Analysis |

'Holy Spider' Uncovers Inconvenient Truth on Prostitution in Iran's Holy Cities

The serial-killer thriller, based on a true story, lambastes Iran's religious establishment for legitimizing prostitution – and has generated a seething response from Tehran

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
'Holy Spider' director Ali Abbasi at the Cannes film festival in France, May.
'Holy Spider' director Ali Abbasi at the Cannes film festival in France, May.Credit: PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Between major cost-of-living protests and the assassination of nuclear scientists, the Iranian regime has found the time to wage all-out war on a new film that it claims “harms Islam and Iran and continues down the path of the book ‘Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie.”

“Holy Spider,” directed and produced by Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, was shown in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where well-known Iranian cast member Zar Amir-Ebrahimi earned the prize for best actress. International film distribution companies have already purchased the rights to the film, which of course has not been shown in Iran itself.

'Holy Spider' cast member Zar Amir-Ebrahimi poses for a selfie with a journalist, with director Ali Abbasi in background, Cannes, France, in June.Credit: SARAH MEYSSONNIER/Reuters

Members of the film's crew have furthermore been summoned for questioning, and some are expected to be punished for their role in making – as the Iran Culture Ministry describes it – “a film full of hate, which is fake and disgusting." The film is based on the real-life story of serial killer Saeed Hanaei, who in 2000 and 2001 murdered 16 women who had been working in prostitution in and around the Iranian city of Mashhad.

Hanaei would prowl the streets on a motorcycle, pick up prostitutes and bring them to his house, and then strangle the women with their own hijabs (headscarves). When he was caught, he said his goal, on God’s orders, had been to rid the holy city of Mashhad of prostitutes. He was convicted and hanged for the killings in 2001, but he also garnered support and sympathy from media outlets that were close to the Iranian regime. They expressed “understanding” for his motives, even if they didn’t agree with the way in which he chose to carry out the divine order.

Two prior films had been made on Hanaei's case, each produced and directed by people close to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Even so, the films underwent surgical censorship prior to being shown and were considered box-office flops.

“Holy Spider” is therefore the third cinematic attempt at telling the story, and based on the furious response to it in Iran, perhaps this time the serial-killer saga will generate considerable profit for its creators. Abbasi has not only created a thriller and horror film; he has also meticulously detailed how the regime, and particularly the religious elites, have legitimized prostitution to such an extent that it is widespread even in Mashhad – the city where the revered Imam Reza, who died in the 9th century, is buried.

The “Holy Spider” title was derived from a moniker for Hanaei, but the film's opening scenes depict the greenlit paths that light the streets of Mashhad as the limbs of a spider leading to Imam Reza’s tomb. As Abbasi interprets it, the limbs are strangling Iran and hover as a threat over the entire country.

Prostitution isn’t a new phenomenon in Iran’s holy cities. Thousands of Shi'ite Muslim students from around Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, India and elsewhere attend religious educational institutions in Mashhad, the holy city of Qom and other Iranian cities. And young single men, as well as married men who sever their ties with their families, are permitted to marry local women via a legal proceeding called a “misyar” marriage.

Misyar enables these men to enter a temporary marital relationship – which can be as short as a single day – to have sexual relations, thereby bypassing the ban on prostitution and purportedly giving married status to the women with whom they have sex.

Iranian women who were asked in the past about the phenomenon said they had had no choice but to do this. Oppressive poverty and a lack of education and job opportunities had forced them into these temporary marriages even though they knew it essentially constituted prostitution. Abbasi reveals this conventional lie in dramatic and shocking fashion in his film, directing his aim at the heart of the religious establishment.

He attempted to shoot the film in Mashhad itself, and of course was turned down. He then set his sights on Turkey, which at first agreed to allow it but then reconsidered, apparently following pressure from Iran. "Holy Spider" was ultimately filmed in Jordan, which is also expected to come in for scathing criticism from Tehran.

Outside the film, and in addition to criticism of corrupt religious legal scholars who turn a blind eye to the phenomenon, the regime itself has been excoriated by an association of lecturers from the Qom seminary, one of Iran’s most important religious institutions of higher learning.

“Four decades after the revolution and the country’s political and economic systems have not yet fulfilled the revolution’s ideals and promises," wrote the scholars in a statement issued on the 40th anniversary of the death of the Iranian Islamic revolution leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. "The government is responsible for poverty, inflation, the cost of living and corruption."

The scholars' criticism also places direct responsibility upon Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is responsible for implementing the principles of the revolution.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks on the anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, shown in the poster, in Tehran, Iran, in June.Credit: Official government photo / AP

The seminary in Qom, where Khamenei began his own higher religious studies, has been critical of the supreme leader for years. Several senior religious scholars there have even said that he is not fit to lead the Islamic republic because he did not complete the academic studies required to be a senior ayatollah.

Such power struggles between the supreme political leadership and the religious establishment usually don’t play out in the public eye, but when they do – which they did with the scholars’ recent statement – they provide backing for public protest that Khamenei has deemed “an initiative by the enemies of Iran and Islam.” In the process, the critics unwittingly become partners in the protest movement.

And now, Khamenei is being forced to defend them from a film produced by “enemies of the country.”

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