Unveiled Threats

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

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."

On top of each page, written in bold black ink, was this warning: "Your only chance is to be truthful."
Illustration by Max Grafe

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 take 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.

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