara, Mango and United Colours of Benetton have opened stores.

Morality extends to billboards as well, on which women rarely appear. Those promoting female clothing, like the ones for any of the well-known western brands currently on display in upmarket northern Tehran shop windows, show only mannequins. Maybe in the future, they may allow billboards to be more available to female models and heaven forbid, to even show men and women together!

Maybe under the more moderate, western educated President Rohani restriction will start to ease – Inshallah!

My personal belief for the high rate of cosmetic surgery is not that all women seek to become models, but a rather more pragmatic and fundamental human female need – to attract a mate. I was speaking to Avizheh, a girl that works for us here in the office, and in my opinion, an exceptionally good looking young thing, probably in her late 20’s. I asked her why it is that so many Iranian women undergo the knife and her response was, that perhaps for many, surgery is a reaction to the restrictive rules of the compulsory and hated hijab. “They won’t let us display our beauty,” she said. “Its human nature to want to show off our hair, skin, figure and the hijab and the manteau (the form-concealing coat that woman are also forced to wear) doesn’t let us do that. So we have to satisfy that instinct by displaying our ‘art’ on our faces”.

I then asked her if she had had any cosmetic surgery done, which she readily admitted – a nose job she said. When asked what she had changed about her nose, she replied that she now had a ‘more baby face nose’ … I then asked her why she had the procedure, to which I thought, she very honestly replied, “my husband thought I would look better with a new nose … but he still left me after a year and I still haven’t found anybody else”. I can’t comment on what she looked like before the nose op, but I can in fairness say that she is a real stunning looking woman now – at least an ‘8’, so am very surprised that she has not found a new partner.

Whilst I do understand what she was saying and can empathise with that, I think too it’s also about self confidence, with the opportunity of landing a ‘better’ husband, who is perhaps in a better socioeconomic proposition, as for a single woman life is hard here. Most urban Iranians are extremely materialistic and go to great lengths to be perceived to be wealthy, beautiful and up with the latest western trends. This is witnessed by the huge sums of money for the pre-marriage agreement, often running to a million US $ or more … what we in the west would perhaps refer to as an anti-nuptial agreement. Persian women, whilst generally beautiful, which is reinforced by their parents from an early age. In consequence they tend to have an extremely high opinion of themselves and would I venture, be extremely high maintenance if married to one!

None of this comes cheap and with the recent rise in the already high inflation rate of 35%+, has compounded the already high price of such surgery. At present, the cost of an average nose surgery in Iran is 5 – 10 million Toman (US. $1,900 – $3,800) One assumes that other procedures run at a far greater price. And this is in a country where the average worker in a major urban area earns less than US. $500 per month. The average domestic consumer debt must be astronomical!

Back to Avizheh, I asked her how she paid for her nose job and she told me that she had got a loan at the bank … can you imagine approaching a bank in the west and filling in under ‘reason for loan ’ – “nose job”!

So it would seem that cosmetic surgery, particularly rhinoplasty is highly prized and sought after. As Avizheh and I were chatting about her experience, we were joined by Parvaneh (meaning butterfly in Farsi) another of the girls in the office (and one you may remember from a previous episode of ‘Life in Iran’) who was also keen to have nose surgery. When I asked her why, as in my humble opinion she is by any stretch of the imagination a stunningly beautiful and extremely desirable woman – probably the ultimate ‘10’! She told me that since her divorce and her one temporary marriage (*segheh – see more below) she is anxious to find a new husband and thinks that a new nose will help her achieve that before she becomes too old and haggard. She is probably late 30’s! Once again I suspect that it all comes back to self confidence.

So with so many of these operations going on and so many surgeons, have there been any horrific outcomes? Short of going out on the street and conducting a survey of every woman that I see, there is obviously no way of really knowing. So once again I fall back to the likes of Avizheh, Parvaneh and the few other women that we know who are willing and able to talk to about their direct experiences and those of their friends.

One of the reasons for me choosing to write on this particular subject was apart from my natural curiosity about the proliferation of nose job recoveries one sees every day, was a recent article in the only local English newspaper, Tehran Today. It recently reported that there are probably a total of 7,000 so-called surgeons operating in Tehran alone. However a mere 157 were actually licensed cosmetic surgeons, meaning that the vast majority of these operations are being conducted by unlicensed practitioners … a frightening thought if I were a woman thinking of cosmetic surgery!

According to the newspaper, this has predictably ended up in a surge of botched operations, with some patients sustaining irreparable and life altering damage.

