Prostitution in the Shah's Iran
Shahr-e No – "the neighbourhood of the sorrowful"

Drawing on the history of Tehran's Shahr-e No red light district, Nasrin Bassiri describes how prostitution functioned in Iran before the Islamic Revolution. The neighbourhood would end up being destroyed in August 1980, six months after Khomeini came to power

During the reign of Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979), prostitutes in the capital Tehran, often with their children, lived ostracised and marginalised lives in run-down dwellings in the Shahr-e No, or "New City" district on the southern outskirts of the city. 

Back in the nineteen twenties and prior to his accession to the throne, Reza Khan – Mohammad-Reza's father – learnt from those close to him that the British were making plans to depose him. The future Shah took it upon himself to put a spoke in their wheel. He knew that two senior British diplomats visited Aziz Kashi's notorious "whorehouse" from time to time. So he ordered his soldiers to surprise them on their next visit there. That was on 8 March 1922. The newspapers reported the incident in detail and the two diplomats left the country in a hurry.

Once Reza Khan ascended the throne, he had much of the Qajar Palace in the centre of Tehran demolished. Those women who lived there in the harem and did not manage to marry wealthy men from the royal family were taken to the Qajar quarter. He subsequently had the quarter expanded to make room for newly arrived prostitutes from various "whorehouses" in Tehran that he had seen fit to close.

This precipitated the establishment of the Shahr-e No neighbourhood, which became home to all of Tehran's prostitutes. Later, under the rule of Reza Shah's son, Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi, a wall was built around the neighbourhood to better control it. Colloquially, it was known as "Ghaleh" (the citadel).

The "citadel of silence"

Those who busied themselves intellectually or artistically with the lives of the women there referred to Shahr-e No as the "citadel of silence" or the "neighbourhood of the sorrowful". Noisy narrow streets, with a cafe here and there, ran through the neighbourhood, which was inhabited by a few hundred women and their children. Each house was run by a madam who was reverently addressed by the residents as "Mistress". She received the money and provided the women with food, lodging and pocket money.

Excerpt from the documentary "Ghaleh" by Kamran Shirdel:

 

Before being admitted to Shahr-e No, the women had to be assessed by a member of the "Women's Council". Afterwards, they were registered by the neighbourhood police and given both an identity card and a health card. This meant they were registered as residents of the neighbourhood. The health card enabled them to go for a medical check-up once a week.

On admission to one of the houses, the residents had to sign several promissory notes. Because of the amount of debt and the stigma attached to them as "dishonourable" prostitutes, few were ever able to leave. Unauthorised women were unwelcome in Shahr-e No.

A woman's prerogative

At all levels, the "bosses" in Shahr-e No were women. As facilitators who made money from sex, they were little better than male pimps. Yet the pressure they exerted was milder, tending to wear the women down, rather than breaking them. Physical violence was also less pronounced. Male nightclub owners and pimps did try to exert influence in Shahr-e No, but the reins of power remained in the hands of a few influential women and their facilitators, the house madams. Violent crime in the neighbourhood was rare. The most common law-and-order offence was the use of opiates, which was widespread. With it, the prostitutes were better able to endure the suffering and misery.

At that time, extramarital sexual contacts of women or even the birth of an illegitimate child were absolutely taboo. If they were not killed by their males relatives first, such women were cast out as "dishonoured". Even if they had been raped as maids by their masters or, out in the countryside, by the local landowner, their only real option in terms of survival was to become a prostitute in a brothel.

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