(WOMENSENEWS)--Twenty-five years ago, the Shah of Iran was overthrown by a diverse set of groups, some of which supported a secular and democratic government. The pro-democracy groups were outmaneuvered and then violently attacked by the Islamic fundamentalists, who went on to seize control of the country.
A measure of Islamic fundamentalists' success in controlling this society is the depth and totality with which they suppress the freedomand rights of women. Over the past 25 years, the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran have expended tremendous amounts of time and effort controlling, harassing, and punishing women and girls in the name of Islam. They have passed and enforced humiliating and sadistic rules and punishments on women and girls, enslaving them in a system of segregation, forced veiling, second-class status, lashing and stoning to death.
The repressive gender apartheid in Iran is generally well known. Less well known is that Iran has joined the growing global criminal activity of sex trafficking. Exact numbers of victims are impossible to obtain, but according to an official source in Tehran, there has been a seven-fold increase in the number of teen-age girls in prostitution. The magnitude of this statistic conveys how rapidly this form of abuse has grown. In Tehran, there are an estimated 84,000 women and girls in prostitution, many of them are on the streets, others are in the 250 brothels that reportedly operate in the city. The trade is also international. Thousands of Iranian women and girls have been sold into sexual slavery abroad.
Sex-Slave Trade Highly Profitable
The head of Iran's Interpol bureau believes that the sex slave trade is one of the most profitable activities in Iran today, and government officials themselves are involved in buying, selling 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 between 15 and 29 years of age and 43 percent for women between 15 and 20--is a serious factor in driving restless youth to accept risky offers for work.
Popular destinations for victims of the sex slave trade are the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. According to the head of the Tehran province judiciary, traffickers target girls between 13 and 17 to send to Arab countries. The number of Iranian women and girls who are deported from Persian Gulf countries indicates the magnitude of the trade. Upon their return to Iran, the Islamic fundamentalists blame the victims and often physically punish and imprison them. The women are examined to determine if they have engaged in "immoral activity." Based on the findings, officials can ban them from leaving the country again.
Police have uncovered a number of prostitution and slavery rings operating from Tehran that have sold girls to France and Britain. 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.
Street Children and Runaways
One factor contributing to the increase in prostitution and the sex slave trade is the number of female teens who are running away from home. Sources inside Iran say the girls are rebelling against fundamentalist imposed restrictions on their freedom, domestic abuse and parental drug addictions. Unfortunately, in their flight to freedom, the female teens find more abuse and exploitation. As a result of runaways, in Tehran alone there are an estimated 25,000 street children, most of them girls. Pimps prey upon street children, runaways and vulnerable high school girls in city parks. Indications are that 90 percent of female runaways will end up in prostitution.
The exposure of sex slave networks in Iran by some arrests that have been made provide indications that many mullahs and officials are involved in the sexual exploitation and trade of women and girls. Women who are arrested for prostitution say they must have sex with the arresting officer. There are reports of police locating young women for sex for the wealthy and powerful mullahs.
In cities, shelters have been set up to provide assistance for runaways. Some allege that the officials who run these shelters are often corrupt; they run prostitution rings using the girls from the shelter.
Sex Trade and Theocracy
Some may think a thriving sex trade in a theocracy with clerics possibly acting as pimps is a contradiction in a country founded and ruled by Islamic fundamentalists. In fact, this is not a contradiction.
First, exploitation and repression of women are closely associated. Both exist where women, individually or collectively, are denied freedom and rights. Second, the Islamic fundamentalists in Iran are not simply conservative Muslims. Islamic fundamentalism is a political movement with an ideology that considers women inherently inferior in intellectual and moral capacity. Fundamentalists hate women's minds and bodies.
When he took power, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini set up a theocracy based on the principle of "velayat-e-faqih," or rule by the supreme religious leader under which he and now his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have final say over all decisions in Iran.
In such a religious dictatorship, one cannot appeal to the rule of law for justice for women and girls. Women and girls have no guarantees of freedom and rights and no expectation of respect or dignity from the Islamic fundamentalists.
We believe that only the end of the fundamentalist regime will free women and girls from all the forms of slavery they suffer. There is a growing movement in Iran to oust the ruling clergy. Pro-democracy activists are proposing that an internationally monitored election--a referendum--be held on the form of government that will rule Iran. There is hope that this will be the first step to establish a secular and democratic Iran. Women across Iran are risking their safety--and often their lives--to demonstrate against the Iranian regime and call for the referendum. Democracy in Iran is their only hope for the future.
Ramesh Sepehrrad is president of the National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran, Washington, D.C. Donna M. Hughes is a professor and the Carlson Endowed Chair of the Women's Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I.
For more information:
National Committee of Women for a Democratic Iran: