TEHRAN, April 17 (AFP) - It may have disappeared from view when it was banned in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, although merely going underground, but now prostitution in making a comeback in Iran, where the phenomenon is constantly gaining ground to the point of worrying the Iranian regime.
Banned in all forms, female and male, prostitution has over the past four years become a worsening social condition, developing in time with the economic crisis and unemployment.
No statistics exist as the subject is taboo, but the clergy are worried by the phenomenon.
The seriousness of the problem was highlighted Sunday by the Hamshahri daily which reported a total of 26 murders of prostitutes by strangulation "in similar circumstances" have been committed over the last three years in the northeastern province of Khorassan alone.
"What do you expect? We have got to eat and earn money," says Shahla, a woman of 21 who has taken up prostitution in the well-heeled northern part of Tehran.
On Jordan Street, in the north, a car pulls up. Two young men, one sporting a pony tail, in a south Korean car, accost Shahla, asking her "the price" and more importantly, whether she has an apartment.
It has become a similar scene in the northern sectors of Tehran and in the country's major cities.
Before the revolution, prostitution was officially banned but tolerated and very widespread in the streets of Tehran and Iran's major towns and cities, not to mention the innumerable night bars or Shahr-e-No (the new town), a closed off part of southwestern Tehran with hundreds of brothels.
The area was destroyed in the aftermath of the revolution and transformed into a big amusement park.
For the first 15 years of the Islamic republic, prostitution remained undercover, just as alcohol and other activities like male homosexuality.
But since reformist president Mohammad Khatami came to power in May 1997, a far more relaxed and tolerant social climate has undoubtedly been created towards the co-education of youth -- who make up 60 percent of the Iranian population of 62 million -- an opening which has drawn out prostitution networks.
Prostitution, which has reared its head over the last few months in certain provincial towns, is beginning to provoke violent and dramatic reactions.
Serial murders of prostitutes over recent months in Iran's second city, the holy pilgrimage city of Mashhad, have hit the headlines and developed a psychosis there.
The body of a young prostitute was found Friday in Mashhad, where at least 11 other women have been killed over recent months, probably the work of members of an organised network.
"Prostitute Killer Leaves New Victim," was the headline Sunday in the government daily Iran, which said the police found the body Friday of a young prostitute who had been strangled, abandoned in a stream and wrapped in her black Chador, her head-to-toe Islamic veil.
The murders in Khorassan appear to be carried out by people who want to "clear up society," according to a suspect arrested in Mashhad.
The jailed suspect, a 22-year-old labourer called Mehdi whose full name has not been released, reportedly told police that he was "completely in favour of these murders," adding: "We believe society needs to be cleaned up of corrupt women."
He said he knew about the killings but had not been involved in them.
To underscore the gravity of the problem, the courts have formed a special team to investigate the murders of these women, all aged from 27 to 50.