Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Iranians discover they can find love despite ban on dating

After the 1979 Islamic revolution dating was banned and extramarital relationships were severely punished, but people have adapted

THE GUARDIAN , TEHRAN, IRAN

Jaffar Savalanpour Ardabili, 38, a midranking Shiite cleric, sits at his desk, sifting through reams of applications filled with yearning.

His Web site, ardabili.com, is so flooded that it closes several days a month to limit submissions. His office is filled from 9am to 7pm, Saturday through Thursday, with hopeful men and women. His smiling wife, Zahra Tafreshi welcomes them into a room decorated with holiday lights and the sound of pre-revolution love songs in the air.

They are all seeking his help -- to get married.

"But I do not like to be called a matchmaker," he said, laughing. "It reminds me of old women."

In business for the last three years -- and swamped since newspaper articles publicized the opening of his office three months ago -- Ardabili is doing a unique job in a country where, after the 1979 Islamic revolution, dating was banned and extramarital relationships became subject to severe punishment. Some restrictions eased after the election of President Muhammad Khatami, a moderate, in 1997.

Still, Ardabili is careful to work within approved Islamic standards. His Web site has links to statements of permission from a half-dozen prominent Iranian clerics.

"I just want to be a true cleric, and as a cleric my job is to help bring balance and happiness to people's lives," he said, adjusting a white turban over his clumsily dyed brown hair.

His first foray into arranging marriages, he recalled, was in 1996, after he received permission to work with student marriages at Tehran University. One terribly depressed fellow, Mahmoud Etemadar, confessed his love for a woman. Ardabili used her first name, Elaheh.

Both families opposed a union. Elaheh's parents, meanwhile, had moved the family to Dubai. Ardabili was not dissuaded. He flew to Dubai to negotiate, and then to Shiraz, in southern Iran, to talk to Etemadar's parents.

"I was so proud on their wedding night," he said. Two years ago, the couple sent him a picture of themselves, still married and in love.

His count of successes has since grown to 180, with the recent wedding of a 30-year-old nurse named Afsaneh, who for family reasons did not want her surname used, and a 38-year-old dentist living in Norway.

Afsaneh said she went to Ardabili because she wanted to escape the arranged marriage her family was planning. She was interested in moving abroad. "In a traditional family they keep on saying what kind of things a woman can do and what she cannot do," she said.

Ardabili sifted through his applications, and found the dentist. The two spoke on the phone and exchanged e-mail messages for four months. Then the dentist came for a monthlong visit. Love bloomed.

Afsaneh's family was against the marriage at first, but softened when they learned that the matchmaker was a cleric, she said. The dentist has returned to Norway; his new wife awaits only a visa to join him. This is all a far cry from traditional marriage, a complicated ordeal in which families first approve one another before the man proposes. Women do not go out looking for husbands.

But Iranian society is rapidly changing; both men and women are becoming more educated and familiar with the freer ways of the West. More than 62 percent of university students accepted this year were women; about half of graduate students are women. These women are demanding a more active role in society -- and in their own lives.

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