Skip to main content

Love in the shadows: The Iranians who risk punishment for their 'white wedding'

In Iran weddings are a complicated and expensive process - so some couples prefer to co-habit first, despite the social stigma in doing so
Taraneh and Mehran cohabit in Tehran but are afraid to reveal their identities (Saeid Jafari/MEE)

TEHRAN - Taraneh, 32, and Mehran, 35, met a year ago and are in love. She works in a travel agency, he works in a café. Now they live together in Tehran.

No big deal? It is in Iran, where cohabiting remains taboo.

The couple are among the increasing number of young Iranians who are living together to test the waters, a phenomenon described in the country as a “white wedding” (ezdevaj sefid).  

Mehran, speaking to MEE from his home, explained: “Our parents know. Our other relatives tried to find out about it but we have tried to hide it from them, because [we know] it is not compatible with their traditional mentalities.

'Our other relatives tried to find out about it but we have tried to hide it from them, because [we know] it is not compatible with their traditional mentalities'

- Mehran

“It does not make sense to them that two people can live together without going through formal procedures.”

Neither Taraneh nor Mehran wanted their full names used for fear of disapproval from friends and relatives as well as the authorities.

The pair have to attend family occasions separately due to the demands of tradition.

Taraneh said: “Nearly all our friends know about this and see no problem with it. Nevertheless, they sometimes advise us that this kind of life is not going to be stable and we should make up our mind.

“But,” she said, “they try to respect our choices."

What's deterring marriage?

Weddings in Iran are a complicated and expensive process. The cost has increased heavily during the currency crisis, which has overtaken the economy and the population during the past year.

The typical cost of a wedding is now around $2,000 for a minimum of 250 guests, according to the organisation which runs Iran's wedding venues, including flowers, decorations, music and photography.

An Iranian groom and his bride in Tehran's wealthy northern neighbourhoods in March 2008 (AFP)
The size of the dowry varies from couple to couple but it is usually a minimum of 14 gold coins (around 666 million rials or around $16,000 on the secondary forex market). Then there is the increasing cost of housing for the new couple, which has also risen considerably.

This all compares to a monthly minimum wage in 2017 of around $11, according to Iran’s Ministry of Labour.

Then there is the paperwork. First, the couple must be formally announced as husband and wife in the presence of an “aaqed” or concluder (a member of the clergy) at a registry office.

Between March 2016 and March 2017, the number of registered marriages decreased by 8 percent

Next, the marriage has to be registered by a law firm, which is supervised by the judiciary. Finally, the names of the couple have to be entered on their respective IDs. 

The result is that during the past few years, marriage rates in Iran have fallen and divorce rates have increased.

According to Iran’s National Organisation for Civil Registration, the number of registered marriages (609,000) decreased by 8 percent between March 2016 and March 2017. The divorce rate (175,000) increased by 7.8 percent during the same period. The birth rate also dropped 7.7 percent, year on year.

It's not just about money

The white wedding offers a way for couples to ensure they are compatible before making a costly mistake which may result in a socially unacceptable divorce.

While cohabitation may not be acceptable for many Iranians, it is still prevalent, especially in metropolises like Tehran.

Fahimeh Hassanmiri is a well known women's rights activist who has written on social issues for media outlets such as Khabaronline, Sazandeghi and Zanane Emrooz.

She told Middle East Eye that there were several factors behind the rise of the white wedding, not least economics and rising costs, including that of gold.

“Traditional marriages have become so expensive," Hassanmiri said, "and boys and girls cannot live up to families’ unusual expectations, so they are completely dissuaded from marriage.

"Another factor is society’s view of divorce. Although the conditions are very different today compared to decades ago, society still looks at a divorced woman as someone with a [serious] problem. Thus, women are afraid and try to escape."

But Taraneh added : "It has not been only been about money. Emotional relationships also play a part. The way the society looks at things is important as well.

“Family restrictions and restrictive traditions have put a lot of hurdles in our way and have created a lot of unpredictable issues for us.”

Love in the shadows

But a white wedding is not without its problems, both social and political.

"Almost no one is willing to rent out their house or flat to an unmarried boy and girl,” Mehran said, “so we have to say that I live alone, although sometimes nosey neighbours get us in trouble and stick their noses into our affairs."

An Iranian female shopkeeper at her shop in central Tehran in January 2013 (AP)
Taraneh added: "But these days, in a crowded city like Tehran, people are so busy that they do not have much time to stick their noses into our affairs.” 

Then there is travelling away from home: an unmarried woman has to present ID or a certificate, indicating that she is married, if she wants to book a hotel room.

The disapproval of the Iranian authorities is not in doubt. While there is no law which formally bans white marriages, couples who are proved to be having physical contact outside marriage face severe punishment including being flogged.

In November 2014, Mohammadi Golpayegani, the chief of staff to Iran’s supreme leader, said that any child of a cohabiting couple will “not be halal any more and on the contrary it will be a bastard”.

'Almost no one is willing to rent out their house or flat to an unmarried boy and girl' (Saeid Jafari/MEE)
And in January 2016, Hadi Sadeghi, the cultural deputy of Iran's judiciary, said: "Please don’t use the words ‘white wedding’ for this improper event, because this is neither a wedding nor white. I suggest instead to use the words 'black co-living'."

But officials also fear that the phenomena is on the increase, especially in larger cities.

Seyyed Assadollah Jolaee is the chairman of the Blood Money (Diya) Organisation, the arm of the judiciary which arranges financial compensation for victims of crime against property or the body.

In October 2017 he said it was wrong to describe the arrangement as a “wedding” and that “cohabitation”, as used in France, would be more accurate.

“Modernity has had a lot of positive effects on Iran, but in some cases, like this one, it has had a negative impact.

“Marriage is a sacred bond, but unfortunately, this sacred thing has nowadays become a ‘social contract’ that fewer young people are willing to do because it now costs a fortune.”

Cohabitees: Try before you buy

But does a white wedding affect a couple’s relationship with each other?

Hassanmiri said she fears that the necessary secrecy surrounding white weddings paves “the way for abuse and immoral behaviour".

Women who are being abused in such a relationship cannot go to the police or the authorities, she said, otherwise they may face charges. "Girls are more likely to get harmed than boys."

'We have seen a lot of our friends who married with a lot of hope and love, but separated in less than a year'

- Mehran

Taraneh and Mehran are more pragmatic. "We have seen a lot of our friends who married with a lot of hope and love, but separated in less than a year,” said Mehran.

“You cannot imagine how much money they spent on their engagement and weddings as well as other traditional ceremonies, but after a short period of time they separated.

“So, we decided to live together initially in order to get to know each other better. Then, if we are satisfied with the situation, we will formally get married."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.