“Once,” the Iranian comedian Mehran Modiri notes, “our marital relationships were formed over long distances. An Iranian man would explore the world abroad with his father’s money. When the money ran out, he would suddenly miss home-cooked qormeh sabzi and ask his family to send him a pure Iranian bride, so innocent she has seen neither sunrise nor sunset.” Today, Modiri continues, Iranian marriages are long-distance even when the couple is in the same room: “The husband is on Facebook while the wife watches Turkish serials. He might be 90 years old, and she’ll be on Instagram. He orders out for dinner, but she’s on a diet. The children are away at nursery school. Whenever the couple yearns for each other, they make an appointment.” Such jibes pepper “Married Life,” a two-part installment of Modiri’s 2014 miniseries Shukhi Kardam (I Was Joking), which along with numerous other DVDs of sinema-ye khunegi, or home cinema, was sold at grocery stores and newsstands throughout the country. In part two of “Married Life,” a husband is cooking in the kitchen as his wife tears up watching the Turkish serial Harim-e Sultan (The Sultan’s Harem). The husband catches on fire and spins around in pain, but the wife angrily dismisses his pleas for help. She is glued to the screen, where Sultan Suleiman is whispering to his preferred wife that she is his life.

Such Turkish tales of romance were an immediate hit among all segments of the population, in the capital of Tehran as well as the provinces, when they first appeared in Iran around 2011. One of the inaugural serials, ‘Ishq-e Mamnu‘ (Forbidden Love), about the tragic affair of a man and his uncle’s young wife, was so popular that it aired for a third time in 2014. The equally cherished Harim-e Sultan, recounting the life of the Ottoman ruler Suleiman I with his many wives and concubines, began running its last slate of episodes in 2014. Throughout January 2015 Iranians were tuning in to the grand finale, which features an aged Suleiman contending with the bloody power struggle between his two sons, Selim and Bayezid, in which Selim emerges victorious after his father dies. These and other shows reach Iran on officially banned satellite channels, and can also be purchased under the table at certain DVD shops in Tehran and other cities.

Cultural producers like Modiri are not the only ones who worry that the Turkish serials have corrosive effects on the institution of marriage, particularly among young couples. Since the 1979 revolution, and the consolidation of the Islamic Republic soon thereafter, conservatives in the Iranian state have sought to shape Iranian society in an “Islamic” mold, seeing marriage and the family as building blocks of public morality. Youth—the future of any country—have always been a crucial concern of that state project, perhaps more so now that 70 percent of Iran’s population of 70 million is under the age of 30.

Scholars have tracked the Islamization project for years, with many pointing to a crisis of identity among post-revolutionary Iranian youth who rebel in various ways against the regime’s models of proper behavior. Yet because these studies tend to focus on upper-class, secular-leaning youth in northern Tehran, they can yield a black-and-white picture wherein a liberalizing society is constantly resisting the designs of a reactionary, religious state. [1] That picture erases important differences of opinion within the Islamic Republic itself, as shown by the uneven government reaction to the proliferation of satellite dishes. Moreover, debates about public morality in Iran do not simply pit the state against society. The Turkish serials are a case in point. One often hears liberal-minded Iranians echo the concerns of conservative clerics, though many others do not share them or have a different set of anxieties. Some, in fact, think the state tolerates the Turkish serials as a form of soupape, a commonly used term taken from the French soupape de sécurité (safety valve): The television dramas and the culture wars they engender divert attention from real and pressing problems of Iranian society, particularly those of youth. Indeed, popular state-produced serials gloss over socioeconomic ills and instead push forgiveness and reconciliation as key to deterring divorce and safeguarding the sanctity of marriage. Yet it would be simplistic as well to argue that the divides within the Islamic Republic with respect to marital and romantic norms among youth merely mirror divides in society. The dire socioeconomic realities of Iran do not allow many youth to emulate the ideal model of love and marriage propagated by state media. All this suggests that the reasons for the failure of the state’s Islamization project are complex.

Satellite Craze

Officially, satellite dishes have been banned in Iran since August 1994, when the Majles promulgated a nine-point law on the subject. But there has long been a deep divide within the Islamic Republic, with hardline officials determined to block out “un-Islamic” external cultural influences and reformist elements seeking only to regulate them. According to film critic Hamid Naficy, ad hoc enforcement made the state appear ambivalent about the law, encouraging citizens to defy it. [2] The state still cracks down periodically, removing dishes from rooftops, but the days of rigorous policing are over. It is commonly agreed among Iranians that the turning point came after the disputed presidential election of 2009 and the Green Movement insisting that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had stolen a second term in office. That August, to deflect popular anger, the arch-conservative Ahmadinejad allowed the introduction of Farsi 1, a satellite channel that offered Latin American telenovelas dubbed in Persian. These shows could not compete with the state-run Iranian film and serial industry, but soon other satellite channels, such as Gem and River, came online and the Turkish dramas became all the rage.

