It’s online dating as you’ve never seen it before – no profile photos, matches are chosen for you, and parents must also go on the first date, but is Iran’s government-controlled dating service fighting a losing battle against Western desires?
In Iran, sex outside marriage is illegal, but half the population under 35 aren't married and the Government's worried they are not playing by the rules, so they are doing something about it. This is the Tebyan office, a Government run online Islamic dating institute. Apparently Iran is facing a marriage crisis so authorities have decided to step in and play cupid. Joining me is Ali Jafari, our official translator approved by the Ministry of Culture.
REPORTER: Is this the type of place, Mr Jafari, you would come to find a wife?
ALI JAFARI, TRANSLATOR: Definitely, and I have plenty of reasons for it.
Apparently this Government website set up 250 marriages this year.
ALI JAFARI: The youth who come here can really take these advices and really make a bright future instead of making the wrong choice and end up wasting their life.
Waiting to say hello is Mohamadreza Soltani, the website's PR man and Zohre Hosseini, the chief matchmaker.
ZOHRE HOSSEINI, CHIEF MATCHMAKER (Translation): We have 13 million single people of marriageable age.
MOHAMADREZA SOLTANI (Translation): We’ve developed strategies to avoid a crisis.
I quickly realised this is a dating website with a difference. For a start, pictures are banned.
ZOHRE HOSSEINI (Translation): Photos can be manipulated in Photoshop. People can make themselves more beautiful.
They expect parents to be present on first dates, but they say that's no barrier to success. They introduced me to one of their clients.
MOHAMADREZA SOLTANI: This young man is looking for love.
REPORTER: Really? You are the young man looking for love. Wow, fantastic.
It turns out Reza Tagizadeh is a success story - thanks to the team here he's engaged to be married. He is having free sessions with the website psychologist to prepare him for marriage.
DR MOHAMAD KAMAND, WEBSITE PSYCHOLOGIST (Translation): How much have you spoken since you met?
REZA TAGIZADEH (Translation): We’ve had conversations mediated by other people.
DR MOHAMAD KAMAND (Translation): And the families were informed?
REZA TAGIZADEH (Translation): Yes.
Dr Mohamad Kamand warns him that education and family background matter much more than love.
DR MOHAMAD KAMAND (Translation): In romantic relationships, say in the US, 93% ultimately lead to divorce. On one side there is a rational decision. On the other side there is a decision based on love.
Mr Jafari translates the key message.
ALI JAFARI: Loving at first look or sight is, again, I emphasise, very dangerous.
REPORTER: I met my partner, love at first sight, I'd say it was, and we are together ten years. So is it really that dangerous, do you think?
DR MOHAMAD KAMAND (Translation): Ten years?
ALI JAFARI (Translation): Yes, she says it’s ten years.
DR MOHAMAD KAMAND (Translation): Science is based on the majority not on the minority.
I must be the minority. The fingers who click on the website can't choose their potential partners, it's done for them by traditional match makers. I want to meet them. An army of women in here.
REPORTER: Are you all match makers?
MATCHMAKER: You are surprised?
REPORTER: Yes, I'm very surprised.
They don't just take clients from the Government, anyone can approach them. This agency is run by Malakeh Mogadam, Tehran's most famous matchmaker.
REPORTER: Miss Mogadam, is everybody here working for you?
MALAKEH MOGADAM, MATCHMAKER (Translation): They don’t work for me. They work for God’s blessing.
MATCHMAKER (Translation): Tall… Born after 1986.
It's not just in this room, it's packed in the next room as well, full of match makers. They work for free. Match making is an age-old tradition in Iran, it's seen as a religious good deed. Ms Mogadam shows me what she calls her, her dowry room.
REPORTER: This essentially is a roomful of donations from very nice people, to couples who are starting off, who are starting off in married life, who might need a sewing machine, or shoes.
The pile of presents is getting bigger, but no-one's taking them away. The matchmakers get plenty of calls, but the clients are getting more demanding. 28-year-old Saba Lotfi has come here with her mother, Manzar.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): We need you to fill out this form. You can sit over there.
She's studying accountancy. So far, she's not met men who added up to much.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): How tall are you?
SABA LOTFI (Translation): 160 cm.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): I would say you are slim. Black eyes, your skin tone is quite pale.
The next questions are about Islamic values, like listening to music, the religious censors haven't cleared.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): Do you listen to legal and illegal music?
SABA LOTFI (Translation): Both sometimes.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): What kind of veil do you wear? You wear the fitted style, right?
SABA LOTFI (Translation): That’s right.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): Regarding work, must the boy have a degree or can he just be a nice boy with good morals?
It's a tough question.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): You laugh, but these demands are causing problems for society.
If you compare it to 10 years ago expectations are higher, people are more demanding. If a woman has a degree she won’t accept someone who doesn’t have one.
That evening, I visit Saba at home.
REPORTER: What would be the ideal husband, Saba, for her in your opinion?
MANZAR, SABA’S MOTHER (Translation): First he must be kind, decent and have good faith and if he’s rich…
REPORTER: What your mum just described, does that sound good to you?
