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Stoned Porn Stars and Temporary Marriage

Sunday, 10th June, 2001

Back when I was young enough to still be in school, a friend took to writing avant-garde poetry. I don't have copies so I can't say whether it was any good or not, but back then it seemed very cool. Naturally I experimented with the idea myself, equally naturally resulting in a short piece of pretty low quality. I was proud of it at the time.

Trying to throw plenty of negativity into the piece, I picked Iran as a subject. I was becoming aware of world affairs around the time that the Iranians kicked out the Shah and brought in the 1980's nut of choice, the Ayatollah Khomeini. It meant that I got to see plenty of the insanity surrounding the Salman Rushdie fatwa, when our local Muslim population were burning copies of The Satanic Verses in the street. It did wonders for his sales figures, and it equated Iran with extremism in the eyes of many. It became the natural choice for my poem.

Iran's been quiet of late, partly because it's a little more moderate and partly because other nuts have stolen the limelight. Just next door, Saddam Hussein has acquired his fair share of column inches and you can't get much more newsworthy than the Taliban.

Oh, and before you guys decide to give me a death sentence for calling you nuts, I do appreciate the good side of things that the news doesn't focus on. Saddam Hussein has done more for archaeology in the region than anyone else in the region and the Taliban have closed down the drugs trade more efficiently than anyone else in the entire world.

None of this is to say that Iran has disappeared from the world stage. Quiet it may be, but I've been hearing intriguing stories lately of strange goings on within its borders.

The news item that brought it back to my attention was a sick one. It seems that the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, managed to track down one of Iran's porn stars, by virtue of recognising something in the background of one of her films. They matched it to her apartment and promptly locked her up. Sounds a bit extreme, doesn't it? Well add the fact that a few years later they buried her in the ground up to her neck and promptly stoned her to death. The get out clause was that if she managed to escape the hole, then she would be freed. She didn't escape.

I wonder how far the hardliners over here would appreciate this sort of justice. I often hear people praise the eye for an eye routine as an effective force to be reckoned with. If you catch someone stealing, chop off his hands; after all, he won't do it again. Even more often, I hear the same idea applied to rape: it would be a different body part to be removed, but the result would be more effective still. And to be fair, turning a convicted rapist into a eunuch is a little less extreme than strapping him into a chair and pumping 20,000 volts through him. Welcome to the world of inconsistent morals. Have a nice day.

I wonder if this sort of news story would have been released during the 1980s. I don't think so, due to their trying to keep a semi-acceptable face to the West, though I'm sure the Taliban wouldn't hesitate today as a demonstration of their dedication to a true implementation of the laws of Mohammed. Iran is releasing this sort of material now because a more moderate government has opened up the media. The price we pay for a free media is news that we don't want to hear.

I was so caught by a story yesterday that it brought me to buy a copy of the Financial Times, which wouldn't be my newspaper of choice even if were I to have such a thing. In another story that would have been suppressed twenty years ago, it seems that Iran now has itself a serial killer, which could be proof positive that it has been infiltrated by western culture.

The papers are calling this man the Spider. It's commonly assumed to be one man, though there is no proof to suggest that it isn't a woman or a group of men, and this man seems to be single-handedly attempting to rid the holy city of Mashad of its seamier side, by killing off prostitutes with criminal records. All had spent time in prison.

The city hasn't taken a lot of interest. Many back the killer, applauding him in his work. Even the new special unit set up by the police to be run by women and deal with women doesn't diverge from this view. The retired schoolteacher who runs the unit, Mrs Banai, is happy that these prostitutes are being removed from society. A possibly new group calling itself The Fighters Against Un-Islamic Values are quoted as saying that if the killer gives up, they'll be happy to carry on the fight.

Maybe it all has something to do with the town's main claim to being on the map is its extremism. It is the home of the shrine of Reza, descendant of Mohammed himself, and the only one of the twelve holy imams revered by the Shia Muslims to be buried inside Iran. Over a million pilgrims visit his shrine every month, which is a number most tourist attractions can only dream of. Special events held here include mourning days when men ritually act out the Reza's death by poisoned grapes. Religious intensity is high; and if a convenient target were present, no doubt it would become focused religious intensity akin to that in Amritsar, world centre for religious warfare.

The death toll stands at twelve, all prostitutes of the lowest class. Even hookers have their own class system in Iran, these lowest known as 'truck women' who are usually drug addicts selling their bodies to fuel their addiction. Their age varies widely, but all are strangled with their own headscarves and left wrapped in their own black cloaks, or in the case of the one exception, a carpet.

Maybe the killer will be found; maybe he'll give up; maybe he'll carry on for years to come. The people don't seem to care much, and most prostitutes are still working the streets. Two aspects of this case intrigue me: the first is to wonder whether this is a sign that Iran is still a Muslim extremist country, however much it has been upstaged lately by Afghanistan; or whether it's a sign that it has joined Western civilisation. Serial killing is the American national pastime, after all, and The Fighters Against Un-Islamic Values sounds a little close to the Communist witch hunts to me. Maybe Iran has caught up to the USA of the 1950's.

The other is the bizarre practice of sigheh, which I'd not previously heard of before reading up on this case. None of the twelve victims had entered into sigheh, which is a temporary marriage sanctioned by the Shia Muslims. Generally seen as a means of allowing sex outside of marriage, it has also become a cover for prostitution, something noted by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India way back in the 1890s when he visited Mashad.

I'm trying to understand why priests would sanction something like this, unless it's for their own benefit. I can't see a logical religious reason for it. Maybe the killer could be an extremist priest upset that these hookers are not officially sanctioned because they didn't choose sigheh. Maybe it costs money and Islam benefits from the spoils. It does offer protection to the woman and any resulting child, so there may even be a humanitarian motive. I'm still intrigued, however.

The system works by a couple entering into the temporary marriage for a period of months, weeks or even merely days. Those who go for this generally respect the three month period of sexual abstinence that is required afterwards. Once again I can't come to grips with this concept. If someone were horny enough to get married for a few days to relieve the tension, would they be able to last through another three months without?

All in all, it highlights to me how difficult it must be to handle diplomacy with a country with such a different and fascinating mindset. With a freer Iranian press, maybe I'll get to find out even more little snippets about eclectic Shia beliefs. Watch this space.

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