Back in the 1990s when I was in my early teens, I was sent to the school office at Hoda Girls Middle School for being found in possession of a Michael Jackson videotape.
The school counselor forced to deal with me pulled her headscarf forward and glanced warily at the videotape on her desk. “Do you know this singer? Does anybody know whether he is a man or a woman?” she asked, not waiting for an answer before continuing, “they live like animals. They only want to satisfy their sexual urges. It makes no difference whether they sleep next to a man or a woman. They don’t care if they have babies from dogs or…”
She lowered her voice and asked me: “Did you know that this very same singer or dancer or whatever you want to call him has relations with animals?” She pronounced the sentence as though she knew every detail of Michael Jackson’s relations with animals. It was the first time that I had ever heard about bestiality, something that according to my counselor was very common in the West.
I thought back to that moment in the school office when I read statements this week by Mehdi Bayati, the cleric who directs Iran’s Strategic Center for Chastity and Modesty. Back when I was in middle school, both my religion teacher and that school counsellor dedicated long hours to how Western men and women have lost their taste for one another, how they are emotionally broken and have turned to animals to satisfy their desires. All this was meant to encourage young students to observe the Islamic hejab, instilling fears in what would become of a society in which women were not sufficiently chaste.
Without hejab, deviance creeps in
Mehdi Bayati has been putting forward the same argument as my middle school teachers. “The growth of feminism in the West and the fact the 60 percent of Western women prefer to sleep with dogs rather than men is the result of the absence of hejab and the diminished threshold of women’s sexual arousal,” he told the Resa News Agency, run by the Qom seminary.
He did not specify the source of this figure, but referred to the provocative nature of women’s hair. “It is said that the Prophet Mohammad stated that women’s hair sexually arouses men,” he said, conceded that “perhaps modern science has not proven this” but “it was said by somebody who only speaks the truth.”
Invoking one of the less frequently discussed rationales for imposed dress codes, Bayati also said that “the absence of hejab lowers the libido of men and this would not benefit women.”
Iranian clerics have long promoted Islamic hejab by arguing about sexual corruption or deviance in the West, but one of the strangest comments came earlier this year from the cleric Mohammad-Mehdi Mandegary, a member of ultra-conservative Endurance Front and the head of an organization called Foundation for Promoting the Way of the Martyrs.
Western satellite television can even pollute an embryo
He declared that relations between Western women are sexually promiscuous in a manner not even found in the natural world. “In the West when one woman has relations with several men, they take pride in it,” he said. “But animals are different and a female of the species does not have relations with several males at the same time.”
Mandegary, like many hardliners, believes Iranian culture has become too Westernized and distant from true Islamic culture. In a speech he asked Iranian men and women to abstain from sex after watching satellite TV so that the embryo would not be polluted by the banality. “Unfortunately some people are not careful about the moment of conception,” he said in warning. “They do it after watching satellite TV and listening to inappropriate music. But all this affects the embryo.”
Even leggings have been pulled into the fray. Recently tight leg apparel has become the focus of controversy among Islamic Republic officials, and were even brought to the floor of parliament by the Tehran MP Ali Motahari. In an open session he displayed pictures of women in leggings and argued in remarks broadcast on television that “sexual deviations, homosexuality and bestiality are results of unbridled behavior and the trampling of morality, which hejab would prevent.”
Americans even kiss differently
Another bizarre comment comes from Mohsen Gharaati, a cleric who is the representative of the Supreme Leader at the Literacy Campaign and a frequent TV personality. In a speech he declared that “Westerners have been cheated when it comes to sex.” He then compared a kiss between an American boy and girl with the kisses that he used to get from his grandmother.
“When I was in America, I saw boys and girls who were kissing each other but it was as though they were kissing a brick wall,” he said. “The kisses were not solid because perhaps this was the 96th person they were kissing that day. But when our grandmother kissed us it felt like she was sucking us in.” When the audience laughed he added that “they think freedom would benefit them but they were cheated.”
I turned to Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari, a reformist cleric who spent three years in prison for his political positions, to help me understand the religious or social context for such views. “These words astonish me as much as they amaze you,” he said. “I ask myself whether these gentleman are delusional or have been given wrong information. But I cannot find a clear answer for such nonsense.”
A sensible cleric’s view
Eshkevari noted that such views have a long history, and cited Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the Islamic Republic, who returned from Paris and justified imposed hejab by saying that ‘women’s hair radiates a spark that arouses men.’
Banisadr, according to Eshkevari, also interpreted a Koranic verse to mean that some women aroused when beaten. Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi interpreted the same verse in the same way about seven years ago, Eshkevari says, concluding that physical harm arouses some women. “If an Islamic thinker and a Western-educated man such as Banisadr resorts to everything to justify himself, what do you expect from Ayatollah Shirazi?” Eshkevari said.
