On April 13, 2022, Zamaneh published an interview with Atena Daemi, a former political prisoner and children’s rights activist, about the child trafficking gangs she encountered in Qarchak Prison in Varamin. The gangs she described kidnapped young girls to “sell their hymens” at high prices to men that then “removed” them through the act of fingering or rape.
But the fate of these young girls does not end here. Often, they are abandoned on the streets or in desert areas around Tehran after being raped, with little known about what happens to them next..
Child abuse, molestation and sexual exploitation is common in child exploitation. The idea of a young girl being kidnapped by men, sold for sexual pleasure, sexually abused, and then left on the streets or deserts around the city may be heart breaking to imagine. However, it is a reality entangling the poverty and sexual abuse that is taking place under the skin of many Iranian cities
Zamaneh spoke with Roksana Alavi, professor of women and gender studies at the University of Oklahoma to explore the various dimensions of this issue.
We know now that the religious/traditional meaning of virginity and what is called “hymen” is different from how science sees it. What is the scientific view of the “hymen” in a woman’s body?
This is a scientific question. Here is what I found: “The hymen is a membranous tissue surrounding the vaginal introitus [tube].”
“The hymen is a membrane at the opening of the vagina. In early fetal life, the vagina is first formed as a solid tube. Over time, the inner portion of the tube disintegrates, so it becomes a hollow tubular structure.”
There is no biological significance or function in hymen.
What is the ideological function of this female body part in patriarchal societies, and what role does it play in that system?
Some patriarchal societies have designated the hymen as the “thing” that stays intact until the first time a woman becomes sexually active. The myth is that when women have vaginal intercourse for the first time they will bleed during intercourse. The bleeding is meant to show that the woman is a virgin and hence, chaste. However, not all women who have intercourse for the first time bleed.
How does emphasizing on the traditional/religious concept of virginity or the hymen in Muslim and patriarchal societies such as Iran lead to gender discrimination against women, and what harm has it caused?
Virginity is meant to control women’s body autonomy and sexuality. Hymen is assumed to stay intact until marriage. That is not always the case. Hymen is not always intact even when a female child is born. It can be damaged due to issues/activities not related to sex. The myth goes that during the first time intercourse, women bleed. About half of women do not bleed the first time that they become sexually active. The women who do not, are stigmatized, shunned from the community, and have their chastity, morality and purity questioned, even though no “wrong” has been done by her.
Some men or their families demand that the woman “proves” her virginity by getting medically tested. This testing is both humiliating, physically painful and psychologically traumatizing and it is not conclusive. Hymen is not always prominent in all women. “The result of such testing can have devastating consequences on women who ‘fail’ them, such as shaming, social exclusion, reduction of dowry, violence and sometimes murder.”
The virginity testing itself is a form of sexual violence. The World Health Organization demands that all governments and healthcare providers ban this practice.
Can the concept of taking a girl’s virginity be considered a special privilege, exercise of power, or the granting of a unique position to men or an affirmation of masculinity (تثبیت مردانگی)? Do you see a relevance between these and the sexual abuse of children (child rape)?
Masculinity is a social construct. That means every society decides what they consider masculine or feminine. Gender norms are specific for each culture. Masculinity becomes toxic when it perpetuates male dominations, expects aggression as an appropriate male condition, and justifies abusive male behavior as “normal boy behavior.” Toxic masculinity is evident when a man affirms his “manliness” through “taking” the virginity of another person, namely women. This sort of masculinity if fragile and is based on power and domination and is basis for homophobia.
Sexual abuse of children is certainly a form of domination and is the effect of both toxic masculinity and fragile sense of masculinity that is built on it.
Studies show that trafficking children for sex is a lucrative business worldwide. Why is it lucrative? Can you explain why adult men enjoy sex with children, especially very young children between the ages of one and five?
Human trafficking is a lucrative business. There is an abundance of vulnerable people worldwide and those who are willing to prey on them. Promise of jobs, whether in big cities or overseas, working as domestic worker, oil workers, hotel workers, restaurant employees, etc. Some trafficking victims are kidnapped, and others can be runaways that start with having survival sex in exchange for room and board. The cost of maintaining these enslaved people is low. Unlike the old slavery, when a slave is too sick to work, they just let them go.
