My friends Farhad and Mahnaz are the quintessential Iranian couple. They are both engineers with a shared passion for hiking and movies and have been smitten with each other for six years but Farhad and Mahnaz can't afford to get married because even a one-bedroom apartment is beyond their reach, despite their both having decent middle-class jobs. This reality has preyed on their relationship, compelling them to consider leaving Iran. And they blame the government for their situation.
"We aren't lazy, and we aren't aiming for anything so high," says Mahnaz.
These days, the phrase "marriage crisis" pops up in election debates, newspapers and blogs and is considered by government officials and ordinary Iranians alike to be one of the nation's most serious problems. It refers to the rising number of young people of marrying age who cannot afford to marry or are choosing not to tie the knot. By official estimates, there are currently 13 million to 15 million Iranians of marrying age; to keep that figure steady, Iran should be registering about 1.65 million marriages each year. The real figure is closer to half that. (See pictures of "The Long Shadow of Ayatullah Khomeini.")
Why does this matter? Because Iran's government cannot afford to further alienate the young people that comprise more than 35% of its population. The young are already seething over their government's radical stance in the world and its trashing of the economy, and their anger easily expresses itself politically. As they decide how to vote in Friday's presidential election, young people like Farhad and Mahnaz are likely to base their decision in part on who they think will address the problem closest to their heart. (Read "North Korea Wipes Out Iran from the World Cup.")
Iran used to be a society in which people married young. In a Muslim culture that viewed premarital sex and dating as taboo, this was pretty much a social imperative. My mother married at 28, and in the 1970s that meant she had brushed up against spinsterhood. But today, Iranian women are attending university in unprecedented numbers they account for over 60% of students on Iranian campuses and typically enter the workforce after graduating. This has turned their focus away from the home sphere, made marriage a less urgent priority and changed women's expectations of both marriage and prospective husbands. (See pictures of "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Iranian Paradox.")
With young people pursuing more liberal lifestyles and shunning the traditional mores of their parents' generation, the marrying age is steadily climbing. This terrifies Iran's religious government, which still peddles the virtue of chastity and views young people's shifting attitudes toward sexuality as a direct threat to the Islamic Revolution's core values. "The sexual bomb we face is more dangerous than the bombs and missiles of the enemy," said Mohammad Javad Hajj Ali Akbari, head of Iran's National Youth Organization, late last year.
Unfortunately for the government, the mismanagement of Iran's economy with its high inflation, unemployment rates and soaring real estate prices has deepened the marriage crisis, and with it the resentment among young Iranians. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)
Amir Hekmati is a determined 31-year-old civil servant from Tehran's Narmak neighborhood. He earns the equivalent of $500 a month and has saved assiduously. He's also managed to secure a loan from the ministry where he works and a small sum from his parents, but even with that he can't muster enough to buy a studio apartment in an outlying district of the city. Two women he admired turned down his marriage proposals on the grounds that he did not already have his own place. "If women would just agree to be girlfriends and date, we wouldn't be forced to pursue marriage in the first place," he complained.
Hekmati's experience is typical of young Iranians, who are finding themselves increasingly priced out of the marriage market. During the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, real estate prices have soared across the country, but especially in Tehran, where they have risen as much as 150%. Economists have blamed the spike on Ahmadinejad's disastrous economic policies. The President flooded the economy with capital through a loan scheme, cut interest rates 2% and embarked on huge state construction projects that drove up the price of building materials. Those changes prompted many investors to move out of the stock market and the banking system and into real estate, which was considered a safer bet. Apartment prices in the capital more than doubled between 2006 and 2008. (See pictures of health care in Iran.)
The real estate boom was a disaster for middle-income Iranians, particularly young men seeking marriage partners. And many of those who have married and moved in with in-laws are finding that inflation is eating away at their savings, meaning it will take years, rather than months, to get their own place. The resulting strains are breaking up existing marriages this past winter, local media reported that a leading cause of Iran's high divorce rate is the husband's inability to establish an independent household. Many others are concluding that marriage is best avoided altogether. (See the Top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms.)
Ahmadinejad's government response to the crisis included a plan, unveiled in November 2008 by the National Youth Organization, called "semi-independent marriage." It proposed that young people who cannot afford to marry and move into their own place legally marry but continue living apart in their parents' homes. The announcement prompted swift outrage. Online news sites ran stories in which women angrily denounced the scheme, arguing that it afforded men a legal and pious route to easy sex while offering women nothing by way of security or social respect. The government hastily dropped the plan.
As Iranians head to the polls on Friday, Ahmadinejad faces the prospect that the very same broad discontent with the economy that propelled him to victory in 2005 could now help unseat him. Samira, a 27-year-old who works in advertising, recently became engaged and is among the millions of young Iranians who are eyeing the candidates through the lens of their own marital concerns. "Ahmadinejad promised he would bring housing prices down, but that didn't happen at all," she says. If left to their own salaries, she explains, she and her fiancé will never be able to afford their own place. That's a key reason they're voting for Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leading reformist candidate, who has made the economy the center of his platform. Like many young Iranians, they hope a new President will make marriage a possibility once more.