“We were both 19, longtime family friends. Her father agreed to a two-month temporary marriage, which we extended to six months and then a year. She was beautiful and I was reckless; we didn’t always use protection. I am just so grateful there were no children involved.”

Sitting in what looks like any other office building in rainy, bustling downtown Tehran’s Enqelab Street, Saeed speaks of his first girlfriend/fiancée/bride-to-be. He explains that, when it came time for them to speak of permanent marriage, the girl’s father demanded that he first purchase her a home. “All the while,” Saeed told me, “he knew I was a student and could only afford family housing.” Her father also insisted on a heavy mahriyeh (a predetermined monetary gift in the marriage contract that the bride can, in theory, demand at any time). Things went awry from there.

Since then, he’s tried dating via Facebook, Twitter, and by exchanging phone numbers with girls at parties, but he says it’s never worked out. “I’m not particularly religious, but am not looking for flings either. Through social media, I’ve met girls who were just looking for fun, even women with kids. I’d like to find a companion, and maybe, when ready, settle down.”

Saeed belongs to a generation of young Iranian adults who are looking for relationships that neither require full commitment, as in marriage, nor are fully without restraint. And they are the ones who turn to agencies like the one I visited, a formal marriage agency that connects potential mates through a team of “dedicated, educated counsellors, and marriage professionals.”

It is a brightly lit office building in a downtown Tehran neighborhood where (mostly women) counsellors and secretaries are clothed in standard office attire. Potential clients are referred to a room to the right with glass doors, where a counsellor provides brief explanations of the agency’s services. After paying 180,000 Tomans (roughly $55) and filling out the necessary forms, applicants are promised the contact information of four matches. The questions on the form are brief and to the point: What level of religious devotion do you seek in a spouse? What is your family’s education level? Can they refer you to members outside of Tehran? How much income do you expect your spouse to have?

Once applicants are connected, they can either agree to meet at the agency, or anywhere else they so please, although the consultant urges caution, since the agency cannot guarantee the safety of individuals. By paying the membership fee, applicants also have access to a 24-hour helpline, and can attend meeting seminars. These are Thursday get-togethers to which 25 men and 25 women are invited, each wearing a number tag. At the end of the meeting, individuals write down the tag number of the participants in whom they are interested. In the event that a match is found, both parties are informed the following week and given each other’s contact information.

Matchmaking agencies such as this one, called hamsan-gozini (literally, “match choosing”) are allowed to operate as long as they do not permit members to contact one another. Instead, contact is mediated through the guidance of “professionals” and done with the end goal of marriage in mind.

Although not ubiquitous, these agencies have provided a valuable service for those not able or willing to find companionship through their own social and personal networks. Mass urbanization, increasing access to social media, and a more secular public space (despite propaganda otherwise) have made finding potential mates leagues more complicated.

In traditional settings or rural communities, it is still common for a family to “find” their sons and daughters potential suitors and wives. “I have been to the home of 75 girls in the past four years” boasts Sina, who lives in spacious mansion in Tehran’s affluent Zaffaraniyeh Street. He belongs to a wealthy, religious family that made its fortune in Tehran’s grand bazaar. His mother attends all-women parties and seeks the contact information of girls she approves. Then, Sina, his two sisters, and his parents visit the girls’ houses together in an introduction ceremony. However, he has yet to find a bride that suits him, he says.

His father gently touches his son’s shoulder and announces: “I went to see more than a hundred girls before I chose your mother” and beams proudly. Although such numbers are certainly not the norm in working-class families, the tradition of a man meeting a woman at her house in a formal courtship ceremony was once quite prevalent, and still is among some families.

Overall, however, marriage rates are declining. They are lowest in the province of Tehran, where one out of every three marriages ends in divorce. Divorce rates are increasing and child birth rates are falling: The fertility rate per woman stands at 1.7. Various state officials have expressed concern over falling birth rates and an aging population. By 2050, 21 percent of Iran’s population will be over the age of 65 by some projections. This has even caused long-established family planning programs across Iran to be brought to a grinding halt.