Ironically, as the state has allowed the satellite offerings to proliferate, a sort of moral panic has emerged among those same conservative forces that perceive Iranian youth as being in particular danger of corruption. These hardliners chafe at the themes of erotic love and betrayal in Turkish serials. They are particularly enraged by the widespread interest in Harim-e Sultan, since Suleiman I sought to expand the Ottoman domains at the expense of the Safavids then ruling Iran. The conservatives point out that the Turkish president himself, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, criticizes Harim-e Sultan for portraying the sultan as a lascivious man who spent most of his time in bed. In the drama’s initial season, during Ahmadinejad’s second term, several translators of the serial were jailed. Upon release, many of them escaped to Thailand, Malaysia and Dubai, where the dubbing now takes place despite the official ban. Yet, even as they fret over the prominence of beautiful women in Harim-e Sultan, whose episodes continue to run on satellite channels, state-run media outlets admit that Iranian viewers are also enticed by the serial’s high production values, the closeness of Turkish and Iranian culture, the historical storyline and the lack of censorship.

In response to the satellite craze, and to mollify the restless urban youth who are perceived to keep it going, the government has built new cinema complexes and launched new television networks. [3] The government also touts Iranian cultural production to divert attention from the Turkish imports. State media features breathless headlines like “Iranian Serials Empty the Streets of Turkey,” but the target audience is clearly at home. New shops have popped up throughout Tehran and the provinces to sell the Iranian-made films and miniseries.

On December 3, 2013, the Iranian miniseries Ava-ye Baran (Baran’s Sobs), directed by Hossein Soheili Zadeh, became an overnight sensation. In this 40-episode drama, which aired through the following January, the title character Baran’s father Taha is wrongly convicted of drug trafficking in Turkey. Baran is left in the custody of her uncle, Nader, who, along with his wife Zivar, abuses Taha’s trust and steals his niece’s inheritance. Baran runs away and joins a group of street children. When Taha returns after 20 years in prison, Nader and Zivar seek to hide their deception. To diffuse the tension, Nader turns the television to the satellite channel showing Harim-e Sultan. As the opening credits roll, Nader tells Taha that these programs have corroded the soul of Iranian families. “Zivar is hooked all day long, and then accuses me of betraying her,” Nader says nervously.

Ava-ye Baran, which shed unusual light on the plight of street children, got lavish coverage in government-affiliated periodicals. One magazine, Madaran, indulged in wishful thinking that the serial might replace satellite TV in Iranians’ viewing preferences. [4] But the question remains as to the true intent of the government.

Harmless, Harmful, A Waste of Time

Iranians of various classes interviewed for this article were divided about the government’s agenda vis-à-vis satellite TV, as well as the effects of the Turkish dramas on the country’s youth. [5] Some, like Roshan, a middle-aged actress who dubs foreign serials into Persian, insist that the Turkish products are nothing more than soupape. This practice, she says, began during President Mohammad Khatami’s first term after the July 1999 student protests in Tehran threatened the political order for the first time in years. The protests were peaceful; it was the police and paramilitary Basij who got violent, trashing dormitories and tossing several residents out windows. [6] Nonetheless, hardliners in the Islamic Republic blamed the disturbances on Khatami’s tolerance for dissent, calling for new restrictions on the press and eventually shutting down several reformist newspapers. To calm the population, Roshan continues, Khatami’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance allowed for the introduction of more satellite channels. Later, she says, the Culture Ministry staffed by Ahmadinejad played the same game, but to appease a different constituency. The arch-conservatives outlawed Harim-e Sultan in an outward appearance of outrage at the telenovela’s decadence, thus pleasing their pious voter base, but allowed the serial’s translators to escape so that its fans could keep on blowing off steam, too. As for the serials themselves, Roshan believes they are harmless. “These telenovelas aren’t pushing for freedom. They’re about affairs and betrayal, moral corruption we already have in our own society. Our youth enjoy Turkish shows because of the flamboyant love stories. They also like the pretty colors and fashion.”

