|Feature: Iranian cleric makes wedding dreams come
TEHRAN, Dec 25 (Reuters) - An Internet site run by a Muslim cleric
may not sound like an obvious route to wedded bliss.
hundreds of Iranians, frustrated by traditional marriage customs and
strict restrictions on mingling with the opposite sex, are turning
to mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric Jafar Savalanpour Ardabili to find
their ideal match.
Such is the demand for his services that
Ardabili, 38, has had to restrict access to his website
(www.ardabili.com) to process the floods of applications from those
in search of love.
"This place is like an Islamic coffee shop
where people can meet each other, have a healthy relationship and
finally get married," Ardabili said at his cramped office on the
third-floor of a non-descript building overlooking a busy Tehran
In a country where many women are forced into marriages
brokered by their parents and morals police often close down coffee
shops and restaurants where young boys and girls discretely flirt
and exchange telephone numbers, Ardabili sees himself as a bridge
between the modern and traditional world.
"We cannot forget all
about our past, and on the
other hand we cannot just stick to
traditions because they sometimes fail to satisfy our needs," he
The modern Iranian woman, he points out, typically has a
university degree -- over 60 percent of students entering higher
education are now women. Many have jobs or run small
For them, traditional marriage customs -- a complex,
procedure whereby the families of the prospective
couple first reach an
agreement before the man formally proposes
-- are anachronistic and
Ardabili, whose white turban, black clerical robe and
beard belie a jovial personality, has a more liberal
"It is important that women should be given the choice
to choose their future husbands. I don't want women to waste their
time waiting for their fate, destiny, and thousands of their sweet
fantasies to come true," he said.
A section on his website
contains queries from people struggling to reconcile their sexual
urges with religious beliefs or fretting over the realisation that
they are gay.
But Ardabili, whose website contains links to
official endorsements by senior Shi'ite clerics, is quick to
distinguish his from other Iranian sites offering love over the
"Mine is not a friendship Internet dating service. We
are using the Internet as a tool to help those who are willing to
get into married life. I am not matchmaking here," he said.
the waiting room, fairy lights and soft music lighten the heavy,
expectant atmosphere that hangs over the group of mostly middle-aged
men and younger-looking women.
"The fact that the marriage was
being carried out under the supervision of a cleric gave our family
a lot of confidence," said Ali, the brother of a blind chemist who
was about to marry a woman he met through Ardabili.
started six years ago, Ardabili has brokered 1,000 unions.
His clients range in age from 16 to 82 and he receives
around 30 new
applicants a day.
Those who fill out the basic form over the Internet are
invited to his office and asked to answer more probing questions
which take two hours to complete.
Questions include: "Are you
interested in going to parties?", "Will you stay married if you
learn your spouse can't have children?", "What will you do if your
family opposes the union?".
After studying the answers, Ardabili
selects a shortlist of five prospective partners for the applicant
and allows them to look through their forms. No photographs are
shown at this stage.
"If we give them the photograph they stop
reading the forms and concentrate solely on that."
preferred match has been selected, their photographs are exchanged
and if they are still keen to proceed a first meeting is arranged,
at Ardabili's office, in his presence.
If that goes well the
couple are then encouraged to start dating and to get to know each
other. He continues to keep tabs on each couple's progress and
offers psychological and even sexual counselling to those who ask
He refuses to handle requests for temporary marriage --
unique to Shi'ite Islam which allows couples to "wed" for a few
hours or several years -- and says he fails to see how any sane man
could want to marry more than one wife.
As he enthused about his
work an assistant interrupted and asked him to solve a sudden
A female client had called very upset because her
prospective husband had delayed his marriage proposal for several
weeks and had only just asked for permission to come around with his
parents to ask for her hand.
"Just tell her that he needed some
time to talk to his family
before formally proposing to her. He
did not mean to offend her or her family," Ardabili shot back,
A few minutes later the assistant returned to
announce that the
girl was delighted with his explanation.
Another wedding photo for
Ardabili's bulging album
(Additional reporting by Parinoosh