Different governments, too, have tried to address the issue of youth marriage. In the Rouhani cabinet, the Ministry of Youth and Sports has announced the upcoming launch of a marriage website, in collaboration with Tebyan, an online religious youth portal. Similar to the matchmaking agency, the website will connect potential mates through “dedicated marriage mediators.” Except for state news outlets, however, there has been little enthusiasm for this venture.

Siqeh, or temporary marriage, has also continued to be the topic of heated debates. The marriage vows for siqeh can be read by the two parties alone, without the presence of witnesses or the permission of the woman's father, which permanent marriage requires. Thus, siqeh is often referred to as the religious allowance of sex, although it theoretically involves binding responsibilities for both parties. If a child results from the courtship, the father is obligated to provide financial support. There is no law, however, that forces siqeh to be documented, and most often, it is not. Unwritten and unrecorded, the religious binds mean nothing.

Another prevalent form of religious dating is a long betrothal, in which the couple are married according to religious customs, but the marriage is not legally documented until the formal wedding. This allows them to part ways without seeking a formal divorce. Mahdieh, an artist and sculptor and currently the mother of two young boys, was engaged three times before she was finally married to her third “fiancée,” but she’s happy with her decision: “I didn’t want to have to hide a boyfriend, and this was the best alternative.” The quandary arises when there is a pregnancy during the engagement, as happened to Mahdieh’s cousin: The couple had to rapidly arrange a wedding to hide her pregnancy.

“The university is the best place to date, because you always have an excuse to be together, especially the parents never ask questions” says Maedeh, a devoutly religious girl who dated her husband for four years of undergraduate school before they were married. They had strict religious codes, only met at school, always sat an arm’s length away, but still maintained a relationship before marriage. 

Valentine’s Day is a good gauge of how prevalent such dating has become in Tehran, Ahvaz, or Kerman: urban centers where the youth seek to live like young people in any large, modern cities. To make reservations for Valentine’s Day dinner at any one of Tehran’s popular restaurants, “you must call a week in advance” a receptionist at Pasta Factory, an upscale pasta and pizza restaurant in Tehran’s trendy Mohseni Square says over the phone.

A shop in Tehran

Twelve years ago, to find Valentine’s Day memorabilia, one had to visit greeting card stores in very specific Tehran neighborhoods. Today, stores across the city can be found stocking up on Valentine’s Day bears, cards, gifts, and chocolates. A worker at a popular teddy bear store in Mirzayeh Shirazi Street told me that “it was about 12 years ago that we first started carrying Valentine’s Day merchandise. We were the first in the city and it caught on.” He continues that, on Valentine’s Day itself, large groups come and go and long lines form outside the store. A middle-aged customer with a graying mustache and long black coat quips in: “We fathers have had to join the parade, too. I am buying my daughter gifts and cake, and also have to give cash. And in a few years she wants to move to America and forget me entirely.” It is three days from Valentine’s Day and customers are busy going in and out, placing orders and making purchases. 

A card reads "Happy Sepandarmazgan" on one side and "Happy Valentine's Days" on the other.

There have been some efforts to promote alternative days to celebrate love: Conservative websites push for celebrating the marriage anniversary of Fatemeh and Ali, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad and the first Shia Imam. On social media and blogs, the Zoroastrian holiday, Sepandarmazgan, a celebration marking love, is also promoted as “the Iranian Valentine’s Day”—but none of these ideas stick. Despite claims otherwise, Valentine’s Day is going from strength to strength in Iran. On a cold February night, in more affluent areas of Kerman, the city in the margins of the Lut Desert, it is easier to find Valentine’s Day chocolates than the region’s own specialty treats.

Every once in a while, there are reports of crackdowns on Valentine’s Day stores or events, such as one-day group tours to the mountains or the sea, run by unofficial agencies. But similar to the ban on satellite dishes, they are insignificant in influencing trends that are going in an entirely different direction: more and more satellite dishes and Valentine’s Day chocolate hearts. Increasingly, urban centers look like one another, irrespective of the governments watching over them. And the dating service, temporary marriages, and long engagements are all ways to cope with changing norms.

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