Fashion Factor Fuels Iran's AIDS Fears

Robert Tait
Tuesday January 2, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

A student stands in front of a poster advertising Iran's first HIV/Aids film festival
A student stands in front of a poster advertising Iran's first HIV/Aids film festival. Photograph: Morteza Nikoubazi/Reuters

In a smart boutique displaying an array of miniskirts and skimpy tops, the shopkeeper was too busy attending to his female customers to listen to a sermon on HIV/Aids. "I don't know anything about it at all. Come back after I've finished with my customers," he told the volunteer health education worker.

The volunteer, Amir Fattahi, was unsurprised. Observation and experience told him he had interrupted no ordinary business transaction. The four young women, he surmised, were prostitutes striking a deal with the shopkeeper offering sex in exchange for free or cheap clothes, an increasingly common arrangement in Tehran's fashion shops.


Health education workers say the practice undermines efforts to combat HIV/Aids in Iran, where the disease is increasingly spread through sexual contact. Along with health officials they believe Iran's strict sexual mores are loosening among its predominantly young population and that pre- and extramarital sex are becoming more common. An official drive has been launched to raise HIV/Aids awareness, which lags far behind that in the west.

However, experts say the fight to stop the disease spreading is being hampered by a lack of hard facts and reliable research. While the latest figures show 13,704 registered HIV cases, World Health Organisation and Iranian health ministry estimates put the true figure at between 70,000 and 120,000. Experts believe many infected young people do not seek blood tests because they are too ill informed or are afraid of their parents finding out.

In the Qaem mall in north Tehran's affluent Tajrish district, where two floors are dedicated to women's fashion, several shopkeepers admitted to first-hand experience of receiving offers of sex. Arash, 23, said he had been propositioned 40 or 50 times in his store. "I reckon that 50% of shopkeepers have accepted sex in return for clothes," he said.

Ahmed Reza, 23, admitted having accepted such offers. "I was sitting outside the shop when two women came and said they wanted to try various manteaus [overcoats]," he said.

"They asked for a bargain and I offered them the standard discount. But they said, 'We cannot pay that - if you give us a good discount and your mobile number, we will serve you.' So I gave them more discount and got their mobile numbers.

"I can tell a prostitute by their attitudes and body language. When she asks the price of something, I say it's much more than it really is. Then I reduce it when she asks for discount, so she think she's getting a great bargain and offers sex."

Iran's Islamic authorities attempted a clampdown on the trade by deploying policemen and plainclothes security guards inside shopping malls.

"I don't think [the prostitutes] are HIV/Aids-aware," said Mr Fattahi, a team leader with Iran Positive Life, a volunteer group part-funded by Unicef.

"If they are infected and have sex with three or four shopkeepers a day, you can imagine the danger. I think most of the shopkeepers know the risk but they can't resist the temptation. Most times, the opportunity arises too quickly to take precautions."

Iran Positive Life is trying to raise shopkeepers' awareness in the hope that it will rub off on the prostitutes. Every evening, teams of volunteers tour boutiques asking shop assistants about their level of HIV/Aids knowledge. On one tour, joined by the Guardian, most of those canvassed knew it could be contracted from unsafe sex and that using condoms could provide protection.

However, experts say this awareness often does not translate into personal practice and is not passed on to prostitutes. "We have found that while people know about HIV, their information is not necessarily enough for them to use precautionary methods when engaging in sex," said the group's managing director, Amir Reza Moradi, who became HIV positive after receiving an infected blood transfusion.

"At the same time, it's hard for us to reach sex workers, so our education workers go to malls and speak to shopkeepers ... If the shopkeepers become educated and change their attitudes, hopefully the sex workers will notice and change their own ways."

Iran Positive Life's volunteers have spoken to an estimated 5,000 young Iranians in shopping centres, parks and coffee shops since the group launched its "peer education" programme three months ago. It has opened counselling services at health centres in an effort to estimate how many cases result from sexual transmission, rather than from drug addicts' infected needles - previously identified as the greatest danger.

Official resistance to a more explicitly sexual message is strong. While the government has a five-year plan to tackle HIV/Aids, its information campaigns have been criticised as inadequate. Yet the religious hierarchy apparently needs no convincing. A recent survey of 17 senior ayatollahs produced a near-unanimous response condoning condom use and in favour of educating the young on sexually transmitted diseases.

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