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K.S. Batmanghelichi, Red Lights in Parks

OIS 3 (2015) – Divercities: Competing Narratives and Urban Practices in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran

Kristin Soraya Batmanghelichi

Red Lights in Parks: A Social History of Park-e Razi



Long before Iran's 1979 Revolution, red-light districts were already well-known fixtures in major cities across Iran. In the capital Tehran, official maps, government reports, and social worker and historian accounts document that a nascent brothel district had formed in the late Qajar period (1785-1925). In March 1786, Tehran – at the time a small village near the ancient city of Rey – was selected by Qajar dynasty founder and patriarch Agha Muhammad Khan to be his capital.1 The "town's population swelled by the courtiers and soldiers," and soon the lure of wages and industrial jobs brought rural migrants pouring into the area, forcing the expansion of the city's newly defined limits.2 Concomitantly, on a site once known as a pastoral residence for royal officials, women who came from mostly rural, economically depressed backgrounds were brought to the area to live and work in 'azab-khaneh (private brothels).3 By the 1920s, these brothels formed a sizable group of houses called Shahr-e No (New City), an area known as Tehran's largest red-light district for almost a century.4 Elsewhere in Iran there were other incarnations of Shahr-e No, designated zones around town where prostitution was solicited. In the 1960s, when Pahlavi officials introduced a series of nationwide reforms in the education and public health sectors, among others, red-light districts in particular became sites of government regulation. University researchers, doctors, social workers and ministry health officials were sent to monitor the residents and activities of Shahr-e No. Prostitutes were subsequently checked for venereal infections, and some were sent to rehabilitation and skills training programmes. Yet these measures did little to ameliorate their lives; instead, government intervention had the effect of institutionalizing an industry built upon the notion that male sexual desires needed a relieving space.


Before the fall of the monarchy, much of the opposition's criticism against the Pahlavis was based on claims that the regime had supported "dens of moral corruption" – meaning cinemas, private brothels, red-light districts and entertainment clubs in cities across Iran. The Gomrok neighbourhood in south-west central Tehran, where the Shahr-e No quarter was located, was reportedly set on fire (http://www.zamaaneh.com/revolution/2009/01/post_218.html) (trapping an unknown number of residents inside) for that very reason.5 After Khomeini's supporters consolidated and increased their own power, special revolutionary courts emerged, ordering all brothels closed, demolished, or both. In 1979, prostitution became illegal. Kanun-e Hemayat-e Eslami (Centre for Islamic Protection) officially closed down the quarter.6 Apprehended prostitutes were hastily tried in closed-door proceedings, with their punishments determined by an Islamic criminal code. Yet the criminalization of prostitution did little to halt the sex industry's growth in the first decades of the post-revolutionary period. The services provided in the red-light district and other brothel areas simply went underground, or remained in plain sight. More than three decades on, prostitution is still arranged in public, often in city parks and in full view of police, officials and local denizens. In fact, in the exact location where Shahr-e No once stood is now the manicured public park known as Park-e Razi (Razi Park), where undercover sex workers and potential customers easily mingle in the midst of families picnicking on lawns.


What is unique about the historical narrative of Shahr-e No in particular, and the discourse of prostitution in general, is not that sex sells in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rather, it is that the sex industry continually mutates itself soon after its brothels are destroyed and prostitutes are arrested. The reasons for this regeneration are institutionally and conceptually based and perhaps best exemplified by the following idiosyncratic statement made famous in the revolutionary period. At the time of the Gomrok fire, a popular Shi'a cleric and contemporary of Ayatollah Khomeini came to Shahr-e No's defence. Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani is widely known to have uttered the oft-repeated line: "Every house needs a mosterah (toilet)." Its meaning is commonly interpreted that in every society (or, metaphorically, house), a space for excess must exist as an output for human aggression, sexual release, folly, or sin.7 In other words, prostitutes figuratively embody the proverbial toilet – their role and function is that of a human repository for the discharge of male sexuality. In regard to Shahr-e No, Taleghani's metaphor speaks to an underlying acceptance – by a well-respected cleric and national figure – that brothels and prostitutes are requisite for maintaining some level of social order. And for many Iranians, his quip – and its repetition ever since – reinforces this popular understanding about prostitution and its societal relevance. Thus the "mosterah" should be tolerated and incorporated into daily life – provided, of course, that its activities are conducted in private. This was apparently the justification for Shahr-e No; its more than a century's existence was generally tolerated and put under government regulation.