The family unit is particularly strong in Persian society, with few children leaving the parental home until they marry. Even then, with the financial constraints of youth many married couples move into the home of the groom’s parents. So in the case of a divorced woman with no children, such as Avizheh she is likely to return to the parental nest after a failed marriage, which there is an increasing number, on an already high percentage, particularly given that this is a supposedly conservative Muslim society.

The work that Avizheh had done has fortunately been without any complications and has been successful. This was evidently due to the fact that her parents insisted that she went to a well known, respected and licensed surgeon. However a friend of hers who recently had a nose job was not so lucky and whose face still bears evidence of the surgery several weeks afterwards. She is also experiencing respiratory problems, sinus pain and congestion during the usual horrific Tehran air pollution and more worryingly, a loss of sense of smell. She has been back to see her consultant and has been told that all of this is perfectly normal, as is the fact that her new nose may take several months to take its final shape. Avizheh experienced none of these problems!

One wonders if her friend may live to regret her choice of surgeon … a line from a movie reminds me of the importance of choosing well – “she choose poorly”!

But at the end of the day, they all go into it with their eyes open and presumably well aware of the old adage, “you get what you pay for”. What they all seek is a modicum of self confidence, a better social life and hopes for the future. As Avizheh says, “I can now hold my nose up high as I walk down the street. And maybe too she will find that new partner she so desperately seeks!
Maybe now she will also be one of those women that post pictures of themselves on the banned Facebook page “Stealthy freedoms of Iranian women”, without the hated hijab – more of which in a separate submission.

As most western websites are banned and access blocked, one needs a proxy server to access anything outside of the boring local sites. Even then Internet access is often simply turned off of an evening.

Earlier in this post I mentioned Parvaneh and her ‘temporary marriage’. Some readers may be wondering what this is all about. I have therefore taken the liberty of describing what a Segheh is.

* Segheh (Translation, temporary marriage) :- Not to be confused with a traditional Islam wedding that can last over 3 – 5 days with its various and separate ceremonies. It is in a nutshell:

In Shi’ism, the majority Shia religion in Iran, outside of traditional marriage, men and women can marry for an agreed period of time, whether it be for a few hours, days, weeks, months or even years – a segheh. After the agreed period, the marriage is null and void, although it can be renewed by mutual consent. No messy or expensive divorce ! The reasons for which I outline below…

After the 1979 Revolution, the new theocratic state encouraged a return to polygamy and the resurrection of the old temporary marriage concept. After the western orientated non-Islamic reign of The Shah, the regime was anxious to return to the of traditional repudiation of marriage under Sharia law, by which a man could divorce his wife by simple repudiation, (i.e. by repeating three times, “I divorce thee … I divorce thee … I divorce thee”)

Immediately after the reintroduction of these less western edicts, problems such as young people’s sexual needs and delayed marriages due to economic difficulties prompted some officials to renew and promote the old traditional ‘temporary marriage’ (Segheh, or mut’a in Arabic) concept. This was seen as a solution for the problems of the youth. However, it has since and in the name of morality and supposedly, the preservation of women’s honor, allowed men to gain access to easier and cheaper sex, both in and out of marriage.

Although in Iran, the concept of a ‘temporary marriage’ goes back into the history of Shi’ism, as believed by the Twelve divine Imams in contrast to other branches of Islam, (i.e. Sunni) It was not however widely practiced until the 2005–09 government of Ahmadinejad, otherwise known at the Dinner Jacket President, a word play on his name and the disgustingly cheap shiny Chinese suits he used to wear ! This government revived the custom and its promotion as “temporary marriage” into the foundations of their sexual politics. The Despite strong opposition from women’s groups, the government went so far as to ratify it under the new family law bill. This bill gave legal justification to conditional polygamy, including the four permanent wives as allowed under Islam (although this is rare in Iran today) and the segheh. This latter arrangement/law is evidently not so rare as many Iranian men have mistresses; in fact the majority of those Iranian men that I met in my 3 years there were regularly playing away from home ! The law no longer even required permission from the first wife, as it had traditionally, merely an agreed contract sworn and drawn up by an Immam.

It must be said that the term “temporary marriage” to describe segheh is in fact new. More than anything, this term has essentially been used to sanctify the custom, as at the end of the day the goal of segheh or mut’a is only sexual pleasure and/or to allow an ‘unmarried’ man and woman to share a hotel room or temporarily cohabit together. As I was to discover, segheh had been practiced to what some would consider an excessive degree by my predecessor – a Turk, who had been what Asian women would probably call ‘a butterfly’ going through the female population of our offices like a buzz saw!

The author can be contacted at : [email protected]