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Trafficking and Prostitution in Iran
Youths a Thorn in Iran's Chaste Side
New York Times
November 5, 2000
— One afternoon, Fahimeh Eskandari opened the front metal gate of the
shelter she runs for runaway girls in central Tehran and was confronted
by two men armed with knives and rifles. They had driven from Sanandaj
in the northwest corner of Iran, hundreds of miles away, and demanded to
see their 16- year-old niece, Ranach. She had shamed the family by
leaving home a few days before. They had come to behead her.
Eskandari alerted the armed guard on duty. She barred the door and
called the police for reinforcements. The uncles fled when they realized
the police were on the way. Ranach stayed safe inside, still nursing the
bruises from the beatings she had suffered at her uncles' hands.
are no official statistics on just how many young people run away from
home in Iran, although a recent article in a daily paper here estimated
that the police round up 90 male and female runaways every day and that
young runaways who have fallen victim to criminal groups in Tehran have
been raped and killed. Proof that runaways exist is found in Iran's
railroad and bus stations and public parks. There, runaway boys and
girls stand as embarrassing testimony to the failure of the 21-year-old
Islamic revolution to produce a new generation of obedient, chaste
"warriors for Islam," untainted by the corrupting influences
of the West.
years, Iran chose to ignore the problem of its runaway youths. After
all, Iran's culture dictates that family problems be kept within the
confines of the home. But as more and more children have taken to the
streets — and fallen prey to prostitution, crime and addiction to
cheap and plentiful heroin — the government has had no choice but to
addiction, poverty and the bizarre demands of parents are the main
causes of runaways," said Ms. Eskandari, the 30-year-old manager of
Reyhaneh House, as the shelter is called, over tea and cookies.
"There are parents who force their children to steal money for
their heroin addiction. There are parents who brutally beat their
children. And there is no law in this country to protect the
shelter is the only one of its kind in Iran. Financed a year ago by the
city of Tehran, it is intended as a resting place until the girls can
return to their families. The shelter is still struggling to figure out
what to do when a family reconciliation is out of the question. Parental
rights are strong in Iran, adoption is rare and foster care unheard of.
shelter is a safe place, but it is not a come-and-go-as-you-please sort
of place. The small staff, all women, take turns sleeping in the shelter
at night, and some girls have even run away from the shelter.
city has established offices for psychologists and social workers in
public places — even at the vast shrine built in honor of Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini — to search for girls who seem to have no place to
go. If they are prostitutes, drug addicts or going bareheaded,
pretending to be boys, they are turned over to the police and arrested;
if they are runaways, they are delivered to the shelter's doorstep.
don't want to leave them on the streets because they'll end up as
prostitutes and then will never again be able to enter society,"
Ms. Eskandari said. "We are making a long- term investment for
these girls, who will someday be mothers."
24 girls, ages 12 to 17, currently living in the shelter learn basic
language and math skills. They learn a range of crafts: sewing, flower
arranging, painting, candle-making. They write poetry. They have a
television, newspapers and a radio.
with many public institutions in Iran, the shelter is exceptionally
clean and bright. The girls sleep in bunk beds, five to a room. Their
hearty lunch is better than that served at many restaurants: chicken
kebab, mountains of buttered rice, grilled tomatoes and yogurt.
are plans to relocate the shelter eventually, to a bigger space with a
large garden and a swimming pool. But then, fewer girls might want to
place has already become a showpiece, and when an American woman, one of
its first foreign visitors, dropped in one day, a dozen girls gathered
in a circle on the carpeted floor of a large meeting room to chat. Only
one refused to join in.
stories came spilling out, some jumbled, others perhaps exaggerated, and
they documented some of the social ills that plague today's Iran:
divorce, parental abandonment, addiction, child abuse, unemployment,
poverty, premarital sex.
12 girls said they had been beaten at home. Most said they had taken
public buses from their hometowns to Tehran and been nabbed by the
police when they arrived at the city's main bus station.
16-year-old named Madieyeh told a story of a heroin-addicted father who
abandoned the family, though his wife was mentally ill and unemployed.
"I was getting beaten so badly at home that I was always bruised,
and my teachers could tell I was beaten," Madieyeh said. "I
will never go back, never. I want to stay here to study, to learn how to
play music. I want to join a rock band."
Ameneh smiled broadly as she told an unhappy story of a father who went
to prison and then disappeared, and a mother who secretly married
another man. Ameneh's uncle took custody of her. "He beat me so
much that the police came and forced him to sign a paper promising to
never beat me again," Ameneh said. "But he still beat me,
until I bled, using whatever he could find to do it — a belt, a
been here three months, and no one's asked about me," she said.
"No one's come looking for me."
most mature of the group was Habibeh, a 16-year-old from Qum with the
look of someone much older. She told her story flatly. "My mother
died nine years ago," she said. "My father couldn't cope. He
didn't let us go to school. He beat us. Then he married two other women,
and they beat us, too. I saw my friends' lives, and they had parents who
loved them. That's all I ever wanted. When I found out about this place
on television, I ran away."
Habibeh looked and acted so mature, Mozhgan Shiravi, the deputy
director, who holds a master's degree in psychology, found her a
husband, a 21-year-old Revolutionary Guard. But Habibeh refused.
said I should marry him, but I didn't love him," Habibeh said.
"He was very religious. He told me I'd have to wear the black
chador in public. I told him, `I don't want to get married — ever.'
Why should I get married? Look at my parents."
young woman interrupted: "Why don't you want to get married? Maybe
you can find a rich husband."
Habibeh insisted, "No, I want to study, to go to university."
she changed the subject. "Do you know Michael Jackson?" she
asked the American visitor. "I love Michael Jackson. And I love
President Clinton. I heard he was beaten when he was a child."
the girl whose uncles wanted to behead her, turned the subject to
another political leader, the man who was the stern father of Iran's
revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini. Do you like Ayatollah Khomeini? she
asked the visitor.
visitor fudged. "I hate him," Ranach said.
16-year-old girl with long curls named Akram set herself apart from the
rest. She laughed at the younger ones and suggested that she would not
be staying long at the shelter. "I have many friends who are
boys," she said. "I am used to boys. I have never paid in my
life for a ride — to anywhere I want to go."
the conversation shifted to the touchy topic of virginity. "There
are things we care about in our culture that are not so important in
other cultures," Ms. Eskandari explained. "In other cultures,
it's O.K. for girls to have sexual relations. Our culture is derived
from our Iranian identity. And that dictates that a woman should be
surrounded by a wall, and her space should not be invaded. In our
culture, after one relationship, the girl can be disowned by her family
or banished by society."
this right? she was asked.
smiled and paused before she whispered, "No."
had lots of cases where girls as young as 14 or 15 have lost their
virginity. If they tell me about their sexual experiences, I try not to
look surprised. I try to convince my girls that one sexual experience
isn't a sin, that one sexual experience doesn't mean their life is
over." Ms. Shiravi then told the story of Fatimeh, an 18-year-old
who had had a sexual relationship. "We got involved and they got
married," Ms. Shiravi said of Fatimeh and her boyfriend. "She
said she didn't have any family, and we said we would be her family. We
rented them an apartment. Now, she's pregnant."
the girls had finished their stories, Ms. Eskandari suggested that some
might have been exaggerated. "Yes, sometimes the girls lie,"
she said. "They've protected themselves all their lives by lying.
But no matter what, they're all tortured children. I always tell them,
`If I had been raised in the same conditions, I wouldn't be any better.'
are the smart ones, the strong ones. The weak ones, they don't run