Many Iranians, not surprisingly, do view the serials as mere entertainment. Ali, a middle-aged man who owns a gallery in northern Tehran, watches a string of serials in the evenings. “They keep us relaxed…. No arguments with my wife, even though we’re tense after being stuck in traffic and pollution.” Ali’s wife, Ziba, whose artwork is exhibited in his gallery, is also addicted. “After watching these miniseries, we call Turkish men zan zalil (men whose wives subdue them),” Ziba says. The men in these shows are too deferential and romantically inclined for her taste—a “real man” should make the decisions in the household, provide for his wife and shed no tears. But then she turns to the topic of Iranian youth. “The government wants us to mourn all the time. But during Moharram (the month of the Islamic calendar commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn), the youth go out, and they call it a ‘Husayn party.’ They tell their parents they’re going to hey’ats (religious gatherings), but they sneak out and see their lovers. Our youth don’t think of marriage anymore. They prefer dating. Some say these changes are due to satellite TV. What choice do we have? Turkish serials, however superficial and repetitive, offer an escape from our reality.”

Others, however, have strongly negative views of the imported telenovelas. Fazli, a sculptor, sells his work outside Tehran’s Modern Art Museum. From a family of artists, he nevertheless dropped out of art school since he felt his teachers would not let him think outside the box. About the Turkish serials, he says, “It’s too much, too fast. For our youth, who are repressed and have self-destructive tendencies, it can have a harmful impact.” Payman, a business administration student, is against satellite television in general. “I’m religious, but I don’t want you to think that I’m with this government.” He continues, “Turkish serials have a horrible impact on our society. ‘Ishq-e Mamnu‘ was all about marital betrayal, and I have firsthand experience as to how this harms our youth. My cousin and her husband were the first in our family to bring satellite television into their home. She ended up having an affair with her husband’s best friend, and then she came home one day and found her husband in bed with another woman.”

Mina, in her mid-twenties, struggles for financial survival. She works in a nail salon seven days a week and cares for a recovering cancer patient, the widow of a sports star, on weeknights. She is adamant that Turkish serials are bad for Iran. “While I polish their nails, my customers brag about being married to rich men and having good-looking, but poor, lovers on the side. One of my clients has a sex party in her home every evening.” Not that Mina looks kindly upon the state’s agenda—in her opinion, the serials are but one form of soupape, the other being to get youths hooked on drugs. “But to pretend that they are against these serials, the government sends out ‘parasites’ that make the television screen fuzzy. And these parasites are causing infertility, cancer and pollution.” The Persian word parazit is derived from the French verb parasiter le signal (jam the signal), but Iranians simply say that the government “sends out parasites” to disrupt the reception of satellite dishes. The expression reflects the widespread perception that these electromagnetic waves are causing illnesses among the public. The government does indeed make a concerted effort to jam the signal of programs deemed politically dangerous. While it is hard to prove a connection to health effects, reformist media outlets have reported increases in dizziness, deafness, cancer, birth defects and infertility in both men and women. [7]

Akram, a working-class woman in her late thirties, watches over two elderly sisters in an upper-class neighborhood. Of ‘Ishq-e Mamnu‘, she complains, “There is no doubt that these shows influence us. Now betrayal is all over the place. I recently heard about a husband who went to court to complain that his wife was involved with another man. When the wife and her lover insisted that the husband was lying, the police beat him up.” At the same time, Akram concedes, the serial’s story taught the valuable lesson that an older man should not marry a young girl.

According to Pari, a documentary filmmaker and student of Abbas Kiarostami in her early thirties, Iranian youth cannot speak freely about politics but they feel free to experiment in relationships. She has been married for six years but does not want children until she has built her career. “Before I married, I dated and went to parties. Now I’m married, and I still go to parties.” Pari contends that, with the age of marriage rising, the government is concerned that many couples are having no more than one child. (Under Ahmadinejad, the government was known to make disbursements of 1 to 3 million tomans (approximately $330-990) to help young men and women who wished to get married. It is commonly believed that this monetary aid no longer exists due to economic crisis.) 

