Unveiled Threats

She Found Prostitution Among Iran’s Holy Men. They Found a Way to Put Her in Jail.

There was only one thing the interrogator wanted to know. I could tell, because he asked me again and again, "What were you doing in Qom?"

"I don't care where you go," I told my captors as we rode through the city. "Just please don't kill me."
Illustration by Max Grafe

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."

« Previous Page
Next Page »