TEHRAN — Intelligent and confident, Parisa, 23, is from what could be loosely termed a middle-class family and has a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Islamic Azad University.
On weekends, she sells her body for profit on the streets of North Tehran.
“I’m a lot of fun. My time is very valuable,” says Parisa, a diminutive computer technician using a pseudonym to shield her identity.
She is part of a new phenomenon here — young, educated and independent women becoming occasional, part-time prostitutes — driven by the Islamic republic’s weakened economy.
A single transaction can make her $80, three-fifths of what she earned monthly at a mid-size tech firm before she lost her job about five months ago. And Tehran has no shortage of sex-starved young men — sons of wealthy parents — who are willing and able to cruise the streets in search of pleasure at a price.
“What choice do I have?” Parisa says. “If I [leave Tehran and] go back to Khorramabad, then I go home a failure. My parents can’t support me. With the rising price of everything, I’m afraid to ask them how they are surviving themselves.”
Long-standing international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program are squeezing Iran’s economy with restrictions on its oil industry and central bank.
Iranian leaders have long denied Western suspicions that the atomic program is geared toward making a nuclear weapon. They say the program is for peaceful purposes but have denied international inspectors access to nuclear facilities.
Meanwhile, out-of-work civil engineers are driving taxis 14 hours a day to make ends meet, and school teachers are reducing the amount of meat they buy every month to feed their children.
A wealthy male neighbor of Parisa’s expressed outrage at the economic situation.
“Our girls are selling themselves on the streets! You never saw this five or six years ago,” he said. “And all [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] can talk about is the nuclear program. What nuclear program? Some Russian-built antique that’s been sitting there doing nothing for 30 years?”
Iran’s Shiite theocratic regime is widely known for its strict enforcement of Islamic laws, especially those regarding sexual behavior. But prostitutes in North Tehran ply their trade openly with little, if any, police interference. Parisa says she has never had an encounter with the police.
Punishment for prostitutes and their clients can include up to 100 lashes and jail terms. The prostitute can be executed if she is married. But under this country’s corrupt judicial system, a few dollars can buy off a policeman, and what few cases are prosecuted rest on the discretion of a presiding judge.
On the streets of North Tehran, prostitutes negotiate prices with would-be clients through their car windows. Sometimes they will go home with men with the expectation of receiving cash at the end of the night, an approach that often can lead to acrimonious disputes.
Parisa says she worries about her safety. “I have heard stories about policemen, about perverts,” she says. “But so far I have been OK. I know how to handle people.”
Iran’s theocracy has allowed a practice called “sigheh,” or temporary marriage, which Sunni Muslims have banned but Shiite Muslims have accepted. Unmarried women and men can receive a “license” to have sexual relations for a designated period of time. The practice has been used most frequently near religious seminaries and during pilgrimages to holy cities.
Parisa says she hasn’t bothered to try to get a sigheh to protect her legally in case the police come knocking at the door.
“Nobody cares about such things anymore, not in Tehran anyway,” she says, laughing. “The police don’t care. The mullahs don’t care. And definitely these bache [kids] who pay me for my time don’t care about their religion.”
• Brendan Daly is a pseudonym to protect the reporter from Iranian government reprisals.