Sex workers in Iran

The Regime’s Denial Means They Have Little Access to Support
Certificates of temporary marriage (Sigheh or Nikah mut'ah) filed in a registry office run by a clergyman in Tehran, October 2000. (Getty)

Prostitution and extramarital sex are on the rise in the Islamic Republic of Iran. However, in their effort to whitewash their country through the lens of religious-social perspective, Iranian officials deny the existence of sex workers and do not pay any attention to such group of people.  There are no accurate statistics even, of women who are involved in this activity in the country.

Statistics released by non-governmental organizations indicates that the minimum age of sex workers has recently decreased from 20-30 years to around 18 -13 years in 2011, and to as young as 12 years in 2016.

Farahnaz Salimi, head of Aaftaab Society, an NGO which focuses on combating addiction and the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts, said once in 2016, “The age of sex workers has decreased to 12 years, and there are nearly 10,000 women involved in this work in the province of Tehran and  35% of them are married.”

Three years later, Dr. Amir Mahmoud Harirchi,

an associate professor at the Tehran University of Social Welfare and Rehabilitation Sciences, said that “Twenty thousand women work in prostitution.”

CRUSHING ECONOMIC CRISIS PUSHING PROSTITUTION

An increasing number of women below poverty line was forced to work in prostitution due to the crushing economic crisis, gender discrimination and lack of adequate job opportunities in Iran.

Majalla spoke to M. Y. who is a Tehran-based social counselor. She preferred to use her initials as she offers consulting services and assistance to some sex workers.

“Studies which I conducted with my colleagues in a number of NGOs have revealed that anal sex and group sex, which involves one woman and a group of men, are increasing in Iran. Sex workers who are engaged in such practices received higher pay. As a part of my job, I talk with these women. One of them told me she was once with a group of men, but they beat her afterwards and she received no money. Of course, she couldn’t file a complaint against them because her activity is considered illegal.”

The social worker told Majalla that there are rising number of sex workers who are married. “A large number of married women work in prostitution due to poverty and difficult living conditions. During my work with some married sex workers, they told me their husbands approved of their work. One of them told me her husband knows about her work, but he doesn’t comment, because of their deteriorating economic problems and their inability to secure livelihood,” she said.

M. Y. added, “Prostitution is not limited to poor women, as there are some examples who simply want more money via this means. I know two nurses who are working and receiving good pay but want to expand their financial resources. I asked one of them once, why is she doing this, weakening her body and risking contracting serious diseases? She answered: How much do you get paid?! After just 8 months as a sex worker I could buy a SUV!”

The social counselor added that there are no statistics about the number of female sex workers in Iran, but “if you go out one night and wander the streets of Tehran in areas such as Stari Highway and Kaj Square, or the streets north of Tehran, you can clearly see the sex workers who are looking for customers. I saw a lot of them discussing the price with customers,” she said.

GIVING OFFICIAL COVER THROUGH TEMPORARY MARRIAGE

After the revolution in 1979, the Shiite clerics, headed by Former Supreme Leader of Iran, Ruhollah Khomeini, executed a number of female sex workers, closed brothels and replaced them with the so-called temporary marriage contracts, claiming that it is the Sunnah of the Prophet.

But what the Shiite clerics really did in Iran was to give a legal and official cover to prostitution as sexual services have been provided in the form of temporary marriage contracts for decades in religious cities such as Mashhad, northeastern Iran and Qom, south of Tehran.

This is confirmed by Masoud Faridi, former Director General of the Injured Department of the Welfare Organization of Iran in June 2012.

He said that “the cities of Mashhad and Tehran are hosting the largest number of sex workers in the country."

In October 2017, many videos and reports were circulated about the widespread availability of sex tourism for Iraqi visitors in the city of Mashhad, and this prompted Iranian Interior Ministry officials to deny the reports, demanding strict judicial dealing with the publishers of reports and videos.

Part of the "legal" sexual services in Iran was converted to the virtual space, which is done online.

"Many websites provide temporary marriage contract services," M.Y said. The cleric receives part of the money as his wages, to complete the temporary marriage contract.

The clerics enjoy complete freedom to complete temporary marriage contracts, because they claim it is "Islamic" and "conforms to Sharia", but what they do is "brokerage".

One can find many homes for temporary marriage in the Nawab neighborhood and other neighborhoods in Tehran today. Clients give a cleric a sum of money for sexual services, and then the cleric gives a fraction of that amount to the sex worker.

SEXUAL DISEASE OUTBREAKS

The spread of the coronavirus and lockdown measures have dealt a severe blow to the economies of countries and that includes the business in sex and prostitution.

