A group of Iranian sex workers in Dubai have been in touch with IranWire, asking for legal advice about how feasible it would be for them to return to Iran.
“We are women who came to Dubai to work,” the email reads. “A number of us started working in Iran and some of us started here. We have a difficult time here but we have no choice. We cannot return to Iran and nowhere else will let us in. Unfortunately difficulties of life forced us to go down this road, but the more we stay in this line of work the more our minds and our lives are distraught.”
In most cases, poverty forced these women to sell their bodies, either in Iran or in neighboring countries. In some cases, it was their families that forced them to choose this path.
But now, many of them are exhausted and despondent after suffering violence at the hands of their clients, human traffickers and pimps. They want to return to Iran or, if not, find somehow to save themselves from violence.
Often, however, they are discouraged from returning out of fear of the consequences. Traffickers and pimps scare them by telling them that if they do, they might be executed or stoned to death. In many cases, these men keep sex workers’ passports, turning them into hostages that have nowhere to go, and making them believe that selling their bodies is their only fate.
But legal experts say that the laws of the Islamic Republic do offer them a chance to return — without being punished or with minimum punishment. In fact, the traffickers and pimps face much harsher punishments if they return, from 75 lashes to execution.
IranWire asked the lawyer Mohammad Olyaeifard to answer questions posed in the recent correspondence from sex workers.
How can we return to Iran? If they find out we have been sex workers, won’t they arrest us for prostitution?
As an Iranian you have the right of return. If a trafficker got you out of Iran, you can go to the Iranian embassy and request a passport. You cannot be refused.
As for arresting you, it depends on whether judiciary officials know that you have been a sex worker in another country. In my view, it is unlikely that they would have access to such information. They have the general idea that a number of people are doing this in, for instance, Dubai. But even if they have specific information, you can defend yourself.
You must not be afraid of returning to Iran. It is not as scary as the hardships of being a sex worker. Pimps and traffickers might try to scare you by lying to you [and saying] that you might be executed — but this is their technique. Based on law, I can prove that this is a lie. Pimps and traffickers inject them [sex workers] with this fear in order to exploit them.
What exactly is our crime?
Article 221 of the Islamic Penal Code defines adultery as sexual intercourse between a man and woman who are not married to each other. Based on this article, the sex workers’ crime is adultery, which is punished by hadd, meaning a punishment which is stipulated in the Koran. But let me tell you that the term “adultery” must not scare you. You must not allow the traffickers and pimps to trick you. It is true that your crime is adultery but, according to Article 228 of the same penal code, the punishment is 100 lashes, not execution and not stoning to death.
But proving that you deserve 100 lashes is very hard. Under Islamic law, you need four “just” witnesses. These four witnesses — or, to be exact, four men or three men and two women — must come to Iran from Dubai at the same time and testify that they have witnessed penetration. Saying that they have witnessed bodily contact is not enough. They must have witnessed penetration with their own eyes. And if there are no witnesses then the accused must confess “I have committed adultery” four times. What sane person would confess “I have committed adultery” four times? Not once, but throughout the trial, the examination and the interrogation?
Some of us worked in Iran and both pimps and clients abused us and did not pay us. Can we file complaints against them? Is there some place that can help us?
Human trafficking, pimping and paying for sex are crimes in Iran. If a complaint is filed, the accused might be charged, but the plaintiff might get charged as well. That is why we need institutions to support sex workers. In Iran, for example, we do have some support for drug addicts — but not for sex workers.
If anybody in Iran says: “I provided sexual service and was not paid,” the accused might deny it and then the plaintiff might get into legal trouble. But sexual abuse can be brought to general courts provided that [the fact of] being a sex worker is left out. In sexual abuse cases, money has no place. The charge must be sexual abuse. But if it is revealed that the plaintiff is a sex worker, then the plaintiff can be charged with a crime. Of course sexual abuse must be proved. This is a problem in itself because it needs witnesses and either the accused must confess or the judge must be convinced of the guilt. And this makes it difficult.
A friend of ours was saying that in the United Stated and some other countries you can complain against pimps and madams and send them to prison. In Iran, if we repent, can we complain against a pimp? What if we do not repent?
According to Article 114 of the Islamic Penal Code, one can repent for adultery. If the judge decides to accept the repentance he can revoke the punishment. As I said, it is difficult to prove adultery, but if it is proven, then the punishment is 100 lashes. If the person repents and the judge accepts it the punishment is set aside. Even if a person confesses to being a sex worker but repents, the court can ask the Supreme Leader for a pardon through the head of the judiciary. Of course, repenting must be done before the crime is proven.
This is not something exceptional. This happens a thousand times every day in Iranian courts. So many people in Iran are accused of this crime that they cannot arrest everybody and flog them. In fact, if the guilty party is not married, the defendant either repents or receives 100 lashes and the case is closed. Iranian courts regularly accept letters of repentance.
As for complaining against pimps, the moment their names are on file the prosecution pursues the case, regardless of whether there has been a repentance or not. But if you only want to file a complaint against a pimp then you will be implicated as well.
Isn’t it a crime in Islam to be a pimp? Why do the police leave them alone?
It certainly is a crime and is punishable by hadd. According to Article 243 of the Islamic Penal Code, a pimp receives 75 lashes and if the crime is repeated the defendant not only receives the lashes but is exiled for one year as well.
But hadd is not the only law [relevant to] pimping. The so-called “discretionary” laws also impose punishments for this crime. According to Article 639 of the Penal Code, “anyone who establishes or directs a place of immorality or prostitution” or “anyone who facilitates or encourages people to immorality or prostitution” not only receives the above punishment but will be sentenced to [between] one and 10 years in prison as well. The discretionary laws come from the government [not the Koran], so it seems that they found hadd laws inadequate for fighting this crime and wanted to compensate for its shortcomings.
But these are not all the laws that can be used to punish pimps. In certain cases, when a group is deemed a threat to national security, the court can condemn the defendants to death. According to Article 286 of the Penal Code, “anyone who, on a vast scale, commits crimes...against the country’s [national security], spreads lies, disrupts economic order, commits sabotage or arson, spreads poisonous, dangerous and pathological substances or establishes places of immorality or prostitution...or facilitates immorality or prostitution on a vast scale...will be sentenced to death.”
To sum up, the punishment for pimping starts at 75 lashes but can escalate to the death penalty if it has national security implications.
What I want to say is: Do not be so afraid. The pimps have a lot more to be scared about.
Also read: Iranian Women and Dubai’s Sex Market