After the 1979 revolution, with the main site of prostitution eliminated and the profession criminalized, it was commonly reported that the sex industry rebounded, albeit operating in different modes and conditions. Ethnographic fieldwork illustrates this view; on the former land of Shahr-e No, which has been turned into a family park, prostitution actively continues on the very same contested site.


Perhaps one of the primary reasons for prostitution's recurring presence in this particular space lies in the continuity – and not rupture – of a normative conceptualization of human sexuality that prevails in the contemporary Iranian context: the recognition that a physical outlet for male sexual expression, in which women "of the periphery" play a formative and functional role, must coexist and cooperate with the "morally acceptable" norms and conduct of the time. In such a frame, there are many questions over which to ponder: what became of the prostitutes and/or of the conditions that pushed the sex district into full operational mode in the first place, after Shahr-e No was demolished and purposefully erased from the official historical record? Were they expected to disappear or self-reform once the site was transformed into an Islamic family park? From a quantitative perspective, have the rates of prostitution subsequently abated since the district's destruction in 1979? Moreover, what do these particular interrogations into the history of Shahr'e No and its subsequent redevelopment reveal about the unsavoury links between – and contestations over – clerical authorities, police protection, government morality, male sexuality, poverty and public memory in the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic?


Vali Mahlouji writes, "The erasure of the urban neighbourhood signified the initiation of a programme of cultural cleansing that transformed the Iranian landscape. At the core of this cultural revolution was a redefining of sexual and gender urban mores."8 Yet, crucial to understanding the institution of prostitution – its constraints, social support networks, cultural and political impact, and/or how it operates in contemporary Iranian society – is charting the intersections of economic exchange, sex, gender, poverty, law, religious doctrine and disease that are elaborated through the piecing together of Shahr-e No's history, detailing, for instance, its processes of development, demise, and "Islamically acceptable" modification. When analysing how different institutions, agents and interests become interconnected and modified over time, the "cultural cleansing" and "transformations" of the Iranian landscape appear merely superficial; the subcutaneous layers have in fact remained intact, with sexual mores and appetites for illicit sex satiated in more diversified forms and, as observed at Razi Park, in plain sight. In brief, the prostitution industry continues to thrive in present-day Iran, no longer contained within the "citadel" of Shahr-e No.


In what follows, I aim to document the kaleidoscopic history of Iran's most controversial red-light district, Shahr-e No, examining primary, secondary and tertiary players and powers operating in the district from the early twentieth century until the contemporary period. I mark a slight turning point in 1979, when the site is demolished, but follow the continuities in its historical narrative, considering its many spatial and conceptual transformations, until the site is reconfigured into the modern-day public leisure space of Park-e Razi. I underscore the disciplinary technologies employed by two consecutive regimes (Pahlavi and Islamic Republic) both to regulate the sex industry and reinvent a century-old landmark into a workable site of government regulation and reform – be it one designed to express modern development, or to convey a moral triumph over Western decadence. In an effort to explore the mentalities that structure the diverse understandings and experiences of the "space" of Shahr-e No, I frequented the park in 2011, interviewing its patrons and reflecting on "ideological and societal concepts physically emplaced and enacted"9 at that specific location. This ethnographic section acted as a natural segue into a larger discussion on the possibilities of meaning behind, first, Shahr-e No's transformation into a "morally righteous" park; and second, the reinforcement of historical ghettos constructed to satisfy and safeguard male sexuality. On some level, Shahr-e No's reformulation and strategic transformations are interpreted as attempts to sustain female-embodied heterotopias, ironically constructed by seemingly different regimes. The human geographic concept of heterotopia, which Foucault elaborates as "a space of illusion"10 that is perceived as natural by society, although nonetheless designed to control, discipline and punish – essentially to regulate social behaviour – provides a useful lens through which to examine the contradictory measures taken by state and clerical authorities to deal with public health fears, socio-economic pressures, and in particular, uncontrolled (male) sexual energy.