Prostitution is considered a legal practice in a number of countries of the world, such as the Netherlands and Japan and sex workers in these countries have been provided with economic stimulus and support packages during the coronavirus period. In Iran, sex workers are invisible because of the regime’s denial and highly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. This is regardless of the fact that sex workers were among the groups most at risk even before the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

"I used to work for a non-governmental organization that provides counseling services to sex workers," M.Z said.

“I started working in this field by cooperating with the organizers of the AIDS Patients Support Program of the Center for AIDS Studies in Iran in 2015. The aim of the program was to carry out tests for hepatitis and AIDS for street women and “cardboard” dwellers (homeless people).”

The program has been stopped 3 years after its launch under the pretext of promoting unethical practices.

She added: “We were implementing the program by running buses that stopped one day or two days a week in one of the poor and deprived neighborhoods in Tehran. The buses carried a number of experts and social counselors, and sex workers were identified in each of the neighborhoods.”

“Attempts and discussions were also being made to persuade them to get tested for AIDS, hepatitis and cervical cancer. These buses were operating from the afternoon until dawn the next day. The results of the examinations for a large number of them were positive.

“At that time, we encouraged them to visit specialized medical clinics and talk with them about ways to prevent transmission and provided them with condoms for free, but the number of those who accepted this was very few and argued that customers did not like to have sex using a condom,” she said.

M. D, a doctor working in a clinic for behavioral disorders in southern Tehran, who did not want to publish her name, said in an interview with Majalla that genital herpes and genital warts are among the most common types of sexually transmitted diseases and are widespread in Iran.

She said: "The Genital herpes virus and genital warts virus have become the most common sexually transmitted disease in Iran for all age groups, especially secondary school girls, as the human papillomavirus that causes warts remains in the body and is transmitted mainly through skin contact, high-risk sexual practices and multiple sexual partners."

In December 2017, in statements about studies conducted by the Ministry of Health on the "most vulnerable" women, Dr. Parvin Afsar Kazerouni, CDC Manager of Fars Health Province, warned of the increasing rise in HPV (Human papillomavirus) cases.

He said, “Evidence, results of investigations and reports received from medical sources of sexually transmitted diseases indicate an increase in cases of gonorrhea, genital herpes and genital warts.”

Kazerouni's statements were preceded by another warning that came from Mostafa Eghlima, the head of Academic Association of Social Workers in Iran (2013), regarding the rapid spread of genital warts in Iran, saying: “The number of infections has reached about one million people so far, and there is no effective treatment for the virus.”

"The age of engaging in risky sexual behaviors has decreased due to the spread of precocious puberty, and risky sexual behaviors are gaining in popularity among adolescents who are resorting to sex," M. A said.  “Also, discussing issues and sexual education is taboo in schools and the media, and no sexual education takes place,” she added.

She also said, “When I and a number of my colleagues visited a girls’ high school in western Tehran last year, many of the students were inquiring about genital warts. Unfortunately, the students do not know that anal sex leads to an increase in the risk of AIDS, and thus many high school students practice anal intercourse to preserve the hymen, which may increase the likelihood of contracting AIDS.”

"Sexual intercourse outside of marriage is the most common cause of HIV infection in Iran," she said. In addition, many married couples have sex with AIDS-infected sex workers in brothels, thus contracting the disease. Then, when these people have sexual intercourses with their wife, they transmit the infection to them,” she added.

Dr. Masoud Mardani, Secretary of National Congress of HIV/AIDS in Tehran said in statements to the Student News Agency in November 2018 that the cases of HIV infection exceeded 66,000 people in Iran, adding: “More than a third of those infected do not know about their disease and if they know about it, they are hiding the truth about it.”

Iranian officials say the country is currently going through the third wave of HIV outbreak through sexual practices, and that street women and sex workers are most afflicted by the virus.

In June 2018, AIDS and Infectious disease specialist Minoo Mohraz referred to a study of sex workers in a neighborhood in the capital, Tehran, saying that 31 percent of sex workers in that neighborhood had HPV.

M. Z said: “We, as non-governmental organizations, search for street women, homeless women and if they become pregnant, we transfer them to hospitals.”

“Many of them deliver their baby by the roadside or if they are taken to the hospital. They flee the hospital after childbirth fearing arrest for illicit relations with the father of the child, whose identity is unknown or on grounds of the mother abandoning her child while he is in the hospital. There is a high probability that these newborns are infected with HIV.”

"I have faced, many times, the scene of mothers accompanying their teenage daughters in prostitution, and we see that the vicious circle of sex workers’ lives is expanding in the country, "she added.

Most countries of the world support the rights of sex workers within an organizational and institutional framework. However, the Iranian regime does not care about this vulnerable group.

Rather, it faces warnings and statistics issued by non-governmental organizations regarding the increase in women in prostitution and the widespread spread of dangerous sexual practices with outright denial, saying that these reports are not based on reality.