The other Tehran behind the veil of chastity
“When you lose hope, nothing else is important,” Golara, 20, told Mardomsalari, the daily newspaper published by Iran’s centrist Democracy Party. Addicted to methamphetamines, Golara explained that she prostitutes herself to pay for her drug habit. Sommayeh, her co-worker, added as she disappeared into the night: “Pray to God that we die as soon as possible.”
Golara and Sommayeh personify the Persian saying: “When poverty knocks on the door, honour leaves out of the window.” Both represent a reality that the Iranian regime wants to hide.
The revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, after all, were meant to create a chaste society. Iranian revolutionaries said they were engaged in a moral struggle and that it would correct the alleged immorality of the shah’s regime.
In one of their first revolutionary deeds, they bulldozed the Shahr-e No neighbourhood in Tehran, notorious for its brothels. The revolutionary regime closed cabarets and imposed a mandatory veil or hijab to protect women from the public gaze. The physical separation of men and women in public spaces was introduced. The criminal code set punishments ranging from caning to stoning for transgressions of the laws of chastity.
Today, 39 years after the revolution, prostitution is not restricted to one neighbourhood of the Iranian capital. It has spread throughout Tehran. Worse, unlike in the pre-revolutionary era, there is no medical care available to sex workers and there is no birth control and protection against sexually transmitted disease available to underage girls in the trade. The hijab and the physical separation of men and women in public spaces have failed to protect chastity. Home parties and private debauchery have replaced cabarets.
All of the above are not the claims of columnists critical of the Islamic Republic. They are the findings of the “Social Report,” published by the Rahman Institute, an NGO working in Iran.
The report stated that prostitution has reached epidemic proportions in the Islamic Republic. More than 500,000 women are reportedly engaged in prostitution all over the country. Large urban centres, including the major pilgrimage sites of Qom and Mashhad, attract the greatest number of sex workers. They engage in so-called temporary marriages.
In Tehran, however, there is not even the pretence of legality or the custom of the temporary marriage. Instead, men in cars pick up sex workers on the main streets of the capital. Perhaps more shocking, some of the sex workers ply their trade with the knowledge or even the encouragement of their husbands because the family sees no other way to escape poverty.
Prostitution is not limited to women. The Iranian media often report on male prostitutes and the rent boys patronised by well-to-do ladies. A report in Mardomsalari said three young flatmates, all of whom work as accountants, supplement their salary by sleeping with wealthy older women. They insist they are not prostitutes because they aren’t female.
Prostitution exists in most societies and Iran is no exception. What is exceptional in the Iranian case is the authorities’ double standard in dealing with it. The regime ignores the prostitution epidemic, its causes and its effects on society. This is, of course, much worse than the regulated prostitution of the pre-revolutionary era. Brave sections of Iranian society are bringing the issue to public attention but it doesn’t seem likely the regime will demonstrate similar courage and devise rational policies to deal with the situation.