Regulation of Prostitution during Reza Shah Pahlavi's Reign (1925-1941)


In the first half of the twentieth century, the infamous Shahr-e No district was publically regarded as an illicit activity zone where prostitution, drug abuse, khalafkari (deceit and mischief)11 and sexually transmitted diseases were rampant. According to one social worker's account, most of the female prostitutes were addicted to opium and arak.12 They were also accused of spreading venereal diseases (VD).13 Outbreaks of syphilis in particular were commonly reported, as the disease had become more widespread by the turn of the century and had been steadily increasing.14 In one report, an Iranian doctor surmised, "[T]he prostitute carries the poison of this dangerous disease [syphilis], and death is considered the best end to it."15 By the mid-twentieth century syphilis and gonorrhoea were common afflictions among Iranians, for whom condom use was both costly and a social stigma.16 Contracting gonorrhoea in particular was of heightened concern, for it potentially led to sterility and affected young couples hoping to expand their families.17 Less reported was the fact that women of all social classes were impacted by rising VD rates. Not only were increasing numbers becoming infected by their husbands (as a result of their extra-marital sex), but children were also being born with syphilis-related disabilities.18 "To put the problem of VD in perspective," said investigative reporter Hedayatollah Hakim-Olahi, "three hundred thousand inhabitants of Tehran, or 40 per cent of its population, had VD in 1946."19


Concerns over the spread of VD among the military were especially high, and the blame was again directed at prostitutes.20 According to Willem Floor, the Pahlavi government began to register prostitutes from Shahr-e No in the 1930s and also threatened to ban brothels and arrest any officer found with a prostitute. In October 1933 it was reported that a law was passed, although not signed by the Shah, to make brothels illegal and have them shut down in three months' time.21 The proposed regulations would require prostitutes to carry identification cards with their signature and the date of their last hospital visit. This order was soon revoked. It was only in 1941 that a law on the prevention of venereal and contagious diseases was passed by the parliament; however, it was evidently poorly enforced due to lack of funding and training. By the 1960s, the level of venereal diseases had not abated. According to a 1963 report, cases of VD were as high as 80 per cent in rural areas.22


The Pahlavi-era method of regulation for prostitution was shaped, to some extent, by European contagious disease legislation and influenced by public health regulatory measures enacted by European and Ottoman governments during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, a policy of "regulationism" of prostitution commenced in Continental Europe and spread throughout the British colonies. As Muge Ozbek has observed, "the regulationist regimes targeted prostitutes, not their clients, as the primary conduits of venereal disease within a gender-biased discourse of social hygiene." These policies were justified as pragmatic responses "to the threat of venereal diseases and the problems of security and social order." European governments began to abandon policies of toleration in favour of regulationism – except for Victorian-era Britain – and legalized prostitution by "allowing brothels legal or quasi-legal status and giving prostitutes special licenses."23


Regulatory policy in general consisted of registering prostitutes, mandatory health examinations and administrative surveillance.24 Ozbek contends, "The existence of prostitution was accepted as a 'necessary evil' that should be tolerated, as toleration allowed the state stricter control of prostitutes in order to protect public health and social order."25 As an immediate example: in the late 1870s, the Ottoman municipal government began requiring prostitutes to carry unique identity cards designating their special status among the general population. Brothels were also obliged to register as licensed businesses with municipal commissions.26


For the Pahlavi state, the regulation of prostitution also involved policing prostitutes' behaviour. Prostitutes were quarantined in a red-light district, where police supervision could be conducted at specific sites.27 In lieu of scrutinizing their male customers or, say, addressing the issue of male promiscuity, the authorities were suspicious of prostitutes. They were ordered by the Ministry of Health to undergo monthly medical check-ups and obtain identity cards. However, medical examinations were not regularly conducted.28 Underlying the Pahlavi policy was the protection of public health through curtailing the spread of VD among prostitutes and not their clients.29 These policies were reasoned to be essential, pragmatic measures to control the "necessary evil" of prostitution. Remarkably, absent in this policy was encouraging the general public to take on preventive health measures, such as condom usage.30

Regulation of Prostitution during Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's Reign


While Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was monarch (1941-1979), the regulation of prostitution became integrated into the modernization and reform agenda of the 1960s called the White Revolution. Earlier, in 1949, the Shah had announced his main objective as ruler, namely, "the restoration of the dignity and a better life to the people of Iran."31 By the early 1960s, "a better life" was translated into top-down modernization and development projects, outlined in a six-point executive order addressed to the Iranian people.32 A few years later, state-administered land, economic, cultural and social reforms commenced, the last of which were ostensibly designed to improve the status of Iranian women.33 This entailed eliminating illiteracy, extending suffrage rights to women, revamping public health policy and setting up vocational training programmes for poorer communities. Initially, these progressive reforms did not address the issue of prostitution or include social welfare programmes for female prostitutes. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, twin sister of Muhammad Reza Shah, became the figurehead of a programme funded by the government's Fourth Development Economic Plan to provide educational assistance and training for a small number of female prostitutes.34 By improving their literacy and teaching them domestic trades, such as sewing, the aim was to enable them to return to society as functional, socially accepted citizens.35 Nevertheless, these policy measures did little to break the cycles and conditions of poverty that these women experienced.36 Khosrou Mansourian, a social worker who documented living conditions at Shahr-e No for official reports, maintained that the reform programmes did not significantly ameliorate the poverty and nor did they improve prostitutes' literacy rates.37 According to one report, prostitutes who attended vocational workshops had left the red-light district only to continue the same activities in other parts of Tehran.38

The Brothels of Shahr-e No


Uneven socio-economic development in the 1960s and 1970s fuelled a growing city population in which sprawling slums sprang up to match the urban construction boom.39 The influx of rural migration, fuelled by officials' demands for domestic industrial development, meant that a thriving sex industry grew to cater to the labour force. Especially in impoverished quarters of Tehran, prostitution was becoming rampant.40 Alongside this wave flourished a sexual vocabulary about women in the sex trade; for the term "prostitute", the words jendeh, fahesheh, rouspigar, and zan-e marufe were all variants of a gendered terminology primarily dependent on male promiscuity and the demand for paid sex.41 At the time, red-light districts were unspoken enclaves located not only in the capital but also in provincial cities such as Abadan, Bandar Abbas, Ahvaz, Esfahan and Shiraz. Except for Tehran's district, most areas of prostitution were located on the outskirts of cities and had "virtually no street lights at all, red or otherwise," notes Kamran Talatoff.42


The "toilet" of Taleghani's day was known colloquially by the euphemism Shahr-e No or "New City." It was a designated space of sexual transaction and transgression and tacitly accepted, but not discussed candidly. Even though lurking in the shadows, there was no denying the presence of prostitution in Iranian society. The most famous of the Shahrha-ye No (New Cities) was located in what is now central Tehran – its name differentiated from other Shahrha-ye No by the terms Qal'eh (fort or castle) Shahr-e No or Qal'eh Zahedi, a name attributed to a Pahlavi statesman and General, Fazlollah Zahedi.43


As Iran's modernization projects advanced during the 1960s, one of its effects was that Qal'eh Shahr-e No44 became a heterotopic space as residents who found themselves marginalized from society became integral to the functioning of illicit practices. In Foucault's analysis of space, heterotopia is a philosophical concept of "other" spaces, meaning relational spaces housing, containing and dealing with "otherness".45 When space is perceived as heterotopic – in the case of prisons, nursing homes, or brothels, for instance – the site generally functions both as an escape from a society's real self and as an illusion of its best self. And in this heterotopic space, bodies from society's point-of-view considered weak, undesirable, vulnerable, or "in crisis" remain separate from normative society.46 They function as physical sites of exclusion and are generally reserved for individuals in a state of crisis, such as adolescents and the elderly. Foucault highlights brothels as an "extreme type of heterotopia"47 where contradictions, dualities, and tensions of society's "ideal self" are brought to the fore once these sites are investigated and found to sustain discrimination, gender segregation and unequal power dynamics. That the sex trade keeps expanding in new "sites", reappearing in other Tehran districts, shows the ubiquity in the tensions arising from money, power, gender and ideology, which constantly radiate out into new Iranian heterotopias.


