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Codes of Behavior, Iranian Experience
Last Updated: October, 2009

Iranian culture is Class based, traditional and patriarchal. Tradition for most is rooted in religion and class and patriarchy have been constant features of Iranian society since ancient times. Class in its simplest form is mainly based on income and financial status or family genealogy, though modernity and traditionalism might also be used to distinguish classes. In Iran different classes are bounded together through different processes and have different cultures. For example kinship is a primary source of security and financial support for low-income families. While with the affluent kinship is a source of emotional and psychological support and welfare. Division of labor could be a relatively simple division between the public (men’s work) and domestic (women’s work) for the poor and/or uneducated, or a technical division in sophisticated work environments for highly trained and educated professional males and females. Generally the lower and uneducated classes may regard females as inferior or different who are entitled to a lesser position in the society. On the other hand the modern classes normally strive to guarantee the equality of sexes and eliminate gender discrimination.

Tradition is mostly based on religion particularly Islam and its’ prescribed codes of behavior, however it contains elements that are much older. For example the prominent position allocated to family as reflected in the Islamic sources and legal codes is a continuation of universal practices adopted by most Eastern societies since ancient times. What makes a difference with respect to Islam is the belief held by many Muslims that Islam is a body of values, ideas and beliefs that should encompass all spheres of life, including personal and social relationships, economics and politics. Consequently for the traditional practicing Muslim the only accepted relationship between the sexes may be through marriage or concubines. The two are the only forms legitimized by Shi’ite Islam. For such families there may be no question of males and females openly dating or socializing with such intentions before they are legally bounded through the prescribed unions (e.g. arranged marriages). In such cases what is usually classified as group behavior could also be identified with religious behavior. Separating the two might become a daunting task for outsiders not familiar with the intricacies of the traditional and or Muslim culture.

On the other hand decades of westernization and modernization during the Pahlavi era has created modern and ultra-modern groups that easily fit into any modern environment anywhere. The way people behave, eat or drink, dress and how easily they interact with the opposite sex is normally an indication of how traditional or modern they are (even what class they belong too) and what to expect when dealing with them. More traditional people normally dress conservatively (females do not expose their body parts and may cover their hair), they will not drink alcohol, do not consume pork and feel more at ease with their own sex rather than the opposite one. They might not dance at mixed gatherings and observe religious holy days and mourning rituals. They might refuse going to parties and join celebrations during major religious happenings. Some might practice segregation of sexes though this practice has mellowed down considerably in the 20th century. Some might primarily associate with people from their own religion.

Very conservative Muslims may avoid shaking hands or kiss unrelated individuals from the opposite sex. At the same time it is well accepted for the individuals from the same sex to kiss on both cheeks, hold, embrace and hug each other whether they are related or not. Iranians are very conscious about the way they dress and on the whole they dress well and dress codes are very important in distinguishing modern and traditional groups. Generally with the affluent, men and women are expected to dress expensively and fashionably with expensive jewelry and accessories (mainly watches and rings for men) and drive luxury cars. With the more modern, females have no problems wearing heavy make up, exposing body parts or dress sexy while in company of males. With the more traditional, female dress codes are modest and a lot more conservative with darker colors and little make up. With such groups, at mixed gatherings males and females normally end up as clusters on their own if not segregated in the first place. However at private “all female gatherings” even traditional Muslim women may dress sexy and expose body parts.

Amongst more traditional families the way younger generation dresses up could be a source of conflict with the parents. Wearing shorts or tank tops and heavy make up by girls will be regarded as indecent and corrupt. Boys may be scolded for wearing earrings and coloring their hair. Such fashion statements are regarded as womanly and many parents believing in distinct male and female roles and codes of behavior have problems with their sons acting in such manners. Boys are expected to dress formally with suite and tie for all major occasions and parties unless if they are very young. On the whole Iranians dress up formally even for ordinary parties and dressing up casually is reserved for very informal occasions with immediate members of the family. Formal dressing for men always included suite and tie, however since the Islamic revolution some Muslims have dropped the tie and identify it as a Western symbol. Dressing up formally and appropriately is also regarded as a sign of respect and people may get offended if their guests arrive in casual outfits and sneakers. Many amongst the modern and younger generations growing up in the Western countries have adopted the current life styles in such societies and might not be distinguishable form the majority or follow their own individual style, however once in the company of Iranians many still follow the expected codes.

