“To Make a Man’s Life Happy”: Prostitution and Consumerism in 1960s and 1970s Iran

By David Rahimi
Submitted to Session P5020 (Leisure, Consumerism, and Food, 2017 Annual Meeting
LCD Projector without Audio;
Prostitution in Iran during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in Tehran, remained a mostly undiscussed topic in public discourse. This was despite the presence of thousands of prostitutes in Tehran’s prominent red-light district Shahr-e Now and a state feminist program that sought to portray itself as progressive and attentive to the plight of women. This paper explores how and why Iranians talked about prostitution to fill in the historiographic holes surrounding such a major institution in Tehran, as well as situate prostitution within the broader consumer culture of its day. For these purposes, this paper asks several questions. Why did silence on such an obvious phenomenon predominate? Why were certain commodified and sexualized forms and depictions of real or fictional women permissible for public consumption, while prostitution tended to be ignored? Previous works tend to focus on the health and daily life of prostitutes in relation to state regulation, without attention to the wider, long-term national context or the global trends in consumerism and the regulation of prostitution.
My research utilizes a variety of sources, including contemporary government and academic studies, photographs, investigative journalist accounts, Kamran Shirdel’s suppressed documentary, semi-realistic short stories, and Iranian and American newspapers. Since the extensive presence of prostitution in Iran and its relationship to consumer culture was not consistently discussed openly in any one source, it is imperative to examine a plethora of cultural artifacts and written documents. I argue that Iranian discourses concerning prostitution and the commodification of women arose from the intersection of domestic and global political, cultural, and socio-economic trends in the context of a state-sponsored modernization program and growing consumer culture. Furthermore, a larger debate over modernity in Iran enveloped these issues. Above all, the state wanted to preserve its national prestige from the appearance backwardness, yet uncertainty existed within the government and society at large about what constituted modernity and backwardness. Certain forms of commodified women could be made acceptable for public consumption and viewing if they could be presented to the government as participating in an acceptable modernity according to the state’s few and vague principles, which often took cues from the West. The state and the educated, urban classes of Tehran knew that they wanted to be modern, but they were not always quite sure what exactly that might entail.