In April of this year, I published on “iranian.ws” my personal experience as a sociologist with some of Tehran’s homeless women in 1993. I reproduce it here and now, thinking that we might not want to forget these women during our festive time. Happy holidays to everyone.
In September 1993, my research team and I visited three Tehran shelters for homeless women and runaway girls, called “Re-Training Centres.” They were affiliated to the State Welfare Organization. Shafagh Centre was in the south of Tehran, Omidvar and Ershad Centres, in the northern districts of the Capital. They functioned more as shelters than re-training institutions. We were told that these types of centres did not exist during the Shah era. They did not officially exist in the Islamic Republic either.
According to Mr. Tajeddin, a social worker representing the Welfare Organization, from the point of view of the Islamic State policies, the existence of such centres for women and girls was problematic and “not legal.” They had a clandestine status; they were ghost shelters.
The three shelters housed 241 women and children altogether. In winter, the number of the residents who were mostly addicted vagrants increased. Three criteria were used to send women and girls there instead of the Evin Prison: the sensitivity of sexual issues, if the woman had been arrested repeatedly, and the woman’s stubbornness – if she were calm, she would be sent to Evin; but if she were stubborn and did not cooperate with the police, she would be sent to one of these shelters. These women were not offenders, but homeless or without guardians. They had escaped their hostile family environment and found themselves on the street. Unlike Evin prison, there was no class difference among shelter residents; they were all from lower social classes.
We visited these shelters accompanied by Mr. Tajeddin. He asked us for a bribe every single time, which we provided from the pocket of the research institute where we worked. He and the social workers at the “re-training centres” expressed their Islamist / patriarchal views on genders in the following terms:
“We believe that the Islamic State should take care of homeless women’s financial needs because of their gender. As for homeless and unemployed men, because they are the heads of their families, they should endure their lot. In the men’s retraining centres, we entrust heavy jobs to them.”
The social workers also told us that the shelters were for women who had “moral or social deviance” and been arrested on several occasions. Often, these women had not committed an “offence,” but were involved in an “incident.” The theoretical goal of the shelters was the rehabilitation of the “deviant.” However, a social worker emphasized the ghostly character of these group homes:
“It is much better for our girls not to be aware of the existence of these centres. Because a girl who cannot adapt herself to her family environment, won’t be able to adapt herself to society either.”
Families of the majority of the residents were aware of their presence in these shelters.
Every woman and child was granted 800 toumans ($1.00) of monthly pension.
The Welfare Organization and its affiliated retraining centres were financially dependent on Bazaaris and other sections of the population, because the government’s financial credits were not sufficient. We were told that all the shelters staff and residents had been tested negatively for the HIV test. We interviewed 60 women from among the residents in these three shelters.
This shelter was in southern Tehran, on Shur-Abad Boulevard, near Kahrizak. It was situated in an imposing building with several rooms in row that opened to a huge space with high ceiling that reminded me of a factory or of a silo. Indeed, we were told that the building used to be a banana Silo belonging to a billionaire of the late Shah’s era, Ojabr Yazdani. As we stopped at the doors of the rooms and glanced inside, we discerned women of all ages sitting around each room on kelims, their backs to the walls. Most of them were dozing as if on medication. A group of women, young and old, followed us and expressed utter dissatisfaction with their condition. A teenager told us that the place was infested with mice, big mice, “as big as kittens,” she insisted. A woman said, “This is a very bad place. The residents are very bad, and separation from our families disturbs us a lot. The social workers help us as much as they can.”
Women residing in Shafagh shelter had committed more serious transgressions than those in the other two. That’s why it was also called “special women ward.” It was housing 176 women and 3 children, although the latter were not supposed to live there. We were told that 40 women among the residents would not be able to be interviewed because of their mental illness; they were on heavy medication.
Women’s ages ranged from 15 to 68. They were homeless divorced women, women who had been forced by their husbands to have sex with other men, women who had been raped, women who had escaped their abusive homes, women who had loved a man and spent time in prison as adulterers and were now rejected by their family, vagrant women and women who were in the process of detoxification. We were told that there were some High school graduates and one pharmacist with “mental illness” among the residents.