I can’t speak to how could anyone sexualize children and enjoy sexually abusing the most vulnerable of populations. I can say that is the worst of what humanity has to offer.
Do Iran’s existing laws contribute to such gangs to steal and sell children to take their virginity? Your work shows (I read some of your articles in the past few days and I mean what you have said in these articles) that the Sharia law in Iran both in civil and criminal codes is problematic in how it treats the age of adulthood and consent for girls. Do you think the age of sexual consent as mandated by this law somehow contributes to this sexualization of girls in sexual crimes such as sex trafficking of young girls?
The Iranian legal system fails to protect its most vulnerable population.
The legal age of marriage for girls in Iran is 13 and for boys it is 15. Marrying any younger requires the parents’ consent. However, the age of “majority” (moral, religious, and legal responsibility is still 9 and 15, respectively). Consequently, at nine years old, girls who commit crimes are tried in the fullest extent of the law.
In cases of sexual assault/rape, girls and women are presumed guilty until they can prove their innocence. A young girl who is raped must prove that she did not consent to the sexual activity, regardless of the assailant’s age, and if unsuccessful, she must face severe punishment. Hence, children who are being trafficked for sex, and forced into prostitution, are not only victimized but they are also considered criminals since prostitution is illegal. Children generally do not have these kinds of resources or skills.
They must prove their innocence by providing four female witnesses or two male ones. These sorts of witnesses do not present themselves readily. If, as unlikely as it might be, other women come forward, they too might be victims of sex trafficking and can become re-victimized by the law enforcement and the judicial system, in addition to the violence that they experience in the hands of their traffickers if they go forward. These victims have little access to social welfare programs or have any knowledge of what protections (if any) are available to them.
Both child marriages and temporary marriages sigeh are legal in Iran. The practice of Sigeh opens the door for victimization of young women and girls. Sigeh can be forced on them to travel both within and outside of the country, and continue to force them into sex work and/or sell them to wealthy men in neighboring countries. Women and girls will be victimized by the patriarchal and victim-blaming culture.
Sigeh sometimes protects women and children in the case if a child is produced during the timed marriage. Children born out of wedlock have no legal claim or rights to inheritance of any financial support. The mothers of these children don’t have the right to keep them. Should they be so lucky to keep their children, with the high unemployment rate, and the stigma of being unwed mother, lack of community support, they fall prey in the hands of traffickers.
Does this kind of rape fall into the category of pedophilia?
Children are not capable of giving consent. Sex with children in all cases is considered sexual violence/rape.
There are various forms of rape and sexual assault. For many different types there is no equivalent in Persian, and rape is generally only considered as forced sexual penetration with a penis. What other cases are considered sexual assault or rape?
Thinking in the case of rape as genital penetration is dangerous, incorrect, and heteronormative. Sexual assault is penetration by any means (including objects) of genital, oral or anal without the consent of the victim. If a person does not consent or is not in the state of which they can consent, the act falls under sexual assault/rape.
The sex trafficking of young girls in Iran especially for virginity has a market value in the trafficking world, leaving children unprotected and subject to extreme sexual crimes. How is the political economy of these sex crimes related to children and young girls, and is it related to poverty and worsening economic conditions in Iran?
Sharia law coupled with cultural practices of child marriages, sexism, poverty, economic crisis, lack of resources for runaway children and victims of domestic violence, alcoholism and drug addiction all create a prime environment for predators to take advantage of vulnerable populations.
 Moussaoui, D., Abdulcadir, J., and Yaron, M. (2022, January 8). Hymen and virginity: What every paediatrician should know. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 58, p. 382. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpc.15887
 Mishori, R., Ferdowsian, H., Naimer, K., Volpellier, M. and McHale, T. (20190. The little tissue that couldn’t – dispelling myths about the hymen’s role in determining sexual history and assault. Reproductive Health 16(74), p. 2
 Moussaoui, et. al., p. 385.
 Moussaoui et. al., p. 385.