But it is not only clerics and Islamic ideologues who use offensive words and images to describe the sexual life of Westerners. Last winter the commander of the Basij paramilitary force General Naghdi used this theme to criticize nuclear negotiations with the Americans. “Thirty-five percent of babies who are born in America are bastards,” he said, without citing a source for his statistics.
All manner of Godlessness in the West
A few months later Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a member of Iran’s Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, went even further in a speech about human rights. “In Western societies 75 percent of children do not know their fathers and are raised by their mothers,” he told his audience. Defending death by stoning he asked “Why do Western countries consider this punishment against human rights?” He answered his own question by saying that “there are no sexual complexes in Islam because in Islam marriage makes faith complete whereas in Christianity marriage is not a godly affair.”
Last month Hassan Abbasi, the head of the Center for Doctrinal Strategic Studies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and a theoretician in the office of Supreme Leader, claimed that the “Western human rights approves of incest. Incest is very rare in animals but the Western man has debased himself so much that he supports incest as a human right.”
“In America 100 percent of men have free sexual relations after marriage,” he said in another speech, which was aired on TV. “While in Iran perhaps two men out of ten thousand might marry a second wife. Listen to them shout about equality between men and women.”
Abbasi then referred to Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American astronaut and the first Iranian woman in space. “The basis of the Shi’a thought is chastity and the West uses women to destroy Shi’ism. Why did they send this woman Anousheh Ansari into space with a few men? They want to kill chastity. This is the main plank of feminism and feminism is the foundation of American lifestyle.”
Reading and researching such statements, I wonder how widely held such attitudes still are today, among mainstream Iranians. On a whim I went on Facebook and searched for my old school counselor, who in her profile picture still wears hejab but not as strictly as in those days.
I noticed a picture of her daughter, who was our classmate, and out of curiosity visited her page. She was not wearing hejab but more surprising that that, is married to an Englishman. I was reminded of what her mother, the school counselor, told us so many years ago: “Ninety percent of Westerners have sexual problems. They are not aroused and most of them have relations with animals.”
Trading Sex on Facebook, Iranian Style
The photos are something like the virtual equivalent of an Amsterdam red light district flesh window. They feature semi-nude young women with tattoos and heavy make-up, each introduced with one or two sentences. The picture for Baran is accompanied by this caption: “She is rather expensive, serves only Tehran, and charges double for a full night.”
Early this week Kamal Hadianfar, commander of Iran’s Cyber Police, reported that authorities have identified 135 Facebook pages engaged in online prostitution. “We have taken action against a number of them and others on the list of the Morality Police,” he said.
Despite the Islamic Republic’s strict social codes and severe punishments for sex workers, prostitutes appear on the streets of Tehran every night. Authorities routinely raid brothels, called ‘team houses’ by the police, and arrested women are typically sentences to years in prison and lashes. Occasionally state television broadcasts confessions by prostitutes, their faces camouflaged, who talk about their sad lives and repent.
The severity of the state’s punishment for sex workers who are arrested on the street or through conventional brothels has increasingly pushed prostitution onto social media, where sex workers and their clients can connect more securely than on a Tehran street corner. Facebook pages now serve as online sex shops, where pimps and madams, customers, aspiring sex workers, and pranksters vie for each other’s attention.
One of these pages has more than 21,000 followers. The admin of this page is called “Aunt Mary” and the followers address her as such in their comments. Aunt Mary last posted yesterday, uploading three new photos. “My dears, this is Sahar, my sexy love…only in Tehran,” the post reads. “She does not go anywhere else. The cost for the night is half a million [about $190]. Whoever insults her will be blocked. Cash up front.”
I do a Google search on the pictures. All three have been published before on Facebook pages Duff Persian, Hot Duff II, andDuff Tehran. In the course of one day the pictures received more than 2,000 ‘likes’ and 823 comments. Some comments have objected to what Sahar, or perhaps Aunt Mary, charges, and some have tried to bargain the price down. Others have posted sexual jokes and a few have left a telephone number and asked Aunt Mary to contact them swiftly.
A few women have posted comments to advertise themselves, edging in on the space Aunt Mary has created for the girls she runs. “If you are looking for good sex, please include your phone number in your Facebook message along with a fully charged pay as you go SIM card writes Negar. “The priority is with those who pay for more for the SIM card …I am not a SIM card thief. If you don’t trust me, don’t waste my time.”
Pay As You Go SIM card thief or “charge thief” is a common refrain on these pages. These profiles customarily require a fully-paid SIM card number first before contacting male customers, a practice that seems largely designed to defraud potential customers. The profile names are usually a combination of a female name and a lewd prostitution term. Many users have purchased the credit for Pay As You Go from Iran Cell mobile company, but have not received the expected service. An example can be seen right below the above comment. “Please don’t trust them,” Hamed writes. “They are all alike. Twice I have purchased credit for…but when I sent it I got no answer and was immediately blocked.”
