Unveiled Threats

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

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.

February 1999—Through a fellow journalist, I found a nurse in Tehran who performed illicit abortions. She worked in a hospital by day but had developed a source of extra income by offering these off-the-books procedures in her middle-class home. The new Renault sedan she had bought with her wages from moonlighting sat outside.

Illustration by Max Grafe

One afternoon, she allowed me to watch an operation, in which I posed as her assistant. The patient entered the house, where dirty dishes piled up in the sink and the smell of old cooking oil filled the rooms. "Did you shave?" the nurse asked. The young woman said no, she had only trimmed her pubic hair. So the nurse sent her to rush through the job in the bathroom, with only an old razor and common soap.

When she came out again, the nurse ordered her into the bedroom, where the patient stripped and lay on the examination table, her face white with fear. She opened her legs and dug her nails into the hands of a friend who had come with her. The nurse gave her an injection of anesthetic, placed a plastic bucket under her pelvis, and began her work. The girl's face and body twisted with a deathly pain. She screamed for her mother. The nurse suddenly stopped. She called the girl a slut and told her to shut up. "If you scream," she said, "I will leave you just the way you are."

Her friend squeezed a piece of cloth into the girl's mouth. Instantly, the white cloth turned red as she bit her lips from the pain. Blood oozed from between her legs and dripped into the plastic bucket as the nurse twisted the metal forceps. When it was over, the girl stood up with the help of her companion. Dazed, she shuffled from the room.

October 1999—For 76 days, my interrogator in Tohid pressed me about my research, and for 76 days I withheld all I knew. He would send me back to my cell with four or five hours of "homework"—filling out form after form about every aspect of my life, past and present. They wanted to know how many boyfriends I'd had and what we had done together, how religious my parents were, whether I had ever drunk alcohol, what I believed about God. On top of each page, written in bold black ink, was this warning: "Your only chance is to be truthful."

I took it. I played the part of the penitent, answering always that I was very sorry for my actions. Day after day, my inquisitors pressed me with the importance of being a good Muslim, until I began to think maybe this was all my fault. Five times a day, exactly at the prescribed times, I prayed fervently for Allah to help me. My jailers told me this was a good experience for me, to have this little preview of judgment day.

Three times, I was hauled out of the prison to appear before a judge. He asked whether I wanted a lawyer but advised me things would go easier if I said no. After a while, they almost convinced me I had been wrong to investigate the taboos of Iran, wrong to write articles that challenged official ideas.

Finally one day the guards came for me, not to take me for more questioning, but to send me home. They gave me back my old clothes and wallet, then covered my face for the ride home. "Don't touch your blindfold yet," one said. "You will take it off only when I tell you to go! After that you must get out of the car. Above all, don't look back. Got it?"

After grueling months of solitary confinement, I was suddenly free. There I stood, in the middle of the street, somewhere in downtown Tehran, on the first rainy day of the fall, wearing a threadbare chador from head to toe, clutching a plastic bag with my few belongings. Strangely, nobody seemed to notice me. I hailed a cab for home.

My mother never locked the doors of our house. I turned the knob and stepped in. My two-year-old niece looked up from where she was playing on the floor. Her face froze in amazement. Every day the courts had promised my mother I would return, but at last I had really come home. She came from the kitchen, crying and pulling me close. Once I saw myself in the mirror, I could see what a shock my appearance must have been. Those long weeks under the artificial light had turned my skin a pale and pasty color. My eyes were locked in a squint. For the first few days I could barely sleep. I stood in the window and watched for the officers to return.

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