Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Nazila Fathi

To regulate prostitution, Iran ponders brothels

The conservative Iranian newspaper, Afarinesh, recently reported that two government agencies, which were not identified, had proposed legalizing brothels, under the name of "chastity houses" as a way of bringing prostitution under control.

The plan reportedly involved using security forces, the judiciary and religious elders to administer guesthouses where couples would be brought together in a safe and healthy environment. Many politicians, clerics and women's groups denounced the reported proposal, and the government denied the plan was in the works.

The notion of such places is borrowed from the practice of temporary marriage, or sigheh, which is permitted in the Shiite branch of Islam predominating in Iran. Such marriages can last for a few minutes or 99 years, and are especially recommended for widows who need financial support.

Sigheh allows a couple to marry for an agreed-upon period of time by reciting a verse from the Koran. The oral contract does not need to be registered and the verse can be read by anyone. Women normally receive money for entering the contract.

Temporary marriage received public support in the early 1990's, particularly from President Hashemi Rafsanjani, as a way to channel young people's sexual urges under Iran's strict sexual segregation.

Two decades after its Islamic revolution — when prostitution became punishable by lashing — Iran estimates about 300,000 prostitutes work on the streets of Tehran, which has a population of 12 million. According to the Health Ministry, HIV in the past had been transmitted primarily by sharing contaminated needles, but now it is increasingly being spread by sex.

Most stories of prostitutes involve poverty, drug addiction and abusive families. Teenage runaways interviewed this month by Zanan, a feminist magazine, said they considered prostitution a safe haven despite the severe penalties. One said she had twice been given lashings but found them more bearable than the way her addicted father had treated her.

Another said she did not know much about AIDS but would never go to a "chastity house" even if it would guarantee that her partner was healthy.

"How can I trust a government that never cared about women like me?"

Source: CDC HIV/STD/TB Prevention News Update 08/28/02

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Created: August 30, 2002
Last modified: September 9, 2002
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