An Iranian Prostitute’s Electronic Plea

Feb 12, 2006 at 09:15 PM
An Iranian Prostitute’s Electronic Plea for Help

Pacific News Service, Behrouz Saba, Commentary

Editor’s Note: In an online diary and radio interview, an Iranian woman selling herself to survive documents her ordeal and the plight of many women in Iran. The student rebellion against Iran’s clerical government, the author writes, could change her fate for the better.

Iranian weblogs (Internet diaries), often playful or profane, have become an effective means for the young to vent their anger against the regime. A weblog called Fahesheh (Farsi for prostitute), on which a woman details her descent into prostitution, may at first seem like a sly “blogger’s” joke. But it is deadly serious, a shocking testament to the increasingly unbearable living conditions inside Iran.The prose of the woman who calls herself Sanaz is casual and intimate. At first reading like soft porn, it progresses into finely observed descriptions of young Iranians’ sexual practices away from the eyes of the morality police. It then evolves into a stark, frightening picture of a growing number of Iranian women who, just to survive, offer sexual favors for money.

On the Internet, millions pose as people they aren’t, but any trace of incredulity vanishes with a click on the link to an audio interview Sanaz gave to the Farsi service of state-owned Radio Sweden.Her voice is soft, articulate, streetwise and infinitely sad. Sometimes fighting back tears, responding to questions skillfully and sensitively posed by an Iranian woman, she encapsulates into a few minutes the story of an Iran where living is all but unaffordable for most people, officials high and low are irredeemably corrupt, heroin is cheap and widely available and even married women sometimes sell themselves to feed their families.

“If you go to a welfare committee as a single woman,” Sanaz says, “they give you 750 (7,500 toomans, about $7.50) a month. With that you can buy two kilos of meat.”

When arrested by the police on prostitution charges, the usual outcome in Iran is a night spent in bed with the arresting officer. “I also had to become a girlfriend of the judge who handled my divorce file,” Sanaz says. She divorced her husband after he became addicted to heroin.

The police, according to Sanaz, also recruit young women for the wealthy and powerful clergy. Her most harrowing tale is of her friend who went through this process and was tortured by her client. “He had a bucket of ice next to the bed — how can one describe it? It’s shameful. They killed so many of our young and now they do these things. One becomes ashamed of being an Iranian. … He gave her 50,000 toomans ($50) … then brandished a gun and said if you don’t take it I’ll shoot you and bury you right here in the garden.”

She ends her interview with a plea, “If you (Iranian women abroad) can end this situation, we will kiss your hands and feet.”

Iranian students who staged a week of demonstrations in June are intent on ending “this situation” from within Iran.

Washington may desire “regime change” in Tehran, but if an Iraq model intervention led to prolonged civil war or hit-and-run guerrilla warfare — precisely what is shaping up in Iraq today — Iran could become another failed state in the region, a breeding ground and home for Al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, young, bright and increasingly emboldened students are planning the downfall of the ayatollahs their own way. If they succeed, they too risk Iran’s future if they choose to retaliate brutally and endlessly against their old rulers. But perhaps the day will come when Sanaz will find an answer to her prayers.

“I have a (high school) diploma,” Sanaz says, “but I understand a great deal. I wish I didn’t.” She needs not to feel this way. The whole world is listening.

A native of Iran, PNS contributor Behrouz Saba ( ) writes widely on Middle Eastern and American social, political and cultural issues

Prostitution in Iran on the Rise

In 1979, the Islamic regime set out to wipe away all the alleged corrupt practices associated with the Western-style regime of the Shah. One area particularly targeted was that of women who engaged in the sex trade. Brothels and red light districts were promptly destroyed and the prostitutes faced either execution or a re-birth as “cleansed” religious fanatics. Some of them even became enforcers of morality in Iran, known as the Zeinab sisters.

However, the seeming “purification” of sexual mores in Iran did not last. With the economy spiraling downwards and many families thrown into abject poverty, especially due to the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that killed so many male breadwinners, prostitution has made a ferocious comeback in Iran. Along with it comes the spread of drug addiction, crime, and AIDS. But the authorities have long refused to deal with the problem, instead putting their heads in the sand.