In Shahr-e No, prostitutes worked and resided in a government-regulated vice district. The site was a microcosm of urban city life, with its own hierarchical system of madams and pimps, cafes, theatres, groundskeepers, police protection and government health examinations. A citadel-like enclosure on Jamshid Street in the Gomrok district (where Razi Square now stands), Qal'eh Shahr-e No housed at one time an estimated 4,000 prostitutes48 living in squalid, cramped quarters.49 From north to south, the area was made up of approximately twelve alleyways; from west to east, it covered the space of three major streets – in total a surface area of about 135,000 square metres (Figure 1).50 This town-within-a-city was initially a pastoral haven of the political elite; during the late Qajar period, the area was known as a retreat for the Qajar royal family.51 At the time, a well-known local named Zal Muhammad Khan reportedly managed it.52

Figure 1:
1969 map of Qal'eh Shahr-e No district53


Famed social historian Ja'far Shahri wrote that in the late nineteenth century, Tehran's own Shahr-e No was not yet an identifiable brothel district. By the turn of the century, however, it was well known where to find the best prostitutes – women who were considered the cleanest (paktizetarin) – and they were located in this district. Shahri wrote, "Indeed, the official number of brothels was 850 of which 4,421 prostitution rooms were attributed to the Shahr-e No area."54 The worst prostitution houses, located in payeen-e shahr (poorer downtown areas), were found in the areas of Chaleh Meydan and Chaleh Silabi (See Figure 1). Brothels were scattered across Tehran, and their protection by the police ensured their ongoing business. According to Shahri, police contracts with brothel owners made certain that prostitution rings would survive.


By the time Reza Shah seized power in 1925, the number of brothels had ballooned. Their ownership fell increasingly into the hands of private entrepreneurs and local managers. As a large number of young women, the majority of whom had originated from Iran's central provinces, were brought to Shahr-e No for sex work, the district's reputation worsened.55 By the time Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi was handed back his throne by British and American intelligence on 18 August 1953, Qal'eh Shahr-e No was already a well-known local institution. The area gained its "citadel" status around 1958, when national Chief of Police Fazollah Zahedi (who later became Iran's 63rd prime minister) ordered the construction of a brick wall around the site, in effect alienating the prostitutes from the rest of Tehran society.56 By this very act, Shahr-e No became a designated heterotopic space – separated from Iranian society, yet integrated into public life as a government-regulated red-light district.

Life inside Shahr-e No


Although the literature on the conditions of brothel life after the 1979 Revolution is scarce,57 pre-revolution research was substantive, as academics and field workers from social and public health sectors investigated and regulated the conditions of Qal'eh prostitutes. A pioneering social worker by the name of Sattareh Farman Farmaian58 published a groundbreaking report in 1969 about the prostitutes of Qal'eh Shahr-e No during the Pahlavi period.59 Farman Farmaian's report is important not only for the descriptions of Qal'eh daily life, but also for the sociological details it provides about the 1,548 sex workers whom her team interviewed in the summer of 1968.60 The data compiled reveals living conditions and sex work, including many tables on awareness of prophylactic usage, marriage status, education level, and even spending habits, among other topics.61


Taking cues from prostitution discourse in America – many of her theoretical sources are based on publications from the American Social HealthAssociation(http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/xml/sw0045.xml) 62– Farman Farmaian provided what is still considered to be the most in-depth analysis of the conditions of prostitution inside Qal'eh Shahr-e No. Funded by the Vezarat-e Keshvar (Ministry of Interior), the report concentrates on five locations across Tehran (see Figure 2) where sex workers were prevalent, and the largest section of this report is dedicated to conditions inside Qal'eh.63 Most of this research documents prostitutes working on the streets, in restaurants and bars, residing in the Qal'eh, or based in private brothels spread throughout the city. At the time of the report's publication, prostitution was a specific criminal offence in the Pahlavi penal code.64

