Sex Rears its Head
How should a theocratic state that claims to have realised the ideals of the Prophet Muhammad raise awareness of a lethal virus that is commonly spread through sexual promiscuity, a sin the authorities say they have all but eradicated?
Under its first anti-AIDS strategy, unveiled in 2001, the Islamic Republic of Iran reached out to the intravenous drug users that made up the majority of Iranians hit by HIV or AIDS, but piously ignored the danger posed by a recent rise in prostitution and casual sex. Dr Hamid Amadi, one of the country's top AIDS specialists, likens this to dousing flames with burning ash. READ MORE
Partly thanks to the provision of clean syringes for heroin addicts, many of whom languish in Iran's teeming jails, the official number of HIV cases has been kept to a relatively low 60,000 in a population of around 65m. But Iran's famously secretive culture means that the real figure is probably far higher. On the subject of sexual transmission, which Dr Amadi expects to become the main carrier for the virus in the current decade, the authorities are still in denial.
Iran's marking of World AIDS Day, earlier this month, was a case in point. At a seminar attended by a top UN expert, health officials assiduously played down the prevalence of sexual transmission in Iran, in contrast to the decadent West. Nearby, schoolchildren watched a celebrity football match and listened to speeches by famous sportsmen; none alluded to the ways AIDS is transmitted. Less than 10% of 15-24-year-olds have what a recent study described as “an accurate knowledge” of the disease.
A tour of Tehran after dark may be the best education. A startling number of the capital's residential street corners are frequented by prostitutes. Some parties held by rich kids are renowned for their sexual audacity. In a reaction to what many regard as pervasive moral decline, Iranians voted in an ultra-conservative, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president this summer; many of them agree with the government that, when it comes to sexual conduct, Islam provides all the answers.
The result is a baleful opacity of purpose. Though it disapproves of NGOs as a pernicious western invention, the government is letting new anti-AIDS NGOs start up. The health ministry has even approved a UN pamphlet, to be distributed to universities, that discusses sexual practices which could lead to infection. But any doctor who dares canvass information about sexual mores among the young may be hauled before the courts for promoting vice, and the government has put on hold plans for a timid sort of sex education in schools.