Tehran - To get to the Emarat wedding hall, you have to drive outside Tehran and into the countryside, down a series of rural roads until you reach an entrance marked only by a number.
There, a security guard checks your name off a list and directs you to a parking lot screened from the road that seems to have enough space for hundreds of cars.
Leaving the car, you walk through a series of arched walkways, covered in vines, leading to a lush garden that ends at a large wooden door. It is the entrance, at last, to the main hall that, on this day, is crowded with tables decorated with flowers and basking in the light of dozens of chandeliers.
The party, celebrating the wedding of Amir Hashemi and Melina Hashemi, is well underway. Men in tuxedos and women in revealing dresses with costume jewellery in their immaculately coifed hair have hit the dance floor for a favorite tune, the pop classic The Pretty Ones Have to Dance, by the exiled Iranian singer Andy. Couples at the tables enjoy small talk as some sip from small plastic water bottles.
In short, besides the remote location, nothing out of the ordinary for an upscale Western wedding reception. But in this case, the celebrants are violating no fewer than six of the fundamental laws governing personal behavior in the Islamic Republic: mixing of the sexes; women baring flesh and failing to wear headscarves; dancing; playing pop music; and, last but not least, consuming alcohol (in the vodka-laced drinks in the water bottles).
In another era, all these violations would be punishable with a lashing or jail sentences. Some, such as failing to wear the head scarf and drinking alcohol, still are.
At traditional weddings, men and women celebrate in separate rooms and applaud from their seats. When they meet afterward outside the venue, they are not supposed to shake hands, as any physical contact is forbidden. But the Hashemis’ wedding and many other equally relaxed social events illustrate how the old rules are giving way to the inevitability of change.
“We wouldn’t even consider throwing a traditional party,” said Amir Hashemi, 36, who sells office equipment.
“We want to party with everybody,” said Melina Hashemi, 29.
Up until about a decade ago, the risk of getting caught by the security forces and the morality police trying to uphold the law would have been high. But today, in Tehran at least, young couples can choose on Instagram between dozens of wedding halls that have sprung up along dark side roads in the plains south of Tehran - some of them enormous venues with security, catering, DJs, bands and fireworks. Those places, like Emarat, are long-term investments that cost millions of dollars to build.
The events remain illegal, and at times the police still show up, sometimes to collect kickbacks, but mixed weddings have become a large industry here, and the venues host marriages almost every night.
“There is just so much demand for modern weddings that the state has decided to tolerate it most of the time,” said Asal Rastakhiz, 36, a prominent wedding photographer.
When millions joined the clerical-led revolution that ousted the Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, strict Islamic laws had widespread public support as a preparation for the afterlife. But not too many years later, the consensus began breaking down, and Iran’s clerical government and the increasingly modern society it leads have been engaged in a tug of war ever since.
Despite monopolizing Iran’s politics, the educational system, the courts, the security forces and most news media outlets, Iran’s conservative leaders have long been in retreat. While the laws are rarely changed, the flagging public support makes enforcement of the rules increasingly complex, with many former taboos now tolerated by society.
New York Times