Living Conditions inside the Brothel District


Qal'eh Shahr-e No was no lover's paradise. In black-and-white images of the "citadel" taken by Kaveh Golestan, a photojournalist, he wanted the viewer's interpretation of his pictures deliberately coloured. Golestan famously remarked (http://payvand.com/blog/blog/2010/12/10/photos-tehrans-brothel-district-shahr-e-no-1975-77-by-kaveh-golestan), "I want to show you images that will be like a slap in your face to shatter your security. You can look away, turn off, hide your identity like murderers, but you cannot stop the truth. No one can."65 Women were shown residing in cramped quarters, assigned to single rooms in houses containing six to seven rooms each. Every house typically had a tiled hayat or courtyard, which functioned as an ersatz area of refuse.66 Described as a "waste ground or public toilet," conditions inside the compound were so grim that one report noted a pile of rotting, post-coital tissues left in the hayat.67

Figure 2:
1969-1970 Farman Farmaian's rendition of prostitution-related activity in Tehran68


According to Farman Farmaian's study, although the area was generally dilapidated, Shahr-e No as an institution was more like a hierarchal microcosm in which social roles were clearly defined among the key figures inside the district. Sahebs (male pimps) and nae'eb khanoms (madams) were in charge of Qal'eh's management. They confiscated a percentage of the prostitutes' wages and acted as their liaisons to the world outside Qal'eh. As detailed in the report, both clients and Qal'eh management followed certain role-playing and protocols during the sexual transactions.69 A potential customer would enter the Qal'eh, and shortly a madam would appear, beckoning him to meet her in one of the courtyards or to come inside the house. Prostitutes would stand in requisite positions; they were often visible from the window balconies or sitting near the front door – "as if on display," recalled Mansourian – for the potential customer.70 When a potential customer found a woman who appealed to him, a bartering session between the madam and him ensued.71 After a price was agreed upon, the madam would hand him a token, which he would then give to the prostitute with whom he chose to have sexual relations. The prostitute in turn handed all tokens accumulated at the end of the day to the elder Maman (madam-figure) of the house. A veteran among the prostitutes and well known by customers, Maman would place the token in her leather or nylon purse; by day's end, the number of tokens was tallied in order to divvy out the sums owed to each prostitute. At some point, the police would confiscate a portion of the madam's profits – protecting women came at a price.


In total, prostitutes served "some 16,000 men each day, most of them regulars"; each woman typically had 15 customers per day and worked between three to twelve hours, and some close to 18 hours.72 Women charged customers a daily rate of up to 600 rials (or 60 tomans).73 Children were offered at a discounted hourly rate of 40 to 50 tomans.74

The Women of Shahr-e No


Both young and old women who ended up in Qal'eh were primarily from rural areas and poor families; they had minimal literacy and virtually no schooling.75 Sold into the sex trade, many had not given their consent nor had any knowledge that they were being trafficked.76 In some cases, their own husbands and parents tricked or sold them into prostitution.77 Little girls as young as six years old were sold by their parents to traffickers and madams and brought to live and work in the district.78 Some of the older women prostitutes had arrived at Qal'eh as divorcees, having had little or no financial support from their families. Added to the mix of Qal'eh denizens were female runaways and orphans, whom opportunistic characters collected from the provinces, raped, and brought to Shahr-e No.79 Throughout the district's history, gigolo-types (both male and female) forced women into sexual servitude as compensation for providing their housing; although women were held against their will, they were ordered to pay back debts that they owed either to the gigolos or to their own parents.80


In Farman Farmaian's report, social workers had asked prostitutes their reasons for entering the sex trade. Their responses are worth noting: 572 said they were fooled; 415 were sold; 311 had no guardian or immediate care; 41 had desires for wealth; and 72 answered they became prostitutes for a "pleasure," or lezat in Persian, which is not explained by Farman Farmaian or by the interviewees.81 Although not elaborating on their answers, the report illustrates that there was some dimension of choice in deciding to enter and remain within the sex industry. Long before the initiatives for sex workers' rights in the mid-1980s pushed for international conventions to include self-determination and state protection of the industry,82 the answers illustrate a certain self-awareness behind some of the women's decisions to enter and work at Shahr-e No. Another interesting find is that the majority of the prostitutes had minimal awareness of sex: only 157 were aware of what sex was, whereas the remaining 1,389 expressed ignorance.83