The Turkish serials are a waste of time, Pari says. As a girl she watched the American soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, which aired in English and thus had a limited audience. She laments the fact that serials are now dubbed in Persian so that everyone, including small children, can tune in. But Pari cites government censorship of Iranian serials as the reason why so many people watch the Turkish dramas. She refers to director Hamed Anqa’s Qalb-e Yakhi (An Iced Heart), a serial that never aired on television but was released on DVD in 2011. Qalb-e Yakhi is all about being consumed with revenge. The first two seasons revolve around Vita, who directs a modeling agency and pushes the women who work for her very hard. The first episode of season one ends with a model committing suicide during a reception at Vita’s home, leaving a coded message in lipstick on the mirror. The second season makes explicit reference to devil worship, through the character of Farhad, a confidant of Vita who kills anyone who stands in his way. “To be continued,” the last episode concluded, but it was not. Many Iranians believe that the government forced a sudden cast change for season three (starring Mehran Modiri and with a seven-month delay), whose storyline did not in any way follow what had gone before. Despite controversy, very little was written about the changes in the press. 

A quick tour of Tehran video stores confirms the main dividing lines in the debate over Turkish telenovelas. There is Rami, who runs a small, independent DVD shop on Vali Asr Street, selling both censored and uncensored versions of Iranian films. He also identifies government interference in Iranian serials such as Qalb-e Yakhi as the reason many watch the Turkish programs. According to Rami, many of his customers are disgruntled that Mehran Modiri is distributing Shukhi Kardam when he never completed his previous series. Most of Rami’s clients ask for foreign films. In his shop, from which both Western and Iranian pop music emanates, Rami keeps listings for 20,000 such movies, including recent Hollywood offerings, among them Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. He also has cartoons, such as Tinkerbell, in both censored and uncensored versions. He sells Iranian-made pop music as well as the output of popular California-based Iranian singers like Googoosh, Dariush and Andy. He spends much of his day downloading new music and films, and boasts of finding banned items for his clients, including the Turkish serials.

On the other hand, there is the Soroosh Video Shop, also on Vali Asr Street, which refuses to sell Turkish serials since they are officially forbidden. This shop cooperates on projects with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and many see it as state-sanctioned. Soroosh sells 30-50 serials and films per day—at the standard price of 3,000 tomans ($1) per DVD—with a constant stream of customers asking for the latest release. In conformance with the law, the owner says, Soroosh only sells made-in-Iran pop, nothing from “over there” (an taraf), referring to the bustling music industry in Los Angeles. Turkish serials were once popular, he goes on, but now they are all reruns, so Iranians are watching miniseries made at home.

Marriage in the Magazines

The hubbub over the Turkish serials is but one index of the Islamic Republic’s concern to revitalize the Islamization project, in its conservative and other guises, and particularly with regard to marriage and the family. Kiosks of cities and provincial towns are filled with state-controlled magazines that offer a wide range of advice to singles and young married couples. Much of the advice is rooted in traditional conceptions of gender roles, but there are nuances that reflect intensified conflict within the political order as well as the reality that one income is no longer an option for many households.

Working women are thus a major subject. In a short section entitled “Hefaz va Hejab,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to Khomeini as Leader of the Islamic Revolution, predictably enjoins such women to cover themselves at all times lest the moral chaos of the West infiltrate Iranian society. Still, he writes that men and women must spend time together at work if Iran’s problems are to be solved. [8] A smiling photograph of the Leader often appears in magazine columns, in an apparent attempt to project a softer, more empathetic image for the hardliners. There are many examples of strong women presented in these magazines. One spread spotlights Fatema Daneshvar, a mother of four, who runs a company and is active in local politics. Daneshvar decries the fact that from childhood girls are complimented on their beauty and boys on their intelligence. Girls should not grow up believing that only looks are important, she says, but should be taught to value self-reliance and to set reasonable life goals. She nonetheless laments that the age of marriage is rising due to inflation and unemployment. Struggling parents are unable to save to help their children marry. [9]

Khamenei penned another short paragraph avowing that it is the government’s responsibility to stop the “rampant, destructive spread of divorce.” [10] And, indeed, a whole realm of advice in the magazines instructs couples in the art of marital bliss, and promotes the same images of working women found in state-sanctioned serials. In these shows, women work as teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers, yet those portrayed as most successful are those who find a superb balance between the office and duties as wives and mothers. Those who fall short of achieving this balance are heavily criticized. 

