A measure of Islamic
fundamentalists’ success in controlling society is the depth
and totality with which they suppress the freedom and rights
of women. In Iran for 25 years, the ruling mullahs have
enforced humiliating and sadistic rules and punishments on
women and girls, enslaving them in a gender apartheid system
of segregation, forced veiling, second-class status, lashing,
and stoning to death.
Joining a global trend, the fundamentalists have added another
way to dehumanize women and girls: buying and selling them for
prostitution. Exact numbers of victims are impossible to
obtain, but according to an official source in Tehran, there
has been a 635 percent increase in the number of teenage 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.
The head of Iran’s Interpol bureau believes that the sex
slave trade is one of the most profitable activities in Iran
today. This criminal trade is not conducted outside the
knowledge and participation of the ruling fundamentalists.
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.
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. Slave traders take advantage of any opportunity in which
women and children are vulnerable. For example, following the
recent earthquake in Bam, orphaned girls have been kidnapped
and taken to a known slave market in Tehran where Iranian and
foreign traders meet.
Popular destinations for victims of the 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, although there are reports of some girls as
young as 8 and 10, to send to Arab countries. One ring was
discovered after an 18 year-old girl escaped from a basement
where a group of girls were held before being sent to Qatar,
Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. 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
Police have uncovered a number of prostitution and slavery
rings operating from Tehran that have sold girls to France,
Britain, Turkey as well. One network based in Turkey bought
smuggled Iranian women and girls, gave them fake passports,
and transported them to European and Persian Gulf countries.
In one case, a 16-year-old girl was smuggled to Turkey, and
then sold to a 58-year-old European national for $20,000.
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 called
“Kharabat” in Pakistan. One network was caught contacting
poor families around Mashad and offering to marry girls. The
girls were then taken through Afghanistan to Pakistan where
they were sold to brothels.
In the southeastern border province of Sistan Baluchestan,
thousands of Iranian girls reportedly have been sold to
Afghani men. Their final destinations 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.
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.
a result of runaways, in Tehran alone there are an estimated
25,000 street children, most of them girls.
prey upon street children, runaways, and vulnerable high
school girls in city parks. In one case, a woman was
discovered selling Iranian girls to men in Persian Gulf
countries; for four years, she had hunted down runaway girls
and sold them. She even sold her own daughter for US$11,000.
Given the totalitarian rule in Iran, most organized activities
are known to the authorities. The exposure of sex slave
networks in Iran has shown that many mullahs and officials are
involved in the sexual exploitation and trade of women and
girls. Women report that in order to have a judge approve a
divorce they have to have sex with him. 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. Officials who run these shelters are often corrupt;
they run prostitution rings using the girls from the shelter.
For example in Karaj, the former head of a Revolutionary
Tribunal and seven other senior officials were arrested in
connection with a prostitution ring that used 12 to 18 year
old girls from a shelter called the Center of Islamic
Other instances of corruption abound. There was a judge in
Karaj who was involved in a network that identified young
girls to be sold abroad. And in Qom, the center for religious
training in Iran, when a prostitution ring was broken up, some
of the people arrested were from government agencies,
including the Department of Justice.
The ruling fundamentalists have differing opinions on their
official position on the sex trade: deny and hide it or
recognize and accommodate it. In 2002, a BBC journalist was
deported for taking photographs of prostitutes. Officials told
her: “We are deporting you … because you have taken
pictures of prostitutes. This is not a true reflection of life
in our Islamic Republic. We don’t have prostitutes.” Yet,
earlier the same year, officials of the Social Department of
the Interior Ministry suggested legalizing prostitution as a
way to manage it and control the spread of HIV. They proposed
setting-up brothels, called “morality houses,” and using
the traditional religious custom of temporary marriage, in
which a couple can marry for a short period of time, even an
hour, to facilitate prostitution. Islamic fundamentalists’
ideology and practices are adaptable when it comes to
controlling and using women.
Some may think a thriving sex trade in a theocracy with
clerics 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 a political ideology that considers women
inherently inferior in intellectual and moral capacity.
Fundamentalists hate women’s minds and bodies. Selling women
and girls for prostitution is just the dehumanizing complement
to forcing women and girls to cover their bodies and hair with
In a religious dictatorship like Iran, 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. Only the end of the Iranian regime will free
women and girls from all the forms of slavery they suffer.
Dr. Donna M. Hughes is a Professor and holds the
Carlson Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at the University
of Rhode Island.
author wishes to acknowledge the Iranian human rights and
pro-democracy activists who contributed information for this
article. If any readers have information on prostitution and
the sex slave trade in Iran, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org