Tehran (AFP) - Like an increasing number of Iranians, Mahnaz divorced after marrying young because of the pressures of a conservative society that she feels often ignores a relationship's most important ingredient: love.
Now single, she looks back with sadness on the collapse of her marriage, but bears no anger towards her parents who made the arrangements seven years ago.
She was only 21 at the time, and her feelings barely entered the equation; marriage was what her mother and father expected.
"I was far too young. I didn't know what I was doing. From the first meeting with my husband's family I had a bad feeling about it," she says.
There was no emotional bond with her husband at the start and it failed to grow.
Mahnaz's experience is becoming more common. Iran's average divorce rate peaked at 21 percent last year, with big cities showing far higher rates.
One in three marriages fails in the capital Tehran; in its northern quarter, home to the more affluent Western-leaning metropolitan elite, the figure is more than 40 percent.
The official reasons for splitting up are a lack of affection between couples, family interference, domestic violence and drug addiction.
But many young people cite strict social mores as a heavy burden. On the other side, devout families blame a Western cultural invasion that they say has eroded traditional Islamic values.
The signs of youthful rebellion are indisputable: 80 percent of female high school students have boyfriends and "even sexual contact", according to a parliamentary research report published in June.
For those of marrying age, the pressure to conform can be suffocating.
"I sometimes feel I am thinking about my parents more than myself," says Fereshteh, 28, who has been going out with her boyfriend, Amir, for two years.
- Prying eyes -
"They first asked me if I was going to marry him after one year," she says, admitting to doubts even over touching her suitor's hand, as such affectionate contact is forbidden outside marriage.
For young Iranians, at first glance, finding love appears no harder than anywhere else: people go on dates at coffee shops, cinemas or restaurants and meet at parties. And just like everywhere else, many men and women struggle to connect with someone, despite their best efforts.
But getting to know each other is merely one part of a complex ritual. What lies beneath is usually deep parental involvement in a country where even for young adults the family is core; most singles live at home.
This leaves many dating couples desperate for a place to meet away from prying eyes. In something of a throwback to more genteel times, public parks are one of the most popular places to talk one-on-one.
Such quaint courtship, however, has competition. Even though online dating sites are banned, the Internet plays a role.
Fereshteh met Amir after sending him a friend request on Facebook. When asked if she was what he had expected when they first met after two days of online chatting, Amir cheekily replies: "No, she was better."
Despite being six years older than the average Iranian bride, Fereshteh is not yet prepared to commit.
"I need more time. There are so many other things I want to do," she says. The financial costs -- Iranian weddings are often lavish affairs -- are also an important factor.
Hardship caused by crippling sanctions in recent years has led many couples to delay tying the knot in Iran. And the Mehrieh, a dowry that is traditionally paid in gold coins, is also daunting.
"It can be ridiculously expensive," Amir says.
- Wedlock not for everyone -
Average ages for marriage are rising despite a government appeal for more unions and more children. And some couples want neither.
"It's not for me," says Mina, 32, who has been with her boyfriend Pedram for nine years, refusing his marriage proposal early in their relationship. She also does not want children.
Mina and Pedram keep their own apartments but regularly cohabit, a practice that is becoming more common despite being looked down upon by many neighbours and landlords.
"Our borders of freedom are these four walls," says Mina, noting her own mother's disapproval of her decision to remain single.
"Living alone is seen as no big deal for an Iranian man, but for a woman it is very difficult," she said.
Tradition is seen as the foundation of Iranian society, but the issue of sex outside marriage has become the elephant in the room for the authorities, who acknowledge a problem.
The best way "to resolve the sexual issues of young Iranians" is to make temporary marriage easier, say parliament's researchers, even though the practice is often seen as shabby.
Such arrangements under Shiite Islam, known as "sigheh" in Persian, can address "the sexual ills" of illicit intercourse, the researchers argued in controversial recommendations that may fall on deaf ears.
For Mahnaz, who married young only to regret it, cohabiting is the answer, especially given the segregation of the sexes throughout school years, which can increase the risk of picking the wrong partner.
"It is unhealthy to keep boys and girls apart for so long, so if there was the opportunity to live with someone first I would take it," she says.