When a woman works all day, then comes home to cook, clean and care for children, paying attention to her marriage may be the last thing on her mind, one columnist writes. But if she makes time for her husband, she will discover that the relationship has improved. The writer advises women to think of the husband first. “If he forgets to do something, don’t pick on him. Give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he forgot to do the dishes because he was distracted by work-related problems.” [11] Another author recommends that women organize their time better and—divorce being a particular danger for working mothers—that women work only part-time. [12] On the other hand, a columnist argues that women are stronger, kinder, and more patient and efficient than men in an effort to show that women can indeed do it all. [13] Still another piece, which sees nurturing children as natural to women and not to men, nonetheless pushes fathers to share the burden of child rearing, teaching them how to bottle-feed rather than getting jealous of their wives’ time with the infant. [14]

Much of the advice is less hierarchical and husband-centered than one might expect, with one article advising couples to listen, forgive and exchange gifts in order to maintain love in the marriage. Neither partner should boss the other around or have unfair expectations of the other. Statistics are adduced to prove that couples who never fight have the highest rate of divorce. This same columnist, in an attempt to make parental responsibility less gendered, instructs both husbands and wives to pay attention to the children and to each other. [15] Similarly, another writer who pushes for more active fathering admonishes both members of the couple to put family first, rather than work, to talk about their day, to eat and have fun together, and to avoid raising their voices. [16]

This tangle of advice, in any case, may be tangential to the real problems of Iranians under 30, whatever their notions of gender relations and morality. Recent Iranian television shows document the growing resignation of the youth generation with black humor. In the third episode of Modiri’s Shukhi Kardam, a father asks his son why he does not marry. The son, staring at his computer screen, replies that perhaps he can think of marriage in 20-30 years—he needs to save up first. The father thinks his son’s frustrations are overblown. “If life is so bad,” he mutters, “then just kill yourself! In our time, we had the courage to kill ourselves.” At that, the son cries out and throws himself out the window. His father, nonchalant, remarks that even the screams of his own generation were more moving. In another scene, a 21-year old woman tells a news anchor she had aspired to become a doctor but left her studies. It seems that her parents were divorced and remarried, and now they pay more attention to their new children. She weeps as the interviewer says, “And so, to get attention, you want to become addicted to drugs and turn yourself in to the police.” Perhaps suicide is the best option, he says, and the young woman throws herself in front of a car.

What should be made of this harsh moralizing? Is Modiri consciously echoing the conservatives’ critique of a spoiled youth generation? Is he simply playing it safe with the censors? Rather, Modiri’s sketches indicate a third possibility—that he is truly concerned about the disintegration of the institution of marriage. His previous miniseries have been imbued with coded indictments of government repression and corruption, but here he blames Iranian youth for their own problems. Contemporary Iranian discourse about public morality is not polarized into liberal and conservative camps, but arrayed on a spectrum and shot through with contradictions.

Endnotes

[1] See, for example, Shahram Khosravi, Young and Defiant in Tehran (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). For a critique, see Norma Claire Moruzzi, “Paradise Lost, Gone Shopping,” Middle East Report 245 (Winter 2007).
[2] Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 4 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), pp. xxiv, 345.
[3] Ibid., p. 345.
[4] “Aya ba in Shara’yit Mitavan Mahvareh ra Maghlub Kard?” Madaran (January 2014).
[5] Interviews for this article were conducted in Tehran during the winter of 2014. To protect the identity of my informants, I have changed all names.
[6] Khosravi, pp. 140-141.
[7] Small Media, Satellite Jamming in Iran: A War Over Airwaves (November 2012).
[8] “Hefaz va Hejab,” Khanevadeh (January 2014).
[9] “Guftegu-ye Ikhtisasi-e Dunya-ye Zanan ba Banu-ye Kar Afarin va ‘Ozv-e Shura-ye Shahr-e Tehran: Muwaffaqat dar Sayeh Pusht-e Kar va I‘timad be Nafs,” Dunya-ye Zanan (January 2014).
[10] “Bayanat dar Didar-e ‘Oza-e Shura-ye ‘Ali Enqilab-e Farhangi,” Madaran (January 2014).
[11] “Madaran-e Shaghel Cheguneh Mitavanand Zendegi-ye Zanashui-ye Shadi Dasht-e Bashand,” Dunya-ye Zanan (January 2014).
[12] Bahareh Nikjoo, “Maman Joon Digeh Naro Sar-e Kar,” Madaran (January 2014).
[13] “Zanan Qavitar az Mardan Hastan,” Khanevadeh (January 2014).
[14] “Shuhar-e Gerami! Be Ja-ye Hasudi, Komak Kon,” Madaran (January 2014).
[15] “Mandagar-e ‘Ishq dar Izdivaj,” Negah-e Aval (January 2014).
[16] “Zaher va Batan-e Khanevadeha-ye Shad,” Khanevadeh (January 2014).

How to cite this article:

"The Politics of Iran’s Satellite Era," Middle East Report 274 (Spring 2015).
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