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Iran: Prize-Winning Documentary Exposes Hidden Side Of Society

Iranian-born director Nahid Persson earned high honors at the recent Creteil International Women's Films Festival for her chronicle of two young women on the streets of Tehran. "Prostitution Behind the Veil" follows the lives of two young friends -- Minna and Fariba -- who have turned to prostitution to make a living. Persson's film was awarded the festival's jury prize and the audience prize for best documentary. RFE/RL spoke with Persson about the film and how it is being received.

Prague, 25 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nahid Persson spent more than a year filming the daily lives of the film's two young mothers, who are raising their children alone and supporting heroin addictions through prostitution.

Persson, who left Iran for Sweden two decades ago, says she met and befriended Fariba and Minna while filming a fortune-teller in Tehran about two years ago. She says the women were happy that someone was interested in their plight.

Once filming began, Persson says she was herself at risk filming in Iran -- where prostitution is illegal and adulterers can face the death penalty.

"We had a natural relation. We trusted each other," Persson says. "They even asked me on several occasions to go with them when they were going to meet some of their regular customers, because they were from some police station. But I didn't do it out of the fear that I had to film someone who wears the uniform of a pasdar [Iran's Revolutionary Guard]. And it was also better for them that I didn't do it."

She says most of Fariba and Minna's customers complied with Islamic law through temporary marriages of convenience called "sighehs."

Fariba and Minna are close friends who provide each other with support. Persson describes their lives: "Their life was about finding clients and getting money so that they could buy an egg or some food for their children. And because of their addiction, they had to buy heroin. They didn't have a normal life. When one becomes addicted to drugs, one forgets about [real] life."

Drug addiction is a major problem in Iran, especially among young men. But the number of female drug users is said to be growing.
Iranian newspapers estimate that there are currently about 300,000 women working the streets. Many are runaways who have fled abusive families. Others sell their bodies out of simple poverty.

Persson says both women acquired their heroin addictions through drug-addicted husbands.

"Fariba had a terrible kidney pain, [and] once her husband told her, 'Smoke some of this, you'll be fine.' She didn't know that it is very dangerous. She thought she would smoke it once, feel better, and that would be it," Persson says. "But when she smokes the first [time], she sees that the pain goes away. And every time she suffered kidney pain, she would smoke. And it went on like this until one day her husband sends her into the street and tells her, 'Go bring clients.'"

Minna's story is a similar one. After her husband was jailed on drug-related charges, she found herself and her infant child on the street. That's where she met her first customer.

Persson says both women turned to prostitution out of distress and desperation: "They don't get any social support. Both of them really had no choice -- like thousands of other women. Fariba told me how the first time had been terrible for her, and she didn't want to do it but she had to."

To the dismay of authorities in Iran's Islamic republic, the number of prostitutes has grown in recent years. Iranian newspapers estimate that there are currently about 300,000 women working the streets. Many are runaways who have fled abusive families. Others sell their bodies out of simple poverty.

Iranian authorities have warned that without adequate support and an improvement in living conditions, the ranks of those who are officially labeled "street women" could increase.

"Prostitution Behind the Veil" has won a number of European awards. The director says she is especially proud of the most recent, the audience prize from a French women's films festival at Creteil.

Persson says many of those who have seen her documentary have praised her for showing a hidden side of Iranian society.

"People had a great reaction," Persson says. "But at all the screenings so far, people always ask me, 'Why have you put shame on Iran? We also have women who are doctors, women [who have achieved something].' And I say everywhere that, 'I know, we have many women activists, but even those women fighters are under pressure.' This film is not about whether Iran is a poor country or a rich one; it's not about that issue. The documentary is about what people have been through during the last 25 years."

"Prostitution Behind the Veil" will next compete at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.