SABA LOTFI (Translation): He must be really handsome.
Saba's brother seems uncomfortable.
SABA’S BROTHER (Translation): In Iran, it’s not traditional for a woman to seek a husband.
SABA LOTFI (Translation): It happens a lot.
SABA’S BROTHER (Translation): Maybe a little but it’s not the done thing.
Saba has told us about one of her university classes, a compulsory course on marriage. The group is led by Ali Sabor, a Professor of Islamic education, also a matchmaker.
PROFESSOR ALI SABOR, MATCHMAKER (Translation): Sexual desire is something that has to be controlled. The best way to fulfil your sexual needs is by getting married.
Mr Jafari steps in. He lived in the USA for years and has views on the situation there.
ALI JAFARI (Translation): A typical girl in high school has 10 boyfriends at least. Then she goes to university and the same thing happens. All in all a girl has 20 boyfriends before she gets married.
PROFESSOR ALI SABOR (Translation): This is contributing to the West’s decline. It’s a fact.
In Tehran, more young people now live together without being married, something that shocks Saba.
SABA LOTFI (Translation): It’s because young people have moved away from Islam.
One of her fellow students says he can't get married, even though he wants to.
STUDENT (Translation): Marriage is promoted, the Supreme Leader tells us to marry and have children. I have proposed three times, when I was 21, 22 and 23 and every time the family found something wrong with me.
In Iran, the tradition of getting parental permission for marriage remains strong, so if you don't have a good job or get on with the family, you're in trouble, even if you are deeply in love.
REPORTER: Zara and Zohre. So Ali, Zohre is your future wife to be, is that right?
ALI NAZARI, FILM MAKER (Translation): Yes, that’s right. She is the one.
REPORTER: And Zara is very evidently Zohre's identical twin.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): Yes, it was quite confusing in the beginning, but when I chose Zohre to be my wife I could see the differences between them.
REPORTER: I have to ask you, Zohre, was it love at first sight?
ZOHRE (Translation): I can’t describe it but it was very beautiful.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): I read her so much poetry she fell in love with me.
Ali's 28, Zohre and Zara are 25. He's a film-maker, Zohre is an illustrator. They met at work four months ago. They want to get married as soon as possible, but first their parents need to agree financial terms.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): I wasn’t anxious at first but the family negotiations do worry me.
There's a very beautiful and respectful dynamic between Ali and Zohre and even though they have chosen not to be intimate before marriage, it's so obvious that they are head over heels and deeply in love with each other.
ZOHRE (Translation): I’ll fix it for you.
REPORTER: The scarf was a little bit too forward, we are going into quite a religious ceremony so I have to cover up.
Tonight Zohre will meet up with Ali at the house of a family friend. It's the date when she and Muslims remember the death of Fatimah, the daughter of the prophet Mohamad. You can really see it's such an emotional thing. People are in tears out there and it's so interesting to see Zara, Zohre and Ali and their dedication to their religion.
Apparently you can make a wish as you stir the soup. Zohre and Ali are also praying for their own future together. Their families are meeting up in three days' time and they are hoping they'll be given permission to marry.
REPORTER: What are you wishing for?
ZOHRE (Translation): I wish that Ali will get a job that he loves. I also wished that our engagement ceremony and the family negotiations will all go well.
REPORTER: Do you think this will work?
ZOHRE (Translation): If we truly request something from God and Fatimah then it will work.
Zohre and Ali are following tradition but other people their age are pushing the envelope.
ASHKAN GHANE, PSYCHOLOGY STUDENT (Translation): I’ve got an idea for a photo. I’ll hold a cigarette in my mouth and keep my head down.
AYSAN (Translation): Why don’t you put it behind your ear?
Apparently we have just walked in on a full-blown Iranian style photo shoot, and according to these guys these photos are just to upload on Instagram.
AYSAN (Translation): Don’t look so sad, Ashkan!
This group of friends are studying psychology. They tell me they are all single but go out on group dates.
REPORTER: Is this you?
REPORTER: Oh, wow, stunning, I never get that many! This is serious dedication for social media. I'm very, very impressed.
NEGAR (Translation): Today people meet online and perhaps this is the reason we are all single.
REPORTER: Before I came to Iran I was led to believe that boys and girls were not allowed to hang out together. That's obviously not true.
ASHKAN GHANE, (Translation): There are some rules and limitations within families. But we aren’t forbidden to hang out together. The situation has dramatically improved.
NEGAR (Translation): What makes us different from others here is that none of us come from strict families.
REPORTER: Mr Jafari, what do you make of this conversation here?
ALI JAFARI: There is so much misconception about Iran, so it should be very interesting to observe it from close, from up close, that, you know, there is so much freedom here.
Of course, I conducted this conversation carefully, avoiding sensitive topics like banned dating websites, parties with alcohol, or sex before marriage.
REPORTER: This is not correct.
NEGAR (Translation): I know. All of your hair should be like this.
The social scene here is amazingly complex and it seems to be both subtle and quite restrictive at the same time. And because of that, some young Iranians feel trapped, somewhere between Islamic culture and western culture, and they are not quite sure where their identity lies.
