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Growing sex trade
Only democracy can free women from slavery

Donna M. Hughes
July 15, 2004

Last week, I participated in two events commemorating the July 1999 student uprising in Iran. In Washington, D.C., on July 7, the Committee in Support of Referendum in Iran sponsored a panel discussion in the U.S. Senate, and in Toronto, Canada, on July 8, the Canadian Committee for Democracy in Iran held an outdoor rally. Attached is the text of my speech.

A measure of Islamic fundamentalists' success in controlling society is the depth and totality with which they suppress the freedom and rights of women.

Earlier this year, with the assistance of Iranian democracy activists I gathered information about prostitution and the trafficking of women and girls out of Iran for sexual slavery.

It is impossible to know how many victims there are, but all sources indicate an exponential growth in prostitution in Iran. The sex trade is also international, as thousands of Iranian women and girls have been sold into sexual slavery abroad.

This criminal activity is often conducted with the knowledge and participation of the ruling mullahs. Government officials themselves are involved in trading and sexually abusing women and girls.

Many of the girls come from impoverished rural areas. Drug addiction is epidemic throughout Iran, and some addicted parents sell their children to support their habits. High unemployment - 28 percent for youth 15-29 years of age and 43 percent for women 15-20 years of age - is a serious factor in driving restless youth to accept risky offers for work.

The most popular destinations for victims of trafficking from Iran are the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. In local newspapers in Iran, a number of cases have been documented.

Police have uncovered a number of prostitution and slavery rings operating from Tehran that sent girls to France, Britain, and Turkey.

In the northeastern Iranian province of Khorasan, local police report that girls are being sold to Pakistani men as sex-slaves. The Pakistani men marry the girls, ranging in age from 12 to 20, and then sell them to brothels in Pakistan. In the southeastern border province of Sistan Baluchestan, thousands of Iranian girls reportedly have been sold to Afghani men. Their whereabouts are unknown.

One factor contributing to the increase in prostitution and the sex slave trade is the number of teen girls who are running away from home. The girls are rebelling against fundamentalist imposed restrictions on their freedom, domestic abuse, and parental drug addictions. Unfortunately, in their flight to freedom, the girls find more abuse and exploitation. Ninety percent of girls who run away from home will end up in prostitution.

In cities, shelters have been set-up to provide assistance for runaways. But there have been documented cases of corrupt officials running these shelters using the girls in their prostitution rings.

Some may think a sex slave trade and clerics acting as pimps are contradictions in a country founded and ruled by religious fundamentalists. In fact, these are not such contradictions. First, exploitation and repression are closely associated with each other and complement each other. Both exist where women, individually or collectively, are denied freedom and rights. Second, the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran are not simply conservative Muslims. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been a totalitarian terrorist state. Trafficking of women and girls is just another profitable criminal activity of corrupt officials.

Today, the two greatest threats to rights and well being of women in the world are Islamic fundamentalism and the growing sex trade. The fundamentalists in Iran are the chief sponsors of first of these threats, and leading practitioners of second.

Since I wrote an article about prostitution and the trade in women and girls in Iran, a number of people have written to me asking what can be done to stop this trade and assist the victims.

The answer is that only freedom and democracy in Iran can end slavery. Only the overthrow of the mullahs and the defeat of their theocracy will liberate women from a system based on contempt and hatred for women. Only the installation of democracy based on rule of law will rid Iran of the corruption and mafia-like control of Iran. Only individual liberty and equality between men and women will guarantee freedom for women and girls. And only courts of justice will punish the criminal perpetrators for their violence and exploitation.

Of course, we are here today to commemorate the pro-democracy student movement that has courageously demonstrated for just those values and principles. They have heroically stood up to the vicious tyranny in Iran, and many have paid an enormous price for their bravery. Many of those activists have been and are women.

Supporting the bold resistance of these women to the mullahs is the only way to defeat the slave traders and the terrorists. Their voices and lives are essential for establishing a post-terrorist democratic society. Their courage, compassion, and intellect will be needed to help lead a country out of slavery, fear, and corruption.

Those of us with freedom of speech and freedom of association, which are denied to activists in Iran, must use them to support the freedom fighters in Iran. We must work together and lobby our governmental representatives to take positions against the fascist Iranian regime and in support of democracy and freedom. We must tell them that there are no moderate, reformist mullahs in Iran, but there are millions of people who want to be free. See reply to this article "Sex trade fallacies".

Donna M. Hughes is Professor & Carlson Endowed Chair in Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island. Homepage

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