Sex workers in Greater Tehran 2008

The sex trade is a growing industry in Iran, especially in Greater Tehran. Yet, there is not much field research being carried out on this subject. The reason is twofold. First, the official discourse of the Islamic State in Iran continues to deny the existence of the sex trade in the country, which leads to unwillingness by various Islamic governments to bring up this subject or to initiate and support related research. Second, social researchers are facing many difficulties in undertaking research because of the above lack of support as well as the specific characteristics of this profession in Iran: its illegality and the harsh punishments that await arrested sex workers as well as its veiled and clandestine nature.

Sex workers, alongside other clandestine groups whose activities and even existence are considered undesirable in Iran, have tried more than ever to organise themselves and hide their activities from those who would subject them to punishment. This concealment has made it difficult for the researchers to do serious work on sex workers and find out about their working conditions, income and material gains, class composition, reasons for their being in the profession,their procurers, and social vulnerabilities that are related to their working conditions, etc.

However, recently a social researcher, Saeed Madani, has finished an extensive field research project on sex workers of the Greater Tehran. In two recent interviews he had with Bijan Barahmandi from Radio France International and Mehdi Afrouz-Manesh from Jebhe-Melli News, Madani spoke of his research.

It seems that after the Revolution, the few researches that were done on sex workers were limited to women and girls who were in prison or lived in Welfare Organisation’s re-training centres. That’s why they do not reflect the realities of these women’s lives and none of them are as good as Setareh Farmanfarmaian’s in 1969. The latter, one of the most outstanding social researches in Iran, is a comprehensive analysis of different patterns of sex trade and individual lives of sex workers.

Today, it is difficult, especially for a male researcher, to have access to sex workers and to gain their trust for collaboration, because of the hostile social norms and illegality of their profession. Nevertheless, Madani has succeeded in gathering a statistical sampling from sex workers of the Greater Tehran who were outside of prisons or re-training centres and active in their profession during the interviews.

According to Madani, the number of sex workers in Tehran has increased in recent years. Furthermore, the individual and family characteristics of the sex workers have changed over the past 40 years. In the past, the majority of sex workers belonged to the socio-economically poor or low-income families. In fact, the dominant image of a sex worker was that of a poor, illiterate, immigrant girl, trapped by an evil predator in Tehran. However, the recent research demonstrates a shift in the pattern.

The new socio-economic pattern shows that most of the sex workers (70%) are not immigrants, but women and girls who were either born in Tehran or have lived most of their lives, i.e., at least 17-18 years, in the capital.

Half of the sex-workers are in this profession for their survival, while the other half are women and girls who are trying to overcome their economic inequality and to reduce the gap between themselves and women in other socio-economic groups. They aim at having a better housing situation and a better life style in general.

In other words, on the one hand, these women are dissatisfied with their economic situation and on the other hand, they don’t see any normal or legal way to obtain a better life. For instance, they want to have a higher education, but have not succeeded in entering the State universities that are free. So, they engage in sex trade in order to pay for their tuition at Azad University. Here the motivation is not to escape from poverty, but to overcome inequality and injustice. The role played by the social class gap is more obvious in this group of sex workers than in any other.

Madani divides the sex workers of the Greater Tehran into three groups: 1) Sex workers from south of Tehran whose motivation is to satisfy their basic needs or even to have a place to sleep. 2) Sex workers from north of Tehran, or high-class sex workers, who have the power to decide their own working conditions, such as their fees and the type of clients. 3) All of the other sex workers whose conditions are in-between these two groups.

While the first group has to work under any condition, sometimes receiving several clients a day, the high-class sex workers possess all the tools to choose their clients, decide their fees and even say “No” to them if they wish. More clearly, the culture of sex trade is not much different than the society’s general culture. To illustrate this idea, Madani brings up the fact that part of the process of his data gathering coincided with the mourning month of Muharram. He states that they were, therefore, facing the intense diminution of sex workers’ activities across the city of Tehran, that these women were not working during this period, and that those who were working have said they would not be working if they could decide for themselves.

While in 1969 and the early 1970’s, most of the sex workers were women who were drawn to the profession after their “defeat in marriage,” today one encounters a great number of single and married women among the sex workers.

The phenomenon of married women who enter the profession with the knowledge and collaboration of their husband is both complicated and painful, but does not follow a single pattern. There are addict husbands who first hook their wives and then force them into sex trade in order to pay for their own addiction. Then there are husbands whose low income does not cover the living expenses of their families; so their wives, with or without their knowledge, get involved in the risky business of sex trade.

The age of sex-workers has reduced. In our time, sex-trade begins at the age of 15 or 16 and stops at the age of 50. The sex workers’ median age has also reduced and younger age groups have joined the profession. In 1969, the median age of the sex workers was 31 years, while in 2008 Madani’s study has obtained a median of 26-27 years. The median length of doing sex trade in Tehran is 5 years, which leads us to the median age of 21-22 years as the age of entering the profession. If in the previous post-Revolution researches, the median age of entrance into the profession was lower, it is because the statistical samplings were taken from the Welfare Organisation’s re-training centres where always younger arrested sex workers are housed.

The traditional low education level of the sex workers has also changed. While in 1969, based on S. Farmanfarmaian’s research, over 90% of women sex workers in Tehran were either illiterate or with little education, in 2008 women sex workers of the Capital are more educated than ever. Over 90% of sex workers have some education, a majority have high school diplomas, a few of them have university education – some of whom have higher than Bachelor degrees, while only 5% of them are illiterate or with little education.

