Unveiled Threats


At the close of 2000, some 81 journalists sat in jails around the world, confined for the crime of pursuing the truth. Killings of reporters have declined, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, but governments still find ways to suppress free speech. Last year in Iran, Muslim rulers continued their campaign to uproot a blossoming reformist press, banning more than 30 publications and putting reporters on trial. This is the story of one writer, imprisoned there in 1999 and now building a new life in New York.

July 1999—All summer I sat motionless on the cold floor of my cell, gazing at the small latticed window on the ceiling. On a good day, I could hear traffic from the streets of downtown Tehran. On a bad one, I heard only jail guards opening and slamming barred doors, or my fellow inmates weeping and crying out to God. My new home was a six-foot by three-foot room, empty of any amenities. I slept on a moket—a hard, thin mat—or tried to. Even at night, a harsh light glowed overhead.

I had been brought to Tohid, the infamous holding pen for political prisoners in Iran, by officials from the Ministry of Intelligence. They’d knocked on the door of my family’s house shortly after dawn on June 24, 1999. My mother had been preparing for morning prayer; when she asked who was there, the agents explained they had a letter for me. But it was no ordinary piece of mail. A judge from the Islamic Revolutionary Courts had authorized the ministry to search my home and incarcerate me for interrogation. They ordered us to sit on the couch and keep quiet while they went through our belongings: our clothes, our papers, our photo albums.

Then they put me in the back of the car and blindfolded me for what I would later learn was a drive to Tohid. Dressed only in my nightclothes and an overcoat, I had become the latest journalist arrested in the crackdown on free speech and dissent. Ever since the 1997 election of the reform-minded president Mohammad Khatami, the press has been at the epicenter of a fierce battle between Iran’s elected leader and its Islamic judiciary. During his first campaign, Khatami had pledged to restore the rule of law and civil society, but only after taking the helm in his hand did he realize the real power lay elsewhere, with the courts. With few political allies, he had only one institution to turn to for support: the fourth estate, which gave the president a chance to air his views.

The backlash from the judiciary was swift and intense. Even now, as Khatami campaigns for reelection, the judiciary continues to arrest journalists and shut down newspapers to stop the president’s efforts at reform. As recently as January, a journalist named Akbar Ganji was sentenced to 10 years in prison, to be followed by five years of exile from Tehran. The next month, an incarcerated reform journalist named Ahmad Zeydabadi began a hunger strike to protest jail conditions, and several more were arrested and put on trial. In March, The Washington Post reported that two journalists, including a Reuters bureau chief, fled the country after being warned they had committed a crime by interviewing the jailed Ganji.

Almost three months before my arrest, the courts had closed my feminist daily, Zan, which was edited by Faezeh Hashemi-Rafsan Jani, the daughter of a former president. Each week, more newspapers were shuttered and more outspoken reporters and editors charged with crimes like treason, or simply held for months without formal accusations or hope for a trial. Tension was building throughout the country, and we all had reason to fear the worst. “I don’t care where you go,” I told my captors as we rode through the city. “Just please don’t kill me.”

A half hour later, still blindfolded, I was led by a guard through winding hallways. I counted each security door as we were buzzed in, 12 in all. Once inside the women’s unit, they uncovered my face and gave me a hideous vinyl chador covered with pink flowers and a matching pair of plastic sandals. I didn’t have to wait long for my inquisition to begin.

“Get ready for interrogation,” said a female voice outside the door. I rose to fix my chador so that it covered my face and my neck. Then the warden again placed the blindfold over my eyes and pulled it tight. I was afraid she would take me to the basement, where I knew prisoners were sometimes tortured into giving confessions. My head was full of stories of people who were whipped, or chained to walls, or threatened with drowning. I tried to seem tough, throwing my head back with pride as we walked, but inside I was terrified. Fear sifted through my body, through every sinew and every vein. For the first time in my life, I felt completely vulnerable.

During the hundreds of hours I was interrogated, I never saw the face of my questioner, because my eyes were covered. But I made sure, right away, that he knew I had no business here. I had worked as a reporter for seven and a half years, mostly for reformist publications. At the time of my arrest, I was awaiting a return trip to New York, where I was scheduled to take an entrance exam for Columbia University. At this, he laughed. “Honey, you should forget about your exams,” he said, implying years could pass before I was free again.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

I had come home, but I could not stay. Though the authorities would soon close Tohid, the threat to journalists and political dissidents continued. I had to go back to New York. I booked a flight for the end of December and promised my mother I would soon return. “Not to Tehran,” she said.

And she was right, at least partly. For though I have been able to visit briefly, I cannot remain there. Reporters like me have no work there anymore, and the specter of being thrown in jail hangs over us always. If I angered the government again, they could simply reopen my case, and with it, my nightmare. Instead, we hope that the reforms put forward by President Khatami will take hold, allowing Iran’s civil society to blossom again.

For now, though, I and others like me remain a footnote. In a report by the Iranian Islamic Human Rights Commission, my arrest appeared as a two-sentence statement, reporting that I, a journalist, had been jailed as a result of a misunderstanding.

Related links:

Zan: Iranian women’s Web site (in English).

Committee to Protect Journalists: Iran country report 2000.

Free Iran Press: Campaign for press freedom in Iran.

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