If there is one country that does not need a lesson in how to express devotion, it is Iran. Just look at the Persian poem The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam, much loved even by the buttoned-up British Victorians for its call to be spiritually free and seize the day.
The country’s government, however, appears to disagree. Confronted by tumbling marriage and birth rates, civil servants in charge of the country's moral purity have decided it is time to get involved in the matchmaking business.
Last week, they unveiled the state-sanctioned Hamdam courtship (ideally marriage) app, hailing it as a cutting-edge way to meet potential spouses and build enduring and informed matrimony, all from a smartphone.
We’re talking here about the same state that has presided for decades over the mandated separation of the sexes; a regime that has patrolled public spaces to clamp down on young love.
This is no simple swipe left or right app. Its developers have got together to create a programme that promises to use artificial intelligence, psychological screening, and consultant-led monitoring for up to four years after marriage, all on a mass scale and all completely free of charge.
Still, desperate times call for desperate measures. In 2018, government agencies recorded a decrease in weddings by nine per cent against rates in 2017. The number of marriages is falling in many countries, particularly in the West. But for Iranian leaders, who oversee a government that draws its legitimacy from religion and indifference to the secular western world, faltering rates are not just a demographic concern, but arguably a sign that the state is failing to keep religious institutions and norms at the forefront of young people's minds.
Practically, it also keeps Iran on the path to a rapidly ageing population. World Bank figures suggest that there were 6.5 births per woman in the country in 1982. In 2019, that figure dropped to just more than two. This sharp decline is in large part due to a remarkably successful family planning programme that began in the late 80s. But in recent years, the state has completely reversed its position. In 2013, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the campaign should have been curtailed in the late 90s, describing it as nothing more than a flawed import from the West. Promoting marriage is one pillar in the state's strategy to bring the birth rate back up.
The content of the Hamdam app gives an insight into what the government views as the primary malaise stopping Iranians from getting married. At its launch, a spokesperson for the programme declared that it is designed to fight against what is claimed by the state to be the work of foreign enemies, who seek to weaken the institution of the family in Iran by perverting the minds of the young.
Blaming changing morals might be an easy diagnosis, but it is not a complete one. Religious attitudes in Iran are indeed changing, with more people appearing to view faith as something to be practised and chosen on a personal and private basis without the guidance of the state. But those who might otherwise consider getting married face a far more tangible barrier than what is claimed to be moral decline: the economy. It is not just love that makes marriage an institution – money does, too. Under heavy western sanctions and after decades of corruption and financial mismanagement, Iran has seen rates of inflation compared to the previous year rise from 10 per cent in 2017, to almost 40 per cent in 2021. Iranian couples, as is common around the world, must fulfil material commitments that are intended to build stable households and, ultimately, discourage divorce. These promises cannot be made by young people who don't have money. And encouraging families with many children, the ultimate objective of the government, is even more unaffordable.
While opining on the poor state of society's values might be more familiar ground for the government, it, too, faces criticism over its role in not preventing certain abuses of marriage as an institution. Temporary wedlock, a centuries-old tradition in Iran and other parts of the Middle East, is increasingly used to underpin a harmful industry that allows unknown parties to marry for as little as one hour, without any of the material rights enshrined in permanent marriage. Authorities might consider getting their own house in order before they launch a nation-wide pull-up-your-boots campaign for young people.
Love is not disappearing from Iran, but the stability needed for marriage is, and fast. An app such as Hamdam, barring an algorithmic miracle, is unlikely to be anything more than a simplistic answer to a complex problem that has been decades in the making. And in a country where a significant portion of society has already been living outside the narrow religious guidelines of the state for some time, inviting the government to the wedding might be one long-lost and distant relative too far.