All of the above statistics demonstrate the presence of a relative awareness in women who are engaged in sex trade, which adds an element of choice to the perspective, making us forget about the myth of an immigrant, poor and illiterate girl who enters this profession out of ignorance and helplessness.

However, the traditional reasons for entering the profession still persist. In many cases, sex work is still the only way for many economically needy women and girls to have an income. With the increase in the unemployment rate, especially among women, they are facing a more difficult situation. According to Madani, some of the government policies, such as the recent “Family bylaw,” also facilitate the process of making sex trade a legal and legitimate occupation!!

Madani invites us to forget about the image that most of sex workers suffer from some mental or personality disorders. These disorders are not higher among sex workers than the average in the society, although many studies show that girls who have been subjected to sexual abuse in the family, tend to be drawn to sex trade more than others. In the present study, 30% of sex workers admitted to have been a victim of sexual abuse in their childhood. In fact, family background plays an important role in the attraction to this profession. Another contributing factor would be the presence of a sex worker in the family or among friends!

It seems that the use of the new electronic media such as the Internet and mobile phone has made it easier for the sex workers to avoid being arrested. There are only two groups of sex workers that are frequently arrested: runaway girls who don’t have much experience, and women over 50 who, following rejection by their peer groups for losing their sex appeal, begin soliciting on the streets and become visible to the authorities.

There is an obvious judicial confusion regarding the illegal status of sex-workers. When arrested, their punishments range from a minimum of two months incarceration to a maximum of execution by stoning. The reason for this confusion lies in the fact that under the present Islamic regime, as in the pre-Revolution times, sex work as such has not been considered a crime. However, there are 17 to 18 offences that could be attached to the sex work.

There has not been much research on the male clientele of the sex work industry in any given society, and that is certainly true about Greater Tehran. However, in his study, Madani asked the sex workers about their clients and the type of men they are. One of them, a 38 year-old woman, divided her clients into six groups:

1) Men who are not sexually satisfied by their wives. 2) Men whose sexual needs are beyond their wives’ imaginings. 3) Young men who are in the beginning of their sexual experimentation and have friends who encourage them. 4) Men who are very rich and don’t know how to spend their money. 5) Men who don’t enjoy being with their families, but instead are pleasure-seekers devoted to their friends. 6) Men who pretend to be religious, forcing their wives to behave in a pious way and to remain sexually backward, having to go elsewhere themselves!

According to Madani, maybe this is not a correct classification, but it provides a comprehensive image of the clients.

The interviewed sex workers stated that over half of their clients are men between the ages of 30 to 50. The second age group is composed of young men between 18 and 29 years old. Most of their clients have high school and higher education, and over half of them are married.

As expected, sex workers had often a negative moral judgement against their clients. In some cases, when the surveyor mistakenly used the expression “prostitute” (roospi) in his questions, the sex workers objected to this term and said that the word rather befitted their male clients, especially the married ones. The researcher has intently avoided using the word “prostitution”(Roospigari) in his research, as it has a negative connotation for women. I am wondering if this is a lesson taught to him by these same sex workers.

Nevertheless, Madani refuses to use the expression “sex worker,” which is used in today’s researches all over the world. He states that the use of this expression implies the legitimacy of this method of making a living that he doesn’t agree with, which in his opinion has its theoretic foundation in liberalism and libertarianism. So, he has chosen the words “body-selling” (Tan-Forushi) and “body-seller” (Tan-Forush) that seem more appropriate to him!

This leads me to the first problem I see in Madani’s approach. There are a lot of moralistic and arbitrary statements as well as complimentary comments towards the Islamic State in his interviews, unbecoming of a social scientist, which I have overlooked in my free translation and summary of his interviews. He adopts a religious and authoritarian outlook and treats sex workers as deviant women.

The second problem with Madani’s study is that he doesn’t seem to have included women who engage in temporary marriages or “sigheh” with men for a pre-determined and fixed period of time, from 10 minutes to 10 days to longer, in exchange for a fixed sum of money. These “marriages” automatically dissolve upon completion of their terms. There are no requirements of having a witness, a written contract or permission from authorities for this veiled form of sex trade that is sanctioned by the Shia Islam. This shortcoming probably derives from Madani’s own definition of sex work, which is to offer one’s sexual services in exchange for money or merchandise without religious or legal contracts.

The third problem is Madani’s lack of emphasis on sexually transmitted diseases, specially HIV virus and AIDS. The only time the researcher spoke of STDs was when he mentioned the case of some girls who, dreaming of getting married later on, accept “abnormal” sexual relations (read anal sex) in order to keep their hymen intact, but by the same token make themselves more vulnerable to catching an STD and/or AIDS. Otherwise, we don’t know whether the sex workers he has interviewed make their clients use condoms, whether any of them have regular health checkups, or what percentage of them have caught the HIV virus.

The fourth problem is Madani’s assertion that the great majority of the sex workers in Greater Tehran are NOT immigrants. In the light of the trafficking of women and children for sex trade, both nationally and internationally, the assertion that the great majority of sex workers of Greater Tehran are not immigrant women seems suspicious to me. Also, who are the minority immigrant sex workers? Aren’t there sex workers from Russia or the newly formed Persian-speaking republics? Over a decade ago, I met a few Russian sex workers in Tehran. Have they all suddenly disappeared?

Finally, what about procurers and traffickers? Saeed Madani is silent about them.

It seems to me that the above issues are much more important than Madani’s self-serving praise of the Islamic government and his comment about the religiosity of the Tehrani population during the month of Muharram. The researcher has also failed, in his interviews, to announce the title of his study, the centre where it has been conducted and whether or not it has been published.

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