In recent weeks, Iranian newspapers have published several reports about single Iraqi men visiting Mashhad in eastern Iran, and taking advantage of their stay in order to have sex with local women. The tomb of the eighth Shi‘i Imam Raza, located in the city, is a major pilgrimage site for Shi’a from the entire Muslim world. In order to comply with the requirements of Muslim religious law (Shari’a) prohibiting extra-marital sex, pilgrims marry single Iranian women in temporary marriages (“mut‘ah” or “sigheh) which renders the relationship legal and religiously legitimate according to Shi’i Islam. The reports provoked a sharp debate on Iranian social networks, where they were presented as evidence of moral deterioration within the Islamic Republic, worsening economic and social distress, and the double standards of conservative clerics who do nothing to oppose the phenomenon, and indeed provide religious-legal justification for it.
The flourishing sex tourism in Mashhad was first described three years ago in a report published by the British newspaper, The Guardian. That report attributed the rise in the number of Iraqi tourists visiting the city to the deterioration in the security situation in their own country, and the low price of tourist packages to Iran. Only now are officials in the Iranian tourism industry willing to admit the phenomenon exists, although they emphasize that it accounts for only a small percentage of Iraqi tourists. They point to the expansion of the phenomenon in recent months following the collapse of Iran’s local currency (the rial) because of the country’s deepening economic crisis, which has significantly reduced airfares and the cost of lodging in Iran. Moreover, visas are no longer required for Iraqi tourists. Mohammad Qanei, head of the Hotel Association in the eastern province of Khorasan, whose capital is Mashhad, recently warned of the consequences of this phenomenon, saying it was damaging Iran’s image in Iraq, which increasingly resembles how many Iranians see Thailand.
The social networks were flooded with thousands of responses from users, shared with the hashtag: “Mashhad is the Thailand of the Shi‘a” (#مشهد_تايلندتشيع). They exploited the reports to attack and ridicule conservative clerics, especially the Friday preacher in Mashhad, Ayatollah Ahmad Alam al-Hoda. These responses appeared against the backdrop of prohibitions by senior clerics on musical performances in the city, strict enforcement of the Islamic dress code, and severe punishment for drinking alcohol, because these allegedly endanger Mashhad’s religious and moral character. Such criticism highlighted a perceived double standard, given the fact that sex tourism is seemingly unhindered: “Why is holding concerts considered a disgrace to Imam Reza, but 6,000 tourist apartments [used for sex between Iranian pilgrims and local women] isn’t?” tweeted one user. Another user recalled the words of Ayatollah Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, who once declared his opposition to markets and musical performances in Mashhad because they could undermine its identity as a holy city: “No one told him that he himself is the greatest enemy of its identity, and an insult to the residents of Mashhad. He opposes concerts but he has no problem with young women covertly selling their bodies to pilgrims because of poverty.”
Public criticism was also aired regarding the institution of temporary marriage itself. Users presented it as prostitution under religious cover, and accused Shi‘i clerics of providing Islamic justification for the phenomenon and even encouraging it, despite it being used to exploit young women in dire economic distress. One user pointed out that in Iran’s irrational reality it is religiously permissible for a pilgrim from Iraq to temporarily marry a woman for a few hours, yet women are banned from working as peddlers. The latter is considered both religiously prohibited and a criminal offense. Reza Daneshmandi, a professor of political science who writes a personal column on the Khabar Online website, called on the authorities to re-examine the issue of the temporary marriages that are being abused by tourists from Iraq and to restrict the entry of single, non-Iranian Muslims to Mashhad.
The criticism of the institution of temporary marriage is not new. Although it is sometimes encouraged by the authorities and clerics, who consider it a solution to the ongoing rise in the average age of marriage in Iran, the Iranian public, especially in reformist circles and among women’s rights activists, is increasingly critical of temporary marriage as institutionalized prostitution that harms the status of women.
On the margins of the discourse surrounding sex tourism in Mashhad, there were expressions of often racist hostility towards the Arab pilgrims. Some users portrayed them as sexual predators whose only intention was to tarnish the honor of Iranian women and the Iranian people in general: “1,400 years ago, the Arabs invaded our country with the aim of raping Iranian women; 40 years ago [referring to the Iran-Iraq War], the Arabs invaded our country to rape Iranian girls, and today the Arabs are attacking our country in order to have sex with Iranian girls,” tweeted one user. The offensive statements targeting Iraqi pilgrims are another instance of the condescension and racism towards Arabs that is sometimes seen on Iranian social networks.
The network discourse on sex tourism in Mashhad reflects a growing sensitivity among the Iranian public to distressing social phenomena that are exacerbated by the worsening of the economic crisis, such as drug addiction, organ sales and prostitution. The reactions of users in this case also highlights Iranian citizens’ growing alienation from conservative clerics. In recent years, Iranians, especially the younger generation, increasingly see the clerics as detached from the people. When the authorities and the religious establishment are unable to offer solutions to the economic and social hardships of the Islamic Republic, relatively marginal phenomena succeed in creating strident public discourse.
 “A story of Iraqi men’s marginal travel in Iran,” ISNA. 26 August 2018.
 Reza Daneshmandi, “Why not forbid single Iraqis from travelling to Mashhad,” Khobar Online, 19 August 2018.
 Raz Zimmt, “Marrying Late: Young Adults and the Marriage Crisis in Iran Crisis,” The Forum for Regional Thinking, 7 October 2016. Last accessed 30 August 2018.
 Raz Zimmt, “‘Arab Lizard and Grasshopper Eaters:’ Incitement and Expressions of Racism on Iranian SNS,’:Beehive, vol. 3, issue 10, November 2015.