A new plan by some senior Iranian clerics for solving the country's problem of street prostitution is causing widespread debate. The plan would create so-called "chastity houses" for destitute women where men could marry them for a few hours under Islamic law. Proponents say the plan would "eradicate social corruption" by legitimizing the sexual relations between the men and women. But critics say it could simply push more poor women and runaway girls into becoming prostitutes.
Prague, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Prostitution is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the penalties are severe, ranging from flogging to execution.
But for reasons no one entirely understands, the number of prostitutes on the streets of Iranian cities and towns has grown substantially in recent years, particularly in Tehran and the holy city of Qom, which is a center for pilgrims and domestic tourists.
Prostitutes wear their veils loosely over their heads in a style that passes for risque in this strictly regulated society. With their faces heavily made up, they stand at traffic circles where men driving by can inspect them and make a deal. The women are often young, including many teenagers who have run away from abusive homes.
Based on official figures, there are some 300,000 women who work as prostitutes in Iran. And according to newspapers, the number is steadily rising, despite frequent police crackdowns.
Now, some senior religious figures are suggesting the only way to solve the problem is to bring it under state control. In recent weeks, several prominent conservative clerics have proposed that prostitutes be placed in government-run shelters for destitute women to be called "chastity houses," where male customers could briefly marry them under Islamic law.
Proponents of the idea argue that it would "eradicate social corruption" by legitimizing sexual relations between the men and women. Under the plan, the couples would register for a temporary marriage under Iran's Shiite religious law code. The code allows a man to marry a woman for a mutually agreed time as short as a few hours or as long as a lifetime by reciting a verse from the Koran.
The temporary marriage license would protect the couple from harassment by authorities and, according to some proposals, it would be accompanied by free contraceptives and health advice. Under religious law, a temporary marriage imposes no obligations on a man unless the union produces a child, who must be recognized as legitimate and can claim a share of any inheritance.
One cleric backing the plan, Ayatollah Mohammed Mousavi Bojnurdi, recently told a newspaper: "We face a real challenge with all these women on the street. Our society is in an emergency situation, so the formation of the chastity houses can be an immediate solution to the problem." He added that the plan "is both realistic and conforms to Sharia [Islamic] law."
But if proponents of the idea see it as a solution, critics say it will only push more poor women and runaway girls into becoming prostitutes. The critics include women's groups, liberal parliamentarians, and, as the idea has been widely discussed in the Iranian press, an increasing number of clerics and state officials.
Hojatolislam Mohammed Taghi Fazel-Meibodi, a member of Qom Seminary, recently told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the proposal is religiously legal. But he said it does nothing to solve the problems of the prostitutes themselves or to prevent more women from joining their ranks: "There are several different issues here. According to Sharia, temporary marriage is legitimate and everyone attests to that. But it is not a common [practice] in our society. Our young people are troubled. There is poverty, unemployment, and more and more girls are escaping from their homes. Establishing these chastity houses will come to no good," Fazel-Meibodi said. "In a society where there are sharp differences between rich and poor, rich men will use these poor girls for a quick thrill and to satisfy their impulses and lust. Also, we have so many serious problems right now, what [problems] are they trying to overcome by introducing these houses at this juncture?"
Some proponents of temporary marriage have said that it will help ease social discontent among young men who are forced by the struggling economy to marry later. The socialist-style economy is unable to provide sufficient numbers of new jobs to absorb the large numbers of young men entering the market and is plagued by double-digit inflation and unemployment. As a result, many young men are unable to afford to start families, and the average marrying age has jumped from the early 20s, common two decades ago, to about 30 today.
Women's groups have been particularly outspoken about the idea of "chastity houses." Reuters recently quoted Shahrbanou Amani, a female parliamentarian, as calling them "an insult and disrespectful to women." The Cultural Council for Women, a liberal Islamist women's group, said such houses would be a "deceitful and thinly disguised" form of prostitution.
Shadi Sadr, a female journalist and legal expert, recently told RFE/RL's Persian Service that the proposal to set up chastity houses also envisions them as shelters for women released from prison. She said that could also push the former inmates into prostitution. "At some point in this plan, there is mention of prison and [the exercise] of judicial power. It is, in fact, to house women when they are released from prison so they go to these registries and are issued temporary marriage certificates. And there is a clear endorsement of payment of fees [in these proposals], which are contrary to temporary-marriage laws," Sadr said.
In recent weeks, some officials have said they would not participate in any efforts to establish chastity houses. The newspaper "Tehran Towse'eh" quoted Mahmud Mirlowhi, a deputy interior minister, as saying in late July that his ministry has nothing to do with the proposals. He also said, "The police force is to reject any allegations linking this proposal with the Interior Ministry."
The rise in prostitution has dismayed the ruling clergy, which for decades has blamed morality problems on negative influences from the West, such as satellite television and videos. The Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah for being too pro-Western in 1979 closed all of Iran's brothels, driving prostitution underground.
Rasool Nafisi, a sociologist and dean of general studies at Strayer College in Washington, D.C., told RFE/RL's Persian Service that it is uncertain just what is causing the increase in prostitution now. Some of the reasons, he said, may be the poor economy, a high rate of divorce, and the easy exploitation of girls who flee abusive families but have no way to live independently. "The major factor is the high rate of divorce, which is about 25 percent. The other is runaway girls who leave home for a variety of reasons and become bait for those who lure them into prostitution," Nafisi said.
The runaway girls are usually fleeing home situations where their parents are abusive or are drug addicts or where they are subjected to sexual assaults. Some also are reported to be girls who have been married off at a young age by impoverished parents but face conflicts with older, exploitative husbands. But after they escape to towns and cities, they find they have no employment prospects and end up begging, engaging in petty crime, or working as prostitutes.