In December 2002, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, a journalist for the BBC, was deported from Iran because she had taken photographs of prostitutes as part of her report on the country. Lloyd-Roberts reports that government bureaucrats called her with the news on her cell phone, stating: “We are deporting you tomorrow morning because you have taken pictures of prostitutes. This is not a true reflection of life in our Islamic Republic. We don’t have prostitutes.”

This was in total contradiction to an announcement by Gholam-Hussain Kluli Dezfuli, commander of the feared Basij just one month earlier, who stated to an Iranian newspaper that about 24,000 people had been arrested on vice charges over the past six months. He noted that the numbers marked an increase on the same period last year. The definition of vice extends to gambling and alcohol consumption but Commander Dezfuli said that 107 brothels had been raided.

Prostitution in Iran is a social phenomenon that is growing day by day. Prostitutes can be found everywhere, under trees near the popular Laleh hotel in Tehran, boldly climbing into the cars that crawl along the wide avenues. Or at busy interjections in big provincial cities that are frequented by truck drivers transporting goods across the country. The prostitutes range widely in age, some starting as early as 10 and 11. Lloyd-Roberts reports that she interviewed a 19 year old girl who claimed she “started selling sex at 11.” To the British journalist, the 19-year-old girl looked 30.

Aside from economic despair, many young girls are running away from home to escape domestic violence, or simply, because they can’t bear the lack of freedom. They prefer to become prostitutes than face the restrictions. Not all those entering the profession appear to do so out of desperation.
For some young women, chicly clad and carrying mobile phones, it appears to be a form of social protest.

The Iranian movie The Circle, by director Jafar Panahi, illustrated this dichotomy by creating two very different female characters both working as prostitutes in Tehran. In a heart-wrenching scene, the first character, an older woman, her face ravaged by age and poverty, watches in despair from behind a car whether the little daughter she has abandoned on the street will be picked up by the authorities. The mother hopes that her daughter will find food and shelter in a government orphanage since she cannot provide them. Some time later, we are introduced to another character, a young, comely prostitute draped in gold jewelry, wearing a chic attire, who rebelliously talks back to the police man who has arrested her.

In 2001, with the explosive media headlines regarding a serial killer in Mashad who targeted prostitutes there, the government found it increasingly difficult to ignore the problem. In the wake of this scandal, and because of the government’s inability to curb prostitution, for the first time, a meeting was authorized to take place in December 2002 between police, prostitutes and women parliamentarians to discuss the problems of the ‘street women’ — a reference to prostitutes in the Islamic Republic.

A controversial plan was discussed to set up licensed brothels in Iran. The detailed plan for the establishment of what were being coyly referred to as “decency houses” was drawn up by Ashraf Borujerdi, female Deputy for Social Affairs at the Interior Ministry. The aim of the scheme was to arrange and regulate encounters between men and women who want to have sex but who, for one reason or another, are not ready for full marriage.
“Some people believe that talking about such issues is taboo, but they are part of the reality of society, and turning a blind eye will not solve the problem,” Borujerdi said.
Eventually, the plan was rejected by the Ministry’s own Social Council, having run into opposition from religious quarters and women’s groups.

The problem of prostitution in Iran, whether licensed or not, continues to grow, with increasingly dangerous repercussions. One of them is the exportation of Iranian women for the sex trade in Arabic countries of the gulf, Turkey, Russia, and Europe where these women, devoid of resources and at the mercy of their pimps, often face abuse, and murder. Recently, Arabic countries have begun mass deportation of these Iranian prostitutes back to Iran, where they will face imprisonment, physical punishment and worse.Another egregious result of the rising prostitution in Iran is the spread of AIDS. Just a couple of months ago, in May 2003, Agence France Presse reported the arrests of 70 prostitutes, most of them infected with HIV/AIDS, in a major three day-long crackdown in and around Tehran.

Although there are no official numbers regarding the number of prostitutes currently working in Iran, some estimate it to be 200,000 while others believe there are more than one million women who sell their bodies in Tehran alone, which has a population of 10 million. This would mean that 1 in 3 women in Tehran are prostitutes.

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