Iranian youths can now avail of courtship classes and acquire a diploma before they get married as per a newly introduced government scheme to reduce the divorce rates.
The National Youth Organisation has unveiled an online course to educate the Islamic republic's overwhelmingly young population on how to find Mr or Mrs Right, pop the question, and live happily ever after.
AdvertisementInteractive and lasting three months, the course designed by academics and clerics requires pupils seeking the diploma to sit for weekly tests.
Iran's hardline leaders condemn dating and relationships out of wedlock and like to see men and women married off ideally in their early 20s in a country where traditionalists frown upon singles in their 30s.
But according to official estimates, the average age of marriage has risen to 29, mainly due to economic hardship and a change in priorities and values, especially for women who outnumber men at college.
Since rising to power five years ago, conservatives in the parliament and government have made a mantra of "facilitating marriage for young people" in Iran, where about 60 percent of the 70-million population is under 30.
The concept of a "marriage diploma" has already unleashed a torrent of jokes on the Internet, but officials insist Iranians need awareness without revealing much about the content of the course.
"Marriage needs hundreds of hours of education," Mehrdad Bazrpash, a deputy to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and head of the National Youth Organisation, said on Saturday as he inaugurated the programme in Tehran.
Ahmad Borjali, a psychologist and adviser to the initiative, said the divorce rate has gone up steadily since 2006, rising by 15.7 percent in 2009 compared with the previous year, against a 2.1-percent increase in marriages.
One in every four marriages ends in divorce in Tehran alone, he said, citing research by social workers as blaming "sexual" and "communication troubles" among main reasons for the problem nationwide.
"Divorce is taboo and against values, but educational work does not cost much," he said in a speech. "Face-to-face education is much more important and this can be a start given the size of the country."
Despite its lofty goals the new initiative has been met with scepticism among government critics and academics.
"Awareness is fine but the question is what kind of a family they are seeking to promote," prominent sociologist Shahla Ezazi told AFP.
"Our society is confused between tradition and modernity, there are both traditional arranged marriages and modern love marriages. But most propaganda is focused on reinforcing men's leadership and women's obedience," she said.
Publicity material for the course distributed at the launch showed a very conservative approach by authorities, shunning unmarried romantic relationships and encouraging traditional match-making.
"It is wiser to have different relationships ... I will hang out with a few and then choose one," a boy with a Westernised appearance is depicted as saying in a booklet mocking such lifestyles.
It was contrasted by a bearded, pious-looking young man who says "short-term illegitimate relationships harm dignity, but God has left the halal (religiously correct) path open."
Ezazi said the current authorities only favour traditional, arranged marriages and "consider giving men and women equal rights a terrible feminist thing."
"But people do not live as advised by the government and changes do not happen based on its orders," she said.
Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has been under conservative clerical rule which favours segregation of the sexes and penalises "illegitimate relationships" such as adultery punished by death.
But this has not prevented mainly urban youths from dating and mingling under the regime's beady eyes, although moving in and living with a partner out of marriage is almost unheard of.
Some among the authorities have for years sought to promote an Islamic substitute for dating in the form of "Sigheh", or temporary marriage, a Shiite practice which allows a man and a woman to be married for even an hour.
But it is generally frowned upon by Iranians.
The authorities have also urged young people and their families to rein in their ambitions, avoid lavish weddings and drop materialistic goals in a bid to boost marriage.
Ahmadinejad has also vowed to create jobs and provide cheap housing to young couples but it is unclear how well he has delivered on his promises as critics accuse his government of fiddling with statistics.
But all that 27-year-old Mina, a dentist's assistant, wants is to live under the same roof with her fiance of two years.
Her fiance, a civil engineer of the same age, has just been laid off.
"We know everything that there is to know about each other and we get along great," she said. "But we have to postpone the wedding yet again."
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