Behind the anonymous white walls of a handsome villa in North Teheran, business is booming for the best known madams of pre-revolutionary Iran. Their legendary hospitality, shielded from the prying eyes of motorists racing along the Africa highway, attracts queues of bearded mullahs who have been told that Belinda, Kazwini and Chikma are now officially authorised to dispense their sexual favours.
Under the strict morality rules of Iran’s ayatollahs, these three women and thousands of others like them should be whipped or even stoned to death. Indeed when Khomeini overthrew the Shah and established his Islamic regime, revolutionary guards targeted prostitutes and demolished the red light district of Teheran.
But it is a measure of the changing standards of Shi’ite rule that prostitution has once again become legitimate. Prostitutes may function openly, as long as they invoke the “law of desire” and enter into “marriages of enjoyment”.
These are marriages in name only, not least because men have theright to deny their responsibilities for any children born of the temporary liaisons. This controversial law allows Iranian men to fornicate, so long as they register their intentions with a religious Sharia court where they fill out a form specifying how long they intend to “enjoy” their partner. In many cases the two sides agree to a ten-minute “quickie” in which they are able to satisfy each other and still keep within the law. “The enjoyment marriage is nothing but a legal cover for prostitution,” says Mahran Keys Doltchahi, a professor at Iran’s Free University. “How can anyone in the world claim that a marriage for ten minutes is a legal act. The clergy justify their morally indefensible practice by relying on an ancient tradition which many prominent Iranian scholars, including the late Imam Khomeini, have condemned.”
Professor Doltchahi and other prominent women’s rights campaigners say the real victims of the Law of Desire are women from deprived socio-economic backgrounds. These includetens of thousands of women who lost husbands in the ten-year war with Iraq.
Iran’s new and comparatively liberal president, Ayatollah Khatami, has yet to announce where he stands on the issue of enjoyment marriages but he is under pressure from the West whose investors are yet to be convinced that Iran is a good bet for the future to abolish the practice. Doing so, however, could antagonise hardliners in his own regime.
His advisers hope he will distance himself from the practice since the recent publication of a book of memoirs containing embarrassing details about the sexual habits of senior Iranian officials. The author is Zahra Khanom, the widow of a former general in Iran’s military intelligence. Describing herself as a “professional wife”, the 52-year-old Khanom says she has had “hundreds of husbands” in the last 20 years. Each one paid her between $1.5 and $4.5.
She says she has been forced into the business because her first husband, whom she married legitimately, was executed by theregime for allegedly plotting the overthrow of Khomeini. “My temporary husbands have included one ayatollah, 21 senior clergymen, five famous merchants, a few hundred university students and the head of a hospital in the holy city of Qom.”The hypocrisy of the clergy was highlighted last year when the former government prosecutor, Hojatulislam Mohammedi, was asked if he approved of enjoyment marriages. Mohammedi said he fully supported the concept because it prevented young people from sinning.