Coping with the rising cost of marriage, Iranian-style
Gareth Smyth and Najmeh Bozorgmehr
Marriage in Iran is not what it used to be. "In the old days there were many inter-tribal clashes, and so you could sometimes find a wife cheaply because her father needed to pay blood money and would take a low dowry," says Ghazanfar Tabassomi, a barber in Yasouj, a southern town of settled nomads from the Boyer Ahmad tribe.
Changing lifestyles also reflect rising expectations. "In the old days women cooked rice on a fire; now they must have a gas stove," says Mr Tabassomi.
When he married in 1989, the cost was about 300,000 tomans, including a hunting rifle for his father-in-law, Mr Tabassomi reckons the same wedding today would set him back between 3.0m and 7.0m tomans ($3,300-$7,770).
The bride's family need to know the groom can buy carpets and gold for the new household. And from the discovery of oil in the early 20th century to exposure to luxuries through advertising and television, they have grown to expect more and more.
"Naturally there is a rising level of expectations, but the speed at which they're rising is a new phenomenon," says Hamid-Reza Jalaeipour, sociology professor at Tehran University. "Now even young people from rural areas may think of travelling abroad, and they expect a high standard of living at an early age."
Helping with the rising cost of marriage was identified by Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran's new fundamentalist president, as an early priority. His first cabinet meeting, held in the holy city of Mashhad in June, agreed to set up a $1.3bn Imam Reza Compassion Fund, named after the Shia Muslim leader buried in the city in 818AD.
The fund is designed to help young people find housing, jobs and a marriage partner. Details have still to emerge, and there has been talk of both loans and grants.
Farhad Rahbar, head of the government's Planning and Management Organisation, recently said 20 per cent of the fund was for "welfare and charity" and the rest for "local development plans". But Mr Rahbar also said the fund would receive $100m backing from the World Bank.
The idea is popular among Iranians, even if there is widespread scepticism about governments delivering their promises.
In the nomads' bazaar in the city of Shiraz, southern Iran, Mansour Alinejad, a stall-keeper selling dowry boxes, says people are well aware of the proposed Compassion Fund.
For those planning marriage, Mr Alinejad recommends a red and green tin box, priced at 8,500 tomans with a clock and dried flowers set into its front.
"This dowry box can contain clothes, and is mouse-proof. Of course gold is also needed. It's true the price of everything has gone up. At my own wedding, my father fed rice and chicken to 500 guests. The marriage cost around 800,000 tomans, and that was five years ago, but it would be at least 3m today."
Many nomads in southern Iran -- from the huge Qashqai and Bakhtiari tribal confederations -- have settled in recent decades, but old customs have proved resilient.
Marriage is governed by traditions concerning alimony and dowry, and preceded by complex negotiations between families.
But even in Tehran, a teeming city of l2m people, marriage is far from the romance-conquers-all ideal of Hollywood.
"We like to think we're not traditional, but we are," says Mehrnaz, an unmarried, female, 27-year-old electrical engineer, sitting in the sun on a bench in Laleh park.
"Social status is important -- does the other family match yours? And so on."
Sitting with Mehrnaz are two friends, also both single.
"If you go as a suitor and the girl was born in 1360 [the Iranian year, roughly 1981] the family may ask for 1,360 gold coins," laughs Mostafa, a 23-year-old man. "And that's not to mention the car and the house they also want. How can I afford that? I'm a student and don't know if I can find a job."
"It's bound to be a matter of finance," says Somayeh, a 25-year-old woman. "No matter how much you're in love, the first day of marriage brings responsibility and part of that is money. You need a secure income."
But rising expectations have not brought increased job opportunities. The official unemployment rate in Iran is 12 per cent, and at least 27 per cent among young people.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has committed his government to ending unemployment in the name of "social justice" but has yet to produce precise economic proposals -- alarming the private sector to the extent that the Tehran stock exchange index has fallen from 12,500 to below 10,000 since June's election.
Ali, 24 and unmarried, is an industrial designer driving a taxi to make ends meet. "Business is paralysed since the new government came to power," he says. "Manufacturing will die if it goes on like this."
"That's the real issue with loans and the Compassion Fund," says Mehrnaz, the electrical engineer.
"If you have a secure job, you don't need such funds. You can get married without them."
Under syndication arrangement with FE