For one month we visited the shelter three days a week. We spoke to Mr. Mirzaei the shelter director and Mr. Zandieh the social workers’ supervisor. They told us that, in the past, they detoxified and rehabilitated some of the women of Jamshid Plan (ex-sex workers of Jamshid District or Shahr-e-Nau, which was destroyed by the Islamists.) These women, who were still living in the shelter, were between the ages of 24 and 35. The shelter did not accept addicted women any longer. We were told that there were 3 million addicts in Greater Tehran out of a population of 12 million. That was one in four people. As over 80 percent of the addicts were married, this meant that 10 million people were involved in the affects of addiction in the Capital City.
We paid up to 10,000 toumans in bribes to the shelter’s employees in order to interview women residents. I have entries on two of Shafagh’s residents in my journal.
Maryam was a 16 year-old girl who had been sent to Shafagh shelter because she had escaped from home and spent some time at Evin prison. She was born to illiterate parents who lived in Nazy-Abad District of Tehran. Her father was a worker in a vegetable oil company and her mother, a public bath scrubber. Her parents always fought and her father beat her mother a lot. Both parents cussed and beat her. At the age of 7, her brother hit her with a mirror and damaged her left eye. Her father sexually molested her for 3 years, after she reached the age of 10.
At the age 13, she escaped home “because of mental suffering,” as she put it, and began selling herself on the street. Her brother found her, brought her home by force, bound her hands and feet and beat her with a hose. She escaped her home again and continued the sex work. At the age of 15, she was picked up by the police for theft and sent to Evin prison. She was sentenced to 10 months of imprisonment. At the time of her release, as she had nowhere to go, she was referred to the Welfare Organization and then to this shelter.
Touba was a 17 year-old girl from Abadan, and in the shelter for being homeless and having had sex without being married. As soon as she was born, her father divorced her mother and left her on a dirt road near the bushes on the city skirts. A married woman found her, took her to her home and looked after her until she was 6 years old. At that age, her father found her and took her back to his home. He was remarried to a widow and had a step-son. Touba’s father and step-mother were quite abusive to her both physically and emotionally. She went to school for only four years because her grandmother believed that it was enough for a girl.
At the age 12, her step-brother raped her and Touba got pregnant. When she was four months pregnant, her parents found out about her condition. Her step-brother fled the home and her father, who was the head of Abadan Welfare Organization, called the Committee for Prevention of Vice and had her placed in Ahwaz prison for a year and a half in order to save their family honour. Touba gave birth to her child in prison. When the baby was five months old, she was taken away from Touba by force and given to an orphanage against her will. Then, she was referred to Tehran Welfare Organization and brought to this shelter. The staff called her father in Abadan, but he denied being her father.
Touba escaped from the shelter at age 14 and sold herself on the streets. A married client married her temporarily for three months. She was abandoned by him while pregnant. She told her story to the notary public that had married them and the man placed her in his family. A few weeks later, as the family was going to take a vacation, they placed Touba at the home of an acquaintance of theirs. In that home, Touba gave birth to a second baby and a week later went out to do shopping for her. When she returned, the baby was gone. The woman had sold the baby. Heartbroken, she left that home and referred herself to the shelter. She was only 15. At the time of the interview, she had been living there for a couple of years, taking evening courses to finish grade 9. She was very sad and often cried when alone.
This shelter for mothers was situated on Farmanieh Street, in a villa of 18,000 square metres on the top of a hill. The building was at the end of a large beautiful garden with a cobblestone path lined with light-posts and a blue-painted pool. There were tall pine trees and poplars and bushes. A permanent ping-pong table made of cement was sitting in a clearing. Plenty of clothes were hung along a washing line in front of the villa, indicating the presence of children. For two weeks, we visited that shelter every other day, to interview its residents.
The shelter consisted of one dining room and three small dormitories. It housed 25 people: 8 children and 17 mothers – 11 of whom were ex-prisoners. In each bedroom 16 women and children slept side by side. Children’s monthly pension was for their future and kept for them until the day of their departure with their mother. Women had their own bank accounts. If a woman worked inside the shelter, she received 3000 toumans per month. The women’s ages ranged from 17 to 40, but most of them were between 17 and 24 years old. The youngest child was a newborn and the oldest, a 10 year-old girl.
According to regulations, mothers could stay in the shelter for only six months; but in practice, there were some who had stayed there for up to 8 years. The social workers reported that, unlike the two other shelters, there were few escapees here, because of the presence of children. However, the residents told us that within the last month alone, four women had escaped the shelter because they were punished for not having helped with the cooking. The staff did not take women for outings and walk, did not feed them enough and the food was not good. They put a lot of pressure and restrictions on women.
The shelter residents were women who had given birth to children out of wedlock or been raped or duped by men who had promised them marriage. None of the women were wanted by their families. The married ones had been assaulted by their husbands. Most of them were sent to the shelter from other provinces of Iran. Some mothers had spent time in jail for having being raped and were brought to the shelter after giving birth in Evin. Some other mothers had presented themselves directly to the Welfare Organization or the shelter after having found out that they were pregnant following a rape. Not having gone through the “Islamic justice system,” these women were spared from being imprisoned. In social workers’ experience, in all cases of rape that had been brought to the court, the rapist was released upon deposition of bail (ownership papers of a house or 100,000 toumans) and his family had helped him avoid marrying the girl he had raped; while the victim was completely rejected by her family.
The office of the social workers and that of the director stood behind the residents’ building. We entered the latter and spoke with the three social workers of the centre. One of them said that her working condition was better in that shelter than at Shafagh Centre as she had worked there as well for a while. Another social worker reported that the State Welfare Organization could not confiscate the villa because it was the bride price of the owner’s wife, living outside of the country. She told us that their budget was coming from the Welfare Organization and individual contributions. The shelter didn’t accept any money from the City Hall because its budget, she said, was not halaal (kosher), as it included money being extracted from the shopkeepers and business people by force.
The staff of the shelter consisted of the director, three female social workers, four female guards rotating 24 hours a day, three male guards at the entrance gate, two male drivers (one of the two, the exclusive employee of the shelter), and one male employee for financial affairs. The duties of the male and female guards were to watch over the residents at night so that they wouldn’t escape or engage in homosexual behaviour. One of the social workers had a bachelor’s degree in social work and the two others were High school graduates. They considered the residents as being “socially sick!” A very strange assessment to our ears. There was no psychologist or psychiatrist working at the shelter or serving the residents on an occasional basis.
The social workers found paying jobs for some of the women of the shelter, mostly in dress-making or production factories. Some residents were also employed as cleaning ladies in daycare centres or seniors’ homes affiliated to the State Welfare Organization or as caretakers of the elderly or sick children in private homes. Women were never sent to private companies or as saleswomen.
Women were also encouraged to get married. There were channels that social workers knew about. Social workers looked for decent men who might have some mild form of physical disability. But the potential husbands were often men with mental illnesses or prison records. So, marriages rarely happened. If a mother agreed, they would give her child to an orphanage. About the status of the children, we were told that those born out of wedlock were illegitimate and those from a temporary marriage were legitimate religiously, but illegitimate in the eyes of the law.
There were classes offered to women, such as learning the Qur’an, handiwork, cooking and cleaning. There were individual sessions of consultation with the social workers. Theoretically, there were also visits to museums, and trips to Qom and Mashad.
Children had to go to bed at 8:30 PM and adults, at 10:30 PM. There was no physical punishment. The castigation for women who had transgressed the rules was deprivation of outing and walks or solitary confinement in a small washroom of the building. Unlike Evin Prison, no camphor was poured in women’s meals. The large bathroom door was locked to prevent homosexual conduct among the residents.
The social workers expressed their opinions about the children of the shelter in these terms:
“Children here observe their mothers’ homosexual conduct. We ask ourselves if these children could turn into nice people.”
“The first thing these children ask their mothers as they grow older is: who was my father? What did he do? And when they hear the truth, they escape from the centre, especially the boys; because they are more sensitive about this issue. These children hear at school that they don’t have their father’s name on their birth certificate, that they are bastards! That pushes them over the edge and make them escape the shelter and leave the school.”
