Teenage girls who fall prey to Tehran's gangs
By Chris De Bellaigue
The Independent (London)
November 13, 2000
THEY LOITER in Tehran's parks and railway terminals, fodder for the
drug and prostitution gangs that thrive in the seedier parts of the capital.
Some 900 of them have been detained by Tehran police this year alone. Each
day, an average of 45 Iranian girls run away from home, fugitives from
poverty, cruelty and social imprisonment. Too often, the fate that awaits
them is worse than the misery they left behind.
The pattern is well known, especially to police, social workers and
the gangland dons. If they are from small-town Iran, the fugitives often
get on the first train to Tehran. "When these provincial girls reach
the capital," says Dr Shokouh Navabinejad, a psychologist, "it's
a question of who gets to them first - the police or the gangs."
Girls picked up by the police are passed on to state welfare organisations.
Others, tempted by promises of money and legal employment, drift into crime
and the sex trade. Some simply disappear. Of the 30 women raped and killed
in Tehran in the first six months of this year, most are believed to have
Hadiseh is one of the lucky ones. This smiling 15-year-old tried no
fewer than 12 times to run away from the abusive uncle and aunt she lived
with in far -flung Lorestan. Eventually she succeeded and was found by
police in the northern town of Rasht. The police sent her to the capital.
For the past six months, she has been living in Reyhaneh House, Iran's
first home for fugitive girls, in the centre of Tehran. Memories of the
beatings she suffered have faded. "Now," she says with a smile,
"I am happy."
Atena is another whose life has been salvaged at Reyhaneh House. Before
she left home, this 18-year-old lived through an attempted rape byher stepfather.
Hadiseh and Atena have Fahime Eskandari to thank for their sudden good
fortune. Wrapped in a chador, the all-concealing Islamic garb, Ms Eskandari
looks anything but a courageous innovator. But when she set up Reyhaneh
House 18 months ago, this soft- spoken social scientist was striking a
blow at an entrenched tradition.
"It's never been the Iranian way of doing things to allow outsiders
to interfere in the domestic affairs of families," she said. And now,
even though similar refuges are planned in other cities, Ms Eskandari is
still obliged to tread a careful path if she is to avoid accusations by
religious hardliners of undermining the traditional family.
Underlying her activities, she insists, is religious discipline. Three
times a day, in accordance with the Shia Islamic tradition, the girls gather
to say their prayers, supervised by a prayer leader. Ms Eskandari rejects
the idea that Islam, by inhibiting the freedoms enjoyed by women, implicitly
encourages ill-treatment of girls in the home. "That is not the fault
of Islam," she says. "It is a religion full of kindness."
But however broad the smiles on the faces of the girls at the home,
no one - least of all Ms Eskandari - suggests that it represents a solution
to Iran's chronic social woes. In the third decade of the Islamic regime
set up after the 1979 revolution, young Iranians are being tugged in different
directions - towards greater religiosity by ruling clerics, towards globalisation
by increasing contact with Western culture, towards social dislocation
by a stagnant economy. All of which may explain why teenage suicide is
a rising scourge.
And, for all Ms Eskandari's brave words about reuniting families, only
13 of the 45 girls reported missing each day end up returning home.