The Intrepid Pari Bolandeh of Shahr-e No


Once Shahr-e No became a veritable red-light district, it was guarded by the police and fortified with a wall that permanently demarcated its perimeters. At least two guardsmen stood at Shahr-e No's only entrance on Sohrab Street (now Helal Ahmar Street) and inspected men and women hoping to pass through its gates. It was difficult for prostitutes to leave the premises of their own volition, because Shahr-e No's sole entrance84 was also its only exit; escaping was usually their only recourse to pursuing a life outside the quarter.85 Many prostitutes who had fled the premises were eventually arrested, beaten and then returned to Qal'eh.86


There were an untold number of powerful hands participating in economically and materially sustaining this institution, suggesting that political influence and corruption extended deep into the Iranian political system.87 Certain female figures inside Qal'eh also attracted attention and received clemency that originated well beyond Qal'eh's domain. Being business savvy, madams were able to invest in commercial and political opportunities outside Qal'eh. One of the most recognized of these madams was a prostitute by the name of "Pari Bolandeh" (Pari the Tall) (http://mahitaabe.blogspot.com/2010/04/blog-post_25.html), the catchy moniker of Sakineh Qasemi.88


Nicknames like hers were hard to come by. During Reza Shah Pahlavi's reign, women were typically not referred to by their full names. According to the formal custom of the time, women were referred to by their relationship to the closest male relative, and rarely for how they looked. Khanom (wife) or dokhtar (daughter) of agha (Mister) was a more appropriate reference, ensuring that a respectful distance be maintained at all times between mahram relations.89 However, state modernization attempts altered many of these customs. Once Reza Shah had demanded that Iran westernize itself, through force and legal measures, women were ordered to unveil in 1936.90 Prostitutes were exempt from this edict and allowed to wear the chador as a way of distinguishing themselves as women who were not chaste. But Pari Bolandeh was a tradition-breaker; she capitalized on this era of state-administered modernist reform. A tall and slender woman, she was known for her brazenness in promoting her employees' sexual services. Originally from Ghazvin, she appeared to be a respected figure in her community, having managed brothels from several properties throughout Tehran. Her reach even extended into the field of politics. During the American-orchestrated coup to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh, Qasemi participated in demonstrations against the pro-Soviet Tudeh party, which were organized by Pahlavi state authorities. Pictured demonstrating (http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13920528000664) along with athletes from zur-khanehs (traditional gymnasiums of urban Persia)91 and other prostitutes from Qal'eh Shahr-e No, Qasemi reportedly chanted "Death to Mossadegh" and called for an end to his nationalist policies.92


The 1979 overthrow of the Pahlavi regime meant the swift cessation of Pari Bolandeh's madam activities and political activism. Arrested and tried in the Islamic revolutionary courts, she was executed by a firing squad on 12 July 1979 (http://www.iranrights.org/memorial/story/-3345/sakineh-qasemi), along with two other female associates, Saheb Afsari (also known as Soraya Tarkeh) and Zahra Mafi (also known as Ashraf Cheharchesme, or Ashraf Four Eyes).93 Although details of the court proceedings are scarce (few facts about her court case and execution were released in Kayhan newspaper), it was reported that after several closed meetings, Branch One of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran found her guilty of administering and abetting the illegal prostitution of girls, deceiving women, operating brothels and spreading corruption among generations – or, as the judgment read, "corruption on earth".94 In the last known photograph of her (Figure 3), taken some time before her execution, she appears downcast, wearing a chador.95

Figure 3:
Kayhanannouncement of the execution of Pari Bolandeh, photographed in black chador

Male Clientele: Recalling Shahr-e No's Past


For male patrons of Shahr-e No, gaining entrance into the brothel district meant access into a somewhat exclusive club of mischief, revelry and male sexual experience. Although politicians, celebrities and even clerics were spotted entering Qal'eh, male labourers were reportedly the most frequent patrons. Men sought such services because it was claimed – and implicitly accepted – that given the extended periods away from their marital beds, their sexual tension needed release.96 According to some former male patrons I interviewed for this study, Qal'eh had once provided an opportune space for a man's sexual rite of passage.97 From ten interviews conducted with primarily middle-age Iranian men based in Tehran, all of whom were teenagers or in their early twenties at the time of the revolution, I heard many diverse explanations for why men chose to enter Qal'eh.98 Primary motivations were spontaneity, sexual rite of passage and youthful curiosity. In one interview, Jamal, a middle-aged craftsman, admitted that his friends – and not he – were frequent visitors of Qal'eh.99 Yet during my interview with his close female relative, she recalled discovering a doctor's prescription slip for syphilis threatment in his trouser pocket when he was 15 years old. She presumed it was unlikely he had become infected from having sexual relations outside of Shahr-e No. For some of the male interviewees, sneaking around the premises, either alone or with a group of friends, was just enough experience to weave into a nostalgic memory about youthful adventure. According to one male respondent, Shahr-e No offered an entrance into the world of sexual experience; he remembered when his friend's father, worried about his son remaining sexually inexperienced, purchased the services of a Shahr-e No prostitute to rid his son of his virginity.


