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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 been runaways.

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.


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