Talk of AIDS Spells Velvet Revolution
When Iran’s health minister uses mass media to warn the public of the spread of AIDS by prostitutes, it means things are bad. According to official statistics–which are not very reliable– some 20,000 people have been diagnosed with AIDS in Iran. Experts say this figure accounts for only a fourth of the country’s AIDS patients, meaning the real number is closer to 80,000. The health minister has declined to mention how many among this figure are prostitutes, and how many people have been infected through sexual intercourse. Minou Moharrez, director of Iran’s AIDS Research Center, says about 50 percent of female prostitutes who are HIV positive are unaware of their disease. This becomes a dangerous number when we know that a person carrying the HIV virus can infect from five to ten partners.
At a time when the world has succeeded in reigning in the spread of AIDS through education, prevention and treatment, this ‘imported’ disease is on the rise in Iran. Private clinics and public hospitals alike have been unsuccessful [in curbing this upward sloping trend]. The Alaei brothers, who had set up several clinics in Kurdistan and Tehran to educate and treat AIDS patients, remain incarcerated for unclear reasons. Although policymakers have decided that methods of AIDS prevention must be taught at schools, no measure has yet been taken –perhaps for fear of introducing students to words such as “sex” and “intercourse.” With the start of Ahmadinejad’s presidency five years ago, most NGOs working in this area were shut down, or [among those still active], their directors are subjected to pressure and interrogation. As for the media –when a simple word like “condom” may not be used on radio and television, obviously there can be no talk of other prevention methods. Amid these deplorable conditions, humanitarian aid also faces an impasse.
“The ones that were taken in for interrogation said their interrogators had told them, ‘You think you are going for a workshop on AIDS, but the truth is that you were invited for training on velvet revolutions.’”
Women’s rights activist Fariba Davoudi-Mohajer and her colleagues have tried to hold several AIDS training workshops for civil activists in Iran. Their efforts have been thwarted every time. Davoudi-Mohajer says on AIDS in Iran: “When prostitution is a crime in Iran, and governmental institutions have no accurate statistics about prostitutes and cannot supervise them sanitarily, and when [the government] does not allow access to counseling services and other ways of prevention being taught in the world, then AIDS will slowly crawl under the city’s skin. It has now grown to the point where the health minister is forced to speak openly about prostitutes.”
“Women are four times more at risk of obtaining sexually transmitted diseases compared to men,” she adds. “In countries such as ours, women cannot exert control over their sexual affairs –some can’t even ask their husbands to use a condom. If we believe the health minister’s warning, that we are currently in the ‘third wave’ [i.e., of the prevalence of AIDS] and that this disease has been unleashed in the city by prostitutes, then we must assume that every woman in this cycle was originally infected by a man, and will pass the virus to another man, who may then perhaps infect his wife.”
Existing statistics show that about 62 percent of victims contract AIDS through drug injections, 18 percent through sexual intercourse, and one percent by other means. The accuracy and scientific validity of these figures are unclear, and it is possible that the percentage related to sexual relations has been modified. Nevertheless, a warning by officials about the spread of AIDS via prostitutes is gravely significant.
In a recent interview with Mardom-Salari daily, AIDS Research Center director Minou Moharrez said, “Unfortunately most of our executive institutions have been silent about this deadly and incurable disease, for reasons ranging from lack of awareness to having a negative perspective [toward the issue]. I call this a “lethal silence.” The media, in addition, either publish censored information or information mixed with doom-and-gloom. All of these factors contribute to the steady increase of AIDS in Iran.” (July 2010)
Prior to the Ahmadinejad administration, when NGOs were active in this area, associations like Persepolis provided medical care to female prostitutes suffering from AIDS, and also supplied them with free condoms and clean needles (in cases of drug addiction). Presently, however, only Imam Khomeini hospital and a handful of private clinics and public hospitals treat AIDS patients [without charge]. Many Iranian prostitutes lack health insurance and most have no idea what AIDS is, or that the simplest way to prevent contracting this disease is the use of condoms.
“Talking about AIDS is a sin in Iran,” Fariba Davoudi-Mohajer says. “Because of the regime’s dominant ideology, we are unable to use international funds and facilities to educate people on this disease and check its spread. This dominant ideology says that when you talk about AIDS, it means you’re talking about sexual comingling. Talking about AIDS means encouraging sexual relations among people [i.e., outside of wedlock].”
The fight against AIDS must be comprehensive and draw on the help of NGOs –organizations that can inspire confidence in people, because they are run by citizens, not the government. The government has not allowed this to happen, however, in great part due to its paranoia of a conspiracy to promote a liberal sexual culture, Davoudi-Mohajer points out. “Some time ago we wanted to hold a workshop and invite civil activists from Tehran and other cities in Iran to attend. But the Iranian government seized the passports of the invitees and barred them from leaving the country, and even threatened a number of them. When we told officials the workshop would be held inside Iran and under the government’s supervision, they again opposed the idea, claiming that the workshop is an excuse for us to come to Iran and endanger national security.”
Regarding those invited to attend this workshop, the longtime woman’s rights advocate adds: “The ones that were taken in for interrogation said their interrogators had told them, ‘You think you are going for a workshop on AIDS, but the truth is that you were invited for training on velvet revolutions.’”
In circumstances where NGOs fighting AIDS are accused of conspiring to overthrow the regime and where the public finds it difficult to trust the few organizations that do work in this field and the mass media does nothing to raise awareness toward this issue, we must hope for miracles to prevent the spread of this dangerous disease.