Donna M. Hughes Homepage   ||  References on Trafficking and Prostitution in Iran

She Found Prostitution Among Iran's Holy Men

They Found a Way to Put Her in Jail.

Week of March 28 - April 3, 2001
Unveiled Threats
by Camelia E. Fard

The Village Voice

... June 1999 - My guide  motioned to the driver to stop so I could step out and adjust my black chador. We had traveled an hour from Tehran and were now near the tollbooth where visitors pay an entrance fee. Before us, a sign read: "Welcome to the City of Blood and Uprising."

Minutes later, we were inside the Vatican of the world's 100 million Shiite Muslims, the home of the seminary where mullahs and government leaders are trained. We were inside the holy city of Qom, a place foreigners and researchers rarely go.

Wrapped in their black chadors, women-or "the hidden attractions of Qom" as they are sometimes called-milled among the crowd. They were nondescript, with nothing to set them apart from the flow of students, teachers, and bureaucrats. Yet these were no average women. They had come to agree to a sigheh, a temporary marriage, to lie beside a Muslim man for a few miserable minutes and earn the pittance that sustained their wretched lives. It is for this little-known dimension that Qom is known as a place of "both pilgrimage and pleasure." It's also why clerics and political figures don't welcome reporters here.

 The use of prostitutes among Islamic leaders remained something of an open secret until last month, when President Khatami shut down a ring of runaway girls pimped by a mullah who served as head of the local court.

 Long before Khatami stepped in, I had come to Qom, hoping to finish six months of reporting about the conditions faced by women here. This article had become so important to me that I couldn't just set it aside.

I would learn these women's stories, and with the help of my former editor, I would find a newspaper or magazine that would tell the world about their plight.

 My work soon took me to the Sheikhan cemetery, in the courtyard of an ancient mosque in the city center. The burial ground is not far from the resting place of Massoumeh, a female Shiite saint whose shrine draws a sea of pilgrims to the city every year. There, the women sat silent and motionless on the dirt graves, the black chadors that covered even their faces and hands the only indication that these pitiful heaps of humanity were women.

 From the four corners of the courtyard, clusters of young seminary students, clad in the traditional turbans, robes, and capes worn by mullahs, teemed into the courtyard, some smiling as though about to embark on a trip, others looking at the women to see who was new and who had been there many times before. Some surveyed the pictures of the martyrs from the 1980-88 war with Iraq that adorned the walls, but most surveyed the human wares. A thin young boy, watering can in hand, washed the floor of the courtyard all day, looking for a customer who would want his services for an introduction to one of the women.

I didn't need his help. I approached them myself. When one pulled her chador aside, I could see she was a young woman in her mid thirties, hair streaked with cheap blond dye, a brightly colored blouse cinched tight to reveal her cleavage, and a mess of garish makeup giving away her poor, rural background. Another was hardly more than 20. When the women uncovered their faces, the murmurs of the young men hovering around us intensified. Their lips recited holy blessings, but their eyes surveyed the bare faces and necks of the women. In fundamentalist Islam, a man who intends to marry-even if only for a day-is allowed a single glimpse of the woman's face to make his choice. These brief unveilings would be their only chance.

 My presence among the women had disturbed the otherwise tranquil business. I asked the woman with heavy makeup to step outside the cemetery with me, but I was worried the men would get suspicious. Mehri fixed the seminary students circling around her with a look of anger and contempt. "I don't care," she said, almost spitting. "I hate these kids."

 Safely outside the courtyard, she told me how she ended up selling herself in temporary marriages. She had been married to a truck driver who died in an accident a few years ago, leaving her with seven small children and a teenage daughter who had a baby girl of her own. Mehri said she also weaves carpets, but the money is never enough, so three times a week she takes an hour-long bus ride here. While she talked to me, she looked my driver and guide up and down, considering whether they might be in the market.

Need, sadness, and regret filled her eyes. The pungency of soaking sweat, from hours of waiting under the hot sun, surrounded her. In the busy months of summer, when men travel to Qom from other cities for prayer and fun, Mehri might take a temporary husband three times a day. "Locals don't pay much," she said. "Outsiders are better customers."

And where are these marriages consummated? "If they have a home, they take me there," she said. "If they don't, it's to the New Cemetery." A cloud of dust and wind churns through the ancient, forgotten New Cemetery, several kilometers from Qom. No one comes to this remote, silent cemetery to visit the dead. The only visitors are women with temporary "husbands" in tow.