“A wolf cub will become a wolf! A creature who has lived in a dirty womb with dirty blood will turn out bad!”
According to the social workers, there were women in the shelter who were not very needy. The problem was that the director and social workers could not decide who should be accepted at the centre. The director could send a social worker to Evin prison to see who were the women who needed help and then report it to the Welfare Organization. But ultimately, it was the officials in that organization who decided who should be admitted. Sometimes sex-workers were sent to the shelter, but they didn’t stay longer than a day and escaped. They were usually women who were brought to the centre for vagrancy; and there was no sign that they were sex-workers. The director of the shelter uttered a horrifying opinion about these women:
“The reason for the perpetuation of prostitution is that prostitutes and adulterers are not stoned to death.”
I recall having interviewed a girl from a village in the province of Ilam. Her story was that she was grazing the sheep near her village when a Jeep stopped beside her; the driver got off, approached her and sexually assaulted her. She did not return to her village out of shame and presented herself to an office of the Welfare Organization. When it was confirmed that she was pregnant, the police brought her to Tehran, to this shelter. I made entries in my journal on another young woman from Ershad centre.
Jamileh was a 20 year-old woman from the town of Izeh, near Ahwaz. She was a divorced homemaker with no child from her marriage. However, she gave birth to a child after she was raped by their landlord’s brother. She presented herself and her child to the Ahwaz court, but the man who had raped her denied being the father. The court ordered her to deposit a bail and go back home to her parents. Fearful of her father, Jamileh refused to go home, so the court sent her to a jail in Ahwaz for four months. Then, as Ahwaz Welfare Organization only looked after children under 12, she was sent to Tehran and its Welfare Organization that placed her in this shelter where she had been residing with her baby for a year.
Jamileh’s father was an illiterate mason and her mother, a carpet-weaver. Jamileh had four younger siblings with whom she constantly fought. The family environment was tense because of the constant bickering between her parents and her mother being beaten by her father. Her father and all her paternal male relatives were chronically angry. Eventually, her father killed her mother following a fight, when Jamileh was 15 years old. He was sentenced to 3 years of incarceration. Meanwhile, the clans of her parents had a major fight, which led to the death of one of her maternal uncles.
Jamileh and her younger siblings lived in two rooms of a house and shared the kitchen with the landlord’s family who lived in the other rooms. They were financially assisted by the Relief Committee and their nine maternal uncles. Then, one day the landlord’s brother raped Jamileh, which led to her pregnancy. She was 18.
A week earlier than the time of the interview, the shelter staff had sent Jamileh’s baby to an orphanage in order to force her go back to her family. But Jamileh was afraid to go back home. She was sure that either her father or a paternal relative would kill her. They had called the shelter, asking the staff to send her back to them. They had said that they would take care of her; but Jamileh was sure that they would kill her. Her father and relatives considered her to be “crazy.”
Jamileh believed having lost her virtue because of the rape; and this tortured her mentally. She said that if she returned to Izeh, everyone would look at her as a “bad woman”, a “whore.” Since the death of her mother, she had been suffering everyday. She did not like to befriend other women at the shelter. She felt that the shelter was a bad place, like a prison, because it made everybody nervous and angry. Everyday the staff fought with the women and the women cussed and fought with each other. She believed that people got worse in a shelter, that prison was a better place than the shelter, because in prison nobody fought with her.
Before she was raped, Jamileh wanted to study and work as a civil servant somewhere and help needy people. Now her wish was to bring up her child, study and do good things instead of being on the street.
This shelter was situated in a confiscated mansion of 2000 square metres in northern Tehran, near Ershad Centre. There was a large courtyard in front of the mansion with a few trees and an empty swimming pool. The social worker Mr. Tajeddin told us that the pool was never filled with water because the staff did not want the girls to jump into it and enjoy themselves. The shelter accepted girls between the ages of 14 and 18 who, according to the Coroner, “possessed hymen” and were not mentally ill.