Contrary to the stereotype images of Muslim males through the media most Iranian men do not have beards and if they do, it is not necessarily for religious reasons. However, in Iran since the revolution, beard has become a mark of allegiance to the theocratic government and for this reason alone many refuse to wear beards though moustaches have always been popular and still are. Some practicing Muslims particularly the older generation does not shave as a sign of mourning during major religious occasions such as the deaths of Shi’ite Saints. Iranians party a lot, are great entertainers and are known for their hospitality and generosity at such occasions. People are anticipated to behave politely at parties, being loud is considered inappropriate unless people know each other very well. People stand up when new guests arrive except with the elderly who will remain seated and sometimes women will only stand up when other females arrive. Card games and jokes are a popular past time at parties but normally unsavory jokes are exclusive to males and are not mentioned in mixed gatherings with females present and definitely not in front of the elderly or parents.

Iranians will not normally joke about each others wives or other related females, unless if they are very close friends or related. If alcohol is served, males will normally serve the drinks and many women specially the older generation do not consume alcohol. It is best to ask people if they do drink alcohol before offering any to them, however very strict religious people might be offended if they are offered alcohol. However such people either do not socialize with non-Muslims or will make it clear before hand that they do observe Islamic codes with respect to eating and drinking. Many modern Iranians may not follow such codes and socialize freely with few reservations. Food preparation is a major part of any get together and there will be plenty of different dishes. The higher the status of the guests the more elaborate is the party. Guests are constantly served with some edible item, tea or drinks and the host mainly the lady of the house (sometimes daughters too) has the task of serving and refuse to take no for an answer and insist that guests should have what they are offered. This is a very popular etiquette and is known as tarof. Guests are not obliged to eat everything they are offered and can politely insist on refusing. Tarof has other implications at other circumstances and can be very confusing. People may insist that they will do such and such for you and they might not mean it at all. This is also called tarof, or if you admire something in their house, they will offer it to you repeatedly and again this is just tarof and they do not mean it. There are no set rules but if one is not a very close friend or a close family member most of what Iranians say or offer is very likely tarof and one should politely thank the person and refuse the offer.

Respecting elderly is another ancient practice that has survived. Traditionally the older people are respected, listened to and are treated accordingly. It is customary for all to stand up once they enter a room, the best seats are allocated to them and they are offered drinks and food before anyone else. Younger people are expected to be polite and restrain themselves and even avoid drinking alcohol or smoke cigarettes when elderly are present. Mothers particularly, are revered and well into 20th century when traveling was a major task, sons would regard it as a tremendous achievement if they could finance their mother’s trip to Mecca or other holy shrines. Till recently grandmothers and aunts were trusted with the task of finding suitable spouses for the young in the family. The elderly are still consulted with such matters and play a very important part in bringing up their grand children and sometimes even naming them at the time of birth. While speaking to them or about them third person is used as a sign of respect and they normally have both a formal and a nickname allocated to them. There are no standard terminology used to refer to them and local variations exist and are important.

Iranian culture is patriarchal, legally and culturally males have more rights and privileges than females. Centuries of gender discrimination and segregation of sexes has created distinct roles and codes of behavior for both the sexes and many are still practiced today. Many women particularly the older generation feel more comfortable being with other women rather than in mixed company even though most do not practice segregation of sexes. Parents normally have double standards concerning their children. Usually, there are more restrictions for girls compared to boys with respect to individual freedoms, dress codes and association with the opposite sex. Virgin brides are still in demand by many Iranian males and their families, while there is little stigma attached to males having girl friends and sexual relationships while single.

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