Cohabitation is the bête noir of some cultures and the realization of a belle époque for others. Lascivious as it sounds, it doesn’t necessarily exemplify freedom and liberation, though -it is a direct and unsubtle abnegation of long held moral and religious values for many. But why? Why would the decision to share one’s life need justification? Exculpation? And who should even dare claim the authority? Or, for that matter, the need to consecrate it? Given the rising divorce rate –even in strictly Muslim countries such as Iran where the rate currently sits around one in five- one would think it would make sense to recognize the need for more experience of the shared responsibilities of relationship, more knowledge of the partner, more time to adjust before a final commitment.

I have to admit that I approach the concept of relationship from a liberal Western perspective –more particularly, a Canadian view- where there are state-sanctioned civil ceremonies that bypass the need for a religiously approved union, and where once cohabitation has existed for more than 18 months, with dissolution, there are requirements to divide and allocate any assets –including children-  as if a legal commitment had been undertaken. A recognition, in other words, that because cohabitation is likely to occur whether or not sanctioned by some authority, there are still legal responsibilities that accompany it. From my perspective, that seems a fairly pragmatic and ecumenical way to mete out justice for something that, whether or not officially blessed, cannot be prevented.

So why the resistance? An unwillingness to acquiesce to moral depravity? A fear of loss of authority, either secular or religious? The all-pervasive concern of elders that the old ways are under threat? Or maybe just an underlying distrust of other ways of doing things, other ways of being in the world? After all, societies that have segregated themselves and become distinct have developed customs that are also distinct. Their foundational myths and folkways have hardened into inviolable practices that others don’t share. It’s what binds a culture together –like the nation state, like patriotism, like the sure and certain knowledge that the forbearers had a reason to think and act as they did- a deeply held belief that others are not like us.

We are all like this to a greater or lesser extent. We fear what is new, or different –especially if it comes to us from them. With their seal of approval. And unless we want to become like them, and assume all their mistaken and misguided beliefs –in essence actually become them- we must resist. And resist with the guidance and blessings of whatever authority we most respect. Indeed, it is their duty to justify and sanctify our resistance.

But I am drawn ineluctably to the notion of relational or relative values: the idea that what a society or group determines is appropriate, also determines the values of members of that group. A simple and organic concept to be sure, but one that is too often neglected in our assessment of the beliefs of the larger society to which the group belongs. Or perhaps more importantly, of the beliefs of the authorities who purport to speak on behalf of the state. Of the constraints they impose -or attempt to impose…

Of course, many will argue that some things are simply wrong; to think of them in any other way is self-evidently immoral –sinful, if the concept of sin as opposed to iniquity exists in the cultural framework. But that merely pushes the argument into another dark alley: why is something immoral in one culture and acceptable –or at least tolerated- in another? Is the other culture necessarily and unequivocally mistaken –even depraved- by default? If one side is right, is the other side therefore completely wrong? Partially wrong? Or just different?  It seems to me this is an important distinction: difference can be tolerated as a rule; being wrong cannot. It opens too many other doors. Escape routes for the less committed. The fringe-dwellers.

And yet, history has shown that if enough people begin to do something –even something that was anathema to previous generations- it can dwell unmolested in the shadows, camouflaged in the background and eventually emerge as something new and exciting for the young, its offence muted by a generational wink.

It seems to me that Iran, among others, may be changing like that.

Homogeneity is deceptive; immerse yourself in a culture, dive below the surface and it is boiling, fermenting, swirling with difference that is often invisible from above. Generalizations about it are just that: macroscopic observations that miss the microscopic, the constituent parts that are so essential to the whole.

So, is the cookie the result or the cause of the recipe?

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