There were 4 permanent social workers and 2 female guards on shifts. We spoke with two social workers in an outhouse office close to the mansion. One of them reported that there were 42 girls in the shelter between the ages of 14 and 24. But as there was no criterion of admittance other than being virgin, they had also admitted two older women, a 37 year-old and a 39 year-old. Both women were homeless and happy to be at the shelter, apparently “because of its cleanliness.” The 39 year-old woman was a student and a former political prisoner who lived in the centre temporarily. She had spent 4 years in Evin. After she was released from prison, she referred herself to the State Welfare Organization because her family did not want her back. The Welfare Organization placed her in this shelter and helped her go back to university.
Another social worker told us that some girls came to them pretending to be homeless. So, when the shelter staff found out that they had families, they returned them to their homes. In the past, a few girls were ex-prisoners of Evin; they were returned to their homes and the shelter did not accept ex-prisoners any longer. The social worker said that they had rehabilitation programs that consisted of first attempting to find husbands for the girls. The second attempt was to find them jobs, and the third one was to let them continue their studies.
Apparently, the shelter was successful in finding good husbands, i.e. men without mental or social issues or with little issues. It sometimes found a husband for a girl via the “Marriage Bureau.” The staff usually attended the wedding. If the girl later had marital problems, she could still contact the social workers for assistance. Girls in this shelter got married more often than women in other shelters because “they were young and virgin.”
Before being admitted at the centre, some of the girls had presented themselves to the Committee for Prevention of Vice and some others had been arrested by its agents. The girls were kept in the Committee for a week before being taken to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and from there, introduced to the Welfare Organization and the shelter. The majority of the girls were from provincial towns and lower classes, because provincial girls were arrested easier and sooner than Tehrani girls were.
The residents did not have guardians. Some were arrested for vagrancy, some because they were holding hands with a boy, and some others were sent by the courts. Those girls who were, or became, depressed, were sent to Rouzbeh Psychiatric Hospital. One social worker told us that most girls had emotional and relationship issues; but as they had to be virgin, their relationship problems could not have been of sexual nature. Yet, another social worker informed us that the residents had committed two types of offence: 1. Sex work; 2. Illegal relationships, i.e., relationships without being married. So, we were not sure what the girls’ real “offences” or “incidents” were. The social workers did not seem to be straightforward with us.
When we got out of the office, I noticed a metallic gate on the side of the mansion. As I approached it, I caught sight of a dim empty room behind the gate, with three teenage girls lying on hay that was spread all over the cement floor. The girls were semi-nude, with dishevelled hair and dirty faces. They were laughing hysterically and playing rough with each other. There was a strong smell of urine, much fouler and more disturbing than any dirty toilet I had seen in my entire life. There was no bucket in that room for the girls to urinate. The room reeked like a cesspool. It was a shocking scene of horror that reminded me of old movies where they showed disabled slaves or mad people thrown out into a pile of rubbish. Mr. Tajeddin, the Welfare Organization representative, explained, in a nonchalant manner, that the girls had escaped the shelter and were now being punished by being locked inside that bare room without food and water or permission to go to the toilet. When I asked him about the terrible smell, he shrugged and said that it was probably because the girls had to do their business there. He was not at all moved or repelled by the scene.
I recall having interviewed a girl who was suffering from a deep depression and had become a recluse. She was one of several teenage girls who had escaped their abusive homes. We met some older residents who had been living in the shelter for over 7 years. On the last day of our visit, we interacted with a “guest’ mother with four little children who had come to this shelter in the middle of the night because there was no place for them at nearby Ershad shelter for mothers.
None of the above ghost shelters taught women any useful skill or profession that could be beneficial to them once they were out on their own. The shelters offered teaching of sewing and embroidery, which were not useful for the modern world. Also, there was no psychologist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist available to the women in the shelters who were victims of unloving families and a misogynist culture.
In February 2006, following a claim by the Foundation for the Oppressed (Bonyad-e Mosta’zafan) over Omidvar Centre ownership rights, the shelter was ordered by the Revolutionary Court to close down. The police used violence, forcing the women residents out into the streets. Most of the women had jobs, but with no roof over their heads, they did not see how they could continue their employment. The Foundation of the Oppressed once again showed its true face to the public by depriving homeless women of their place of refuge. And according to the Iran Association of Social Workers, two HIV-positive girls from this shelter were now on the run.
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