Tehran’s former police chief Reza Zarei attempted suicide in prison yesterday, a month after being arrested for consorting with six naked women in a brothel. In the aftermath of the scandal, the Times, the Associated Press, and the BBC all reported that prostitutes are becoming more visible on Iranian streets. Given the Islamic dress code, how do Persian prostitutes signal their trade?
Location, location, location. In the 1970s, Bostonians looking for a proverbial good time went to the “Combat Zone” and New Yorkers flocked to 42nd Street; in contemporary Iran, the holy city of Qom is known (unofficially) as a place of “both pilgrimage and pleasure.” There, prostitutes wearing veils and even chadors mill about temples or sit together in public courtyards where men can inspect them. Sometimes a male go-between offers “introductions,” at which point the prostitutes pull aside their headgear so the potential client can get a glimpse, but the whole process is fairly subtle. For an outsider, it’s difficult to pick a street girl out of a crowd.
Qom may have become a prostitution hot spot due to the abundance of shrines. Young female runaways with no shelter come to the city knowing they can take refuge at holy sites by sleeping in rooms intended for pilgrims. They have no way of making a living, so after awhile they get involved with the sex trade. The city’s young theological students and transient tourists form the main clientele.
Of course, Qom isn’t the only place in Iran where prostitutes walk the streets. Back in 2002, the Iranian newspaper Entekhab estimated that there were nearly 85,000 prostitutes in Tehran alone. In that city, and especially in nearby suburbs, there are neighborhoods where heavily made-up prostitutes in traditional garb stand idly at traffic circles. Prospective customers drive by slowly to check out the human wares, then make a deal. The visual difference between an ordinary citizen wearing makeup who happens to be standing alone and an actual prostitute is, again, quite subtle. Apparently, mistakes are not uncommon.
The penalties for prostitution are severe—ranging from whipping to execution. But there’s a loophole in Islamic law called sigheh, or temporary marriage. According to Shiite interpretation, a man and a woman may enter an impermanent partnership with a preset expiration date. There’s no legally required minimum duration (a day, a week, anything goes) and no need for official witnesses—unless the woman is a virgin, in which case she needs the consent of her legal guardian. An Iranian who’s wary of arrest can simply escort a prostitute to a registry, obtain a temporary contract from a Muslim cleric, and then legally satisfy his sexual needs.
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Explainer thanks Camelia Entekhabi-Fard and Barbara Slavin. Thanks also to reader Alice Clapman for asking the question.