I'm rejoining Saba who is waiting to hear news from the dating agency. Saba's taking me on a spot of shopping before she gets a call from Miss Mogadam.
SABA LOFTI (Translation): Beautiful.
REPORTER: So it’s 3.30 and I know Miss Mogadam has promised to call, so we shall wait and see. I’m nervous for you, Saba.
She tells me she's a romantic at heart.
REPORTER: Do you believe in love at first sight?
SABA LOFTI (Translation): Yes, 100%. I personally have a lot of faith in it. Hello!
For accountancy student, Saba, Miss Mogadam's found a fellow accountant.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): There’s another match, he has an accounting degree and lives near Tehran.
SABA LOFTI (Translation): Thanks so much.
MALAKEH MOGADAM (Translation): Let this be the year of marriage!
In an ideal word, she said, she wouldn't use a matchmaker at all. The matchers seem a bit predictable.
SABA LOFTI (Translation): I would prefer to find somebody myself rather than have them picked for me.
Saba's a conservative girl. She won't go on casual dates or break the rules, but she wants romance and that's difficult. She didn't meet up with either of the matchmaker's men. We have joined Ali on the drive to Zohre's home, their families are meeting to negotiate the terms of the marriage, a process known as Balleboroon.
REPORTER: Do Zohre’s family think you are the right match for their daughter?
ALI NAZARI (Translation): Their worry is that I have no job and no money.
REPORTER: We can really relate to you, Ali.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): I’m getting married with empty pockets!
REPORTER: Do you feel like the love between you and Zohre can survive obstacles like this?
ALI NAZARI (Translation): Zohre knows me well, she knows that I will be successful. But it’s not just us, many others are involved, so far they have been understanding - I hope that continues. Love is my only hope.
We brought these for you
ZOHRE’S MOTHER (Translation): Thank you, thanks so much
Zohre's parents like Ali but her mum says she and her family have concerns.
REPORTER: Are you all a bit nervous?
ZOHRE’S MOTHER (Translation): Yes we are pretty nervous. We are worried about arranging things for the future. Some are for and some are against many things. So yes, we have our worries.
Ali's father is a cleric, Zohre's dad is a retired teacher. Her parents want to make sure she's provided for.
ALI’S FATHER (Translation): What’s your concern then?
ZOHRE’S MOTHER (Translation): I’m talking about property…
There's a number of things to discuss today. The trickiest is a monetary guarantee that Ali must pay to Zohre if she ever demands it. It's paid in gold coins and is essentially an insurance policy for wives. It's called a Mehrieh.
ZOHRE (Translation): Before we discuss these arrangements Ali and I would like a word in private.
Zohre and Ali try to talk alone upstairs but they are joined by her dad.
ZOHRE’S FATHER (Translation): The amount of gold coins you’re offering…
ALI NAZARI (Translation): We’ll discuss it downstairs.
ZOHRE’S FATHER (Translation): And you need to give half the house…
ALI NAZARI (Translation): Let’s go downstairs.
Her parents want her to get 114 gold coins, that's 23,000 pounds. Ali thinks it's too much, and he can't afford it.
ZOHRE’S MOTHER (Translation): Finished your discussions?
ZOHRE’S FATHER (Translation): Yes…
Ali offers 14 gold coins, about 3,000 pounds.
ZOHRE’S MOTHER (Translation): How has it gone done from 114 to 14 coins?
ALI NAZARI (Translation): We are basing it on Islamic principles. Not like some who compete to get a higher sum.
ZOHRE’S MOTHER (Translation): If you really loved her…
ALI NAZARI (Translation): Zohre’s value should not be calculated in gold.
Ali’s parents side with him, her parents aren't budging.
ZOHRE’S FATHER (Translation): As her father I insist 114 coins must be on the marriage contract.
Things are getting tense and they ask us to stop filming. That was nearly four hours of negotiations, and on two occasions Ali and Zohre had to leave the room.
REPORTER: How are you guys after that?
ZOHRE (Translation): We’re anxious about what will happen.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): We’ve made our decision but we’re worried about the family. It’s all become so chaotic in there!
The decision is now out of their hands.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): The story doesn’t end here. It’s like a book, a drama, and we’re just in the middle.
We leave without knowing the final outcome. The young Iranians I have met want to marry someone they love. They also want to obey the rules of their faith and their parents, but it's hard to reconcile these different aims. No wonder so many find it easier to stay single. After we left Iran, we got a message.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): I’ll hold on to this ecstasy all my life. As I already loved you before I lived.”
Hello, we are in the gardens in Kashan. To be honest, the last few days has been really difficult. Zohre, what about you?
ZOHRE (Translation): Ali can tell you, I was really stressed. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): Our Mehrieh has been decided…
ZOHRE (Translation): One stick of sugar crystals.
ALI NAZARI (Translation): A pilgrimage to Karbala.
ZOHRE (Translation): 114 gold coins and… Two red roses.
They got married a week later.
Location Assistant Producer
Hamlin and Jolliffe
5th July 2016