Many have posted comments similar to that of Hamed. That is likely why other pages have emerged with names such as “Fighting Charge Thieves” or “Introducing Charge-Stealing Prostitutes.” Some pages or profiles use phrases like “Real Sex Without Charge” to advertise themselves, like one page that has 14,000 followers.
The page’s administrator explains that the page is not a charge thief and lists certain rules. “This page has become like a zoo,” reads the admin’s latest post. “I have said a hundred times that if you want sex, send us a message with your phone number + the name of the person you want + your town. We do not verify numbers posted in our comments section, so you might get swindled. To have your turn you must get the account number of the person you want by phone and deposit 100 thousand tomans [around $37] into the account.”
The admin has said similar things in previous posts, but this time, in a more patient tone, he points out the difference between a ‘real prostitute’ and a charge thief. “A real prostitute is so busy that she has no time to answer your message, but a charge thief answers you immediately because she wants your payment.”
Despite the admin’s admonishments they are many phone numbers included in the comments which follow. I begin dialling them one by one. The first number I dial does not answer, and I scan through comments on various pages and dial numerous numbers. Most do not answer or do not ring at all. At last a young man picks up. He is 25-years-old, from Varamin, a city near Tehran and knows nothing at all about the page on which his number has appeared. When I explain he laughs aloud and says, “I have never visited such a page. They are pulling my leg. I mean my friends. Please, please give me the page address. I want to visit it and see what they have written about me.”
Among the comments there is one from someone who calls herself Annaz. “I don’t want credit or money before sex,” she writes. “I just want good sex.” I call the number and after a few rings a man with a deep voice and a Kurdish accent picks up the phone:
– Sorry to bother you, but I would like to speak to Annaz.
– That’s me.
– You’re Annaz?
– Lady, a bastard has published my number on the Internet under the name of Annaz. I have been going crazy. I have no idea what they have written, but every day seven or eight people call and ask how much for Annaz. As God is my witness, I don’t know any Annaz.
The next person who answers is Parsa, who talks without embarrassment. “I left my number and two days later Auntie called me,” he says, “But I found the price too high…I had to deposit the money upfront. I didn’t go for it. When they get the money they disappear.” Parsa is 21, knows all the pages, and says that his friend has been swindled. The friend deposited the money but was not contacted afterwards. Parsa says he too has been duped like this. “One time I bought credit and the guy turned out to be a thief,” says he. “Now I am not fooled so easily.”
Once he managed to find a woman through the pages. I asked him whether he found her picture attractive. “No way. I think these pictures are all fake. I just posted a comment below the picture. Then a man who had seen the comment sent me a private message with the number of a woman. He wrote that she does her job well and she is not very expensive. I was with her a few times, she charges 30 thousand tomans. If you don’t have a place of your own you can go to her place for 40 thousand tomans. It has become a little repetitive, that’s why I left a new message.”
I ask Parsa for the number of the now repetitive woman, who checks with her first and later tells me that she is expecting my call. Her name is Mahnaz and Parsa says that she is around 40, but when she picks up her voice is thin and she doesn’t sound that old. I ask her whether she has seen the Facebook pages. “No, I have not!” she answers immediately. “But I’ve heard about them.”
I don’t ask anything else, there is a pause of a few seconds. “I’ve heard that they put up pictures,” she says, finally. “You can be sure that someone in this job would never publish her picture or her number. And they would not take money upfront. The money has to be counted before your own eyes and be left where you can see it. When you have done your job then you pick up the money. These people are a bunch of con artists. I don’t know why men are so clueless and fall for it. But of course men deserve what they get.”
She laughs out loud when she finishes her sentence. She had agreed to speak to me on the condition that I did not ask her any personal questions. “I answered the call and talked to you because Parsa is very dear to me. Otherwise I would not answer the phone if I cannot recognize the number.”
I go back to the Facebook pages, and select ten photos from each page to run through Google search. I find most of them on other pages and some have been copied from foreign magazines, though it appears the admin has chosen only those who strongly resemble Iranian women. Only one-page features pictures that I cannot find elsewhere, but here the faces are completely covered, only the bodies show. Each day the admin posts the specifications of the women who are available that day. “For the weekend Nila: 168 height, 59 weight, 85 chest. 250 thousand tomans per hour.” Previous posts explain that the money is paid after sex.
I read the comments below the posting. “Don’t trust this bastard,” writes a user named Hamid. “Yesterday he gave me number to call and make arrangements with a girl called Shadi. I rang. Now the Cyber Police has called and has summoned me to go there on Saturday. Be careful, guys. It is all lies, I swear. I am worried sick until Saturday.”
A few hours later when I revisit the page Hamid’s comment has been deleted.