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Red Light under a Thin Veil - Temporary Marriage

The Observer 1998

DUBAI - Behind the anonymous white wallss of a handsome villa in North Tehran, business is booming for the best-known madams of pre- revolutionary Iran' Their legendary hospitality are queues of bearded mullahs who have been told that Belinda, and Chikma are now officially authorised to dispense their sexual favours. Under the strict morality coddes of Iran's ayatollahs, these three. women and thousands of others like them should be whipped or even to stoned to death. Indeed, when Khomeini overthrew the Shah and established his Islamic regime, revolutionary guuards targeted prostitutes and demolished the red-light district of Tehran. But it is a measure of the changing standards of Shi'ite rule that prostitution has once again become legitimate. Prostitutes may function as they invoke the "law of desire" and enter into marriages of enjoyment.

These are marriages in name only, not least because men have the right to deny their responsibdities for any children born of the temporary liaison. This controversial law allows 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 on a 10-minute quickie in which they are able to satisfy each other and still keep within the law.

"The enoyment marriage is nothing but a legal cover for prostitution,' says Dr Mahran Keys Doltchahi, a professor at Iran's Free University. "How can anyone in the world claim that a marriage for 10 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 Doitchahi and other prominent 'women's rights campaigners say the real victims of the Law of Desire are women from deprived socio-economic - backgrounds. 'These include tens of thousands who lost husbands in the 10-year war with Iraq.

Teheran's new 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 frofii the practice since the recent publication of a book of memoirs containing embarrassing details about, the sex habits of senior officials. The author is Zara Khanom, widow of a former general in Iran's Military intelligence. Describing m herself as aprofessionbal wife " the 52-year-old, Khanom says shes has had "hundreds of husbands" in the past 20 years. She says she has been forced -into the business because her first husband, whom she married legitimately, was executed by the regime for allegedly plotting the overthrow of Ayatollah Khomeini. "My temporary husbands have included - one ayatollah, 21 senior clergymenn, five famous' merchants, a few hundred univertity students and the head of a hospital in the holy city of Qom. The director of the hospital was the most handsome and polite of them all; he treated me with love and respect. He used to read me poetry and together we used to listen to Beethoven's symphonies. "Unusually, our marriage lasted eight months, but he was forced to leave home after his wife discovered the temporary marriage. The hypocrisy of the clergy was highlighted last year when the former Government ' prosecutor, Hojatulislam Mohaimnedi, was asked if he approved of enjyment marriages. Mohammedi said he fully supported the concept because it prevented young people from sinning- But he would never allow his own daughter to participate in such a marriage.

Dr Shahla Haeri, an anthropologist at Harvard and authoress of Law of Desire, says conservative clergy are behind a campaign to preserve enjoyinent marriages. She cites one of Iran''s leading imams, Jafar El Sadek, as declaring "partners in enjoyment in marriages are especially blessed. When they bathe, every drop of water turns into 70 angels who will testify on their behalf on the Day of Judgment " Ironically, it is the Iranian liberals who praise Khomeini for his forthright stand on the notorious Law of Desire. He was alone among senior clergy in condemning the law and the hypocrisy of those who were in favour"

Still remembered on the streets of Tehran is the Persian story he once quoted on televisis She replied "Oh Sheik! What you say about me is correct. But what you pretend about yourself, is that true too?ion 'A religious leader said to a prostitute "You are drunk and every moment you go and visit someone different.