 The women come furtively, believing this life is still more honorable than begging in the streets. They make what passes for a living, fulfilling their own monetary needs and those of their children and other loved ones, away from the prying eyes of neighbors. None believes in selling her body, and unlike prostitutes in other parts of the world who try to attract customers by baring more of themselves, these women clutch their chadors more and more tightly from shame and humiliation. At least in the cemetery, they feel secure. "The home of the dead is a safe place to be," they say.

For a few minutes, until the man is finished and they have their money, they lay their bodies next to the client on an old wooden bed covered with a thin mattress. Here, inside the dusty, cobwebbed tombs, they receive between 20,000 and 40,000 rials-a little less than a week's rent of a cheap house-for the consummation of a temporary marriage.

Originally intended to provide legitimacy to what would otherwise be illicit affairs, the practice of temporary marriage has become a threadbare cover for prostitution and an under-the-table means of social welfare for poor women. The participants no longer follow the rules, which call for a mullah to read a particular blessing. The man just calls, and the woman comes to him. The "brides" are supposed to remain celibate for three and a half months after each divorce to ensure they aren't pregnant, but many flout the statutes. They have no choice. They need the money for survival.

 Not surprisingly, they have few options for preventing pregnancy or disease. According to official health ministry statistics in Iran, each year some 90,000 women apply for abortions at hospitals, and every day 221 abortions take place. Though no one claims these abortions stem directly from temporary marriages, health ministry insiders suggest prostitution may be to blame. Shahrbanoo Amani of Tehran, a member of the Iranian parliament, told reporters last year that "because temporary marriage is by definition temporary and is not a permanent agreement, usually men in this marriage do not like that a child is born. And in a case of unwanted pregnancy, the first victim is the woman, and the second, the child."

 Children born of temporary marriages face difficulties in getting the identification papers needed for school and work. Without these papers, they are shut off from family inheritance and from government assistance normally available to poor or orphaned kids. The shame follows them all their lives. Women who engage in temporary marriages can find themselves locked out of chances to get better-paying jobs and shunned by their families. For them, the name of the brief marriages-sigheh-becomes an insult.

The stigma hasn't stopped younger girls from turning to prostitution. When teenagers run away, this is often their only means of making money.

Latest estimates suggest some 40 percent of prostitutes who work the street have no permanent home, but live in brothels and sleep in shrines, like the one dedicated to Ayatollah Khomeini. The girls of this new generation have cast aside the flimsy pretense of temporary marriage in favor of a direct cash-for-sex  transaction. A guard in Qom tells me that girls of all ages and types come and go in groups. Some sleep in the rooms reserved for pilgrims. "We report some to the police," the guard says, "but we cannot control them all."

He says they take buses to the city-girls who have fled their homes to escape poverty or the fear of dishonor that comes with having lost their virginity. They fear the wrath of their fathers and brothers, but end up in worse shape on the streets. "In the big cities," he says, "nothing awaits them but despair."

 I coax Fatima, a 16-year-old girl standing in a corner, into talking. Her heavy lipstick fits neither her young age nor the conservative fashions of this religious city. She motions to her friends to wait for her at the stairs. In the rude language of a teenager, she tells me that her stepmother used to beat her and make her watch her three siblings. She had to do the housework and wasn't allowed to attend school. "They wanted to marry me to a 60-year-old man," she says.

 Fatima knew no one in Qom when she arrived. Now she was under the care of a woman named Ezzat, a madam in charge of several others girls. Ezzat gave them a home and some protection from the dangers of the street.

 These teenage sex workers present a problem for Iran's law enforcement.

They're too young for prison, and they're no longer good candidates for marriage. Their families are reluctant to tak them back in. As soon as a girl is released from jail, other madams and customers put her back into business. Sometimes when police arrest an underage prostitute, they send her to a place like the Rehabilitation Center for Girls in Tehran-if there's room. The flow of runaway girls never stops, because the cause of the trouble, Iran's patriarchal society, is so difficult to fix. So the girls provide a bit of private fun for the rich men of Tehran, and buy themselves a lifetime of misery.

 As more girls drift from the suburb of Qom to the city in search of customers, says Tehran official Hojatol-Islam Mohammad Ali Zam, the average age of prostitutes has dropped from 27 to 20. The girls bring with them the full range of social and medical problems, including a need for abortion. Since most can't pay for proper services, they end up risking their health on back-alley operations.