Yet not all males were allowed entrance into the district, according to Mansourian. Age and masculine appearance were key factors. Police officers standing at Qual-eh's gates would check if a male had fully entered puberty by rubbing their bare hands across his cheek and chin. If an officer felt hair stubble, then the male was permitted inside to use Shahr-e No's services. Those too young to produce a sign of a beard or any facial hair were reportedly turned away.100

The Demolition of Shahr-e No


As the tide of Pahlavi dissent culminated in the co-opting of a people's revolution in the name of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islam, prostitutes fared no better. Public condemnation of them swiftly rose to the level of riots, with angry crowds gathering around Shahr-e No within the first days of the Revolution. Qal'eh's denouement proved both gruesome and spectacular: After a failed attempt to set fire to the district in November 1978,101 three months later in early February 1979 an angry mob was reported to have attacked its residents, setting the district ablaze after attempts by police and firefighters to quell the riots were unsuccessful.102 There were two confirmed deaths (http://zamaaneh.com/revolution/2009/01/post_218.html).103 Soon after, Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali (http://aharii.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/), himself notorious for the swift condemnation and execution of political prisoners and activists during his tenure as Chief of Justice of Iran's first revolutionary courts, denounced the area and ordered bulldozers (http://balatarin.com/permlink/2011/8/5/2651728) inside it to level the district for its illegal and un-Islamic activities.104

Figure 4:
April 2015 aerial view of Park-e Razi Park-e Razi: Cleansing the Site of Prostitution for a Moral Leisure Area


Today, the Shahr-e No narrative has faded into the shadows of public memory. Ask most Iranians under the age of 30 about this district, and they will likely puzzle over its existence and history.105 Ask instead where Gomrok district is located, and more likely the response will be, "It's near a park!"


Prior to 1979, this form of response would have been impossible. The name Gomrok was heavily associated with the notorious sex district, and although its name has not been altered, for two generations of Iranians born in the post-revolutionary period, its contemporary connotations resonate quite differently.


In the site of Shahr-e No now stands a manicured, multi-acre park known as Park-e Razi. Located in Tehran's District Eleven, all 44 hectares (almost 108.7 acres) of the park essentially cover Qal'eh's perimeter, although bearing no physical resemblance to its pre-revolutionary form. Unlike the majority of formerly inhabited areas in Tehran which after the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war were intensively developed into office and apartment buildings during a lucrative, post-war construction boom, this particular site was transformed into a family-friendly leisure and athletics space.106 Its grounds now include a cultural exhibition centre, a public library, a cinema, the now defunct amusement park of Shahr-e Bazi (Play City), and a man-made lake complete with a neon-lit bridge on which park patrons and fishermen can observe swan gondola trips (Figure 5).

Figure 5:
Neon-lit bridge overlooking man-made lake of Park-e Razi,Tehran July 2011, © Soraya Batmanghelichi


The park also hosts a children's playground area (Figure 6), a prayer space and a lecture hall, as well as an open-air callisthenics section for public use. From the park's main entrance on Kargar Street (Figure 7), petty traders are found sitting on benches with their satchels open, selling snacks and trinkets to passers-by. Traditional and fast food restaurants line avenues reaching to the main square, where a statue of Persian medieval scholar and physician Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi peers over a rotunda. Park-e Razi's surrounding area is still relatively poor, characterized by a mixture of rundown two-storey buildings, vacant shopping centres, local banks, and family-operated businesses selling various odds and ends.107