By Shokouh Mirzadegi
There have been news reports about the mushrooming of “chastity houses,” particularly in holy cities, and their increasing popularity with male foreign tourists visiting Iran. Though they are yet to become legal, chastity or morality houses are religiously sanctioned establishments that enable couples to engage in intimate relationships by performing sigheh (temporary marriage).
Shahrvand newspaper recently reported that there were 6,000 “unlicensed guesthouses” in the holy city of Mashhad, capital of the northeastern province of Razavi Khorasan, most of which cater to “male tourists from Muslim countries.” Sex procurers allegedly operate at these establishments with the full knowledge of the local authorities.
Mohammad Moheb-Khodaei, Deputy Minister Of Culture, Handicraft and Tourism, recently said: “We’ve seen a 90 percent and a 70 percent increase in the number of tourists from Iraq and Azerbaijan, respectively. There has also been a 40 percent rise in the number of Afghan tourists coming to Iran. Pilgrimage, health, and trade have generated most of the revenue.”
Shahrvand noted: “These are not the only reasons for Iraqi tourists to visit Iran. Although Iranian tourism revolves mainly around package tours of holy shrines and historic sites, it has expanded into morally questionable areas in recent years. Research has shown that many Iraqi pilgrims choose specific destinations where they know in advance that they would be able to perform sigheh with women. Upon arriving in Iran, many of these men head directly to a chastity house.”
Some 20 years ago, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani described sigheh as “an effective solution to young people’s sexual urges.” Mr. Rafsanjani’s statement shocked urban, educated and middle-class men, most of whom had grown up during the progressive Pahlavi era, which promoted women’s rights.
The state was surprised by the strong adverse public reaction and even seemed to back down from the idea. However, Islamic clerics in Iran never stopped promoting the practice.
Surprisingly, many forward-thinking people, including some Islamist feminists and other women’s rights advocates, believed that sigheh allowed men and women to maintain intimate relationships without fear of violating strict Islamic social and moral values.
Many accused me of insulting Islam when, during a television program, I described sigheh as “religiously sanctioned prostitution.” At the time, I warned that if we failed to stop this human tragedy, there would come a time when adult men would appropriate our prepubescent girls through a state-sanctioned scheme.
The practice of sigheh enabled many married men to enter temporary marriages with women other than their wives and also allowed the establishment of chastity houses. Initially, some questionable characters were reportedly operating these places, but they later became legitimate business establishments.
Sigheh is particular to Shia Islam. It is frowned upon by other Islamic sects. Many Shia clerics have condoned and actively promoted the practice.
Sigheh was made into law in 2012. Article 21 of the Family Protection Law officially sanctions the practice. According to this law, the two sides can perform the service by reciting the relevant passage either in Farsi or English. The law states that a couple must officially register their union only if the woman is pregnant or both sides consent or they decide to marry.
Many young unmarried couples who engage in intimate relationships refuse to safeguard themselves against the security forces by performing sigheh. They describe their loving and civil partnership as a “white marriage.” They prefer to be punished by the authorities for having a sexual relationship outside of marriage, rather than hiding behind a hypocritical sigheh agreement.
Those who engage in sigheh are:
- Married men who look for an extramarital relationship.
- Female sex workers who wish to avoid arrest and imprisonment.
- Misguided religious women who are brainwashed into thinking that they are performing a charitable act.
- Poor widows and divorcees who find sigheh as a way of supporting their children.
Sigheh has become part of the so-called “halal tourism.” Many Iranian travel websites describe halal tourism as “ a subcategory of tourism which provides services to Muslim families who abide by the rules of Islam.” The regime actively promotes the idea to encourage male tourists from Islamic countries to visit Iran.
Khabaronline News Agency recently reported: “While reputable hotels in Iran refuse to accept married couples of mixed nationalities [an Iranian wife and a foreign husband] as guests, Iraqi visitors, particularly men, are routinely accepted at unlicensed guesthouses.” The report added: “According to government sources there are 5,000 such guesthouses in the country.”
Mohammad Ghanaifar, the head of the Hoteliers Association, has confirmed that male pilgrims from Arab countries frequently visit chastity houses. “There are more religious pilgrims in the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad,” Mr. Ghanaifar noted. He added: “We’ve witnessed a marked increase in the number of Iraqi male pilgrims visiting Mashhad in the past month. Many of the hotels were in trouble before, but now they are doing well.”
Ghanaifar explained: “Many Iraqis have a negative view of Iran. The authorities have swept the problem under the carpet until now. We must find a way to address it. We have discussed it at many official meetings. Unfortunately, it is currently impossible to openly discuss it, because we have to keep our tourism industry alive. The country is going through a challenging economic period. Therefore, we shouldn’t make any hasty decisions. We must consider all sides of this phenomenon and ensure that our actions do not threaten the economic life of our country.”
Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi