Porno Affair in the Mullah State: Iranian Soap Star Swept up in Video Scandal

By Dieter Bednarz

A pornographic video is breaking all sales records in Iran. But it is also making a prominent TV star fear not just the end of her career, but also corporal punishment under the country's restrictive laws.

The woman in this home-made porn flick is said to be Iranian soap star Ebrahimi.

The woman in this home-made porn flick is said to be Iranian soap star Ebrahimi.

Actress Sahra Amir Ebrahimi is familiar with the role of the bad girl the fiery-eyed young woman based her career on it. Her screen persona, the beasty little character Sohre, is one of the protagonists of the cult series "Narges" -- and Sohre is known for her intrigues and machinations.

The roughly 70 installments of the evening show bestowed record audience ratings on Iran's state-run television channel, which normally presents its viewers with grumpy mullahs and dated revolutionary epics -- the kind of entertainment that has most people reach for the remote control. The series also catapulted Ebrahimi high up into the astral regions of Iran's film star milieu. Shopping at the bazaar or drinking coffee on Teheran's glamorous Wali-je-Asr street, the young star was always sure to be admired by fans -- especially male ones.

But that's all over now.

Twenty-five-year-old Ebrahimi is said to have appeared in a porn flick that is selling like hot cakes on street stands across the country, and ever since, she's been considered a hussy in real life too. What, people are asking, drove the Islamic Republic's most promising soap star -- normally seen dutifully wearing her headscarf and an ankle-length coat -- to perform on a narrow bed in front of a shaky camera?

In the prudish mullah republic, even tame films of private pool parties meet with eager customers on the black market. But demand for Ebrahimi's unexpected onscreen performance is literally unbelievable. Despite its comparatively steep price of €10 ($13), it is believed that more than 100,000 copies of the cheap DVD have been sold in Tehran.

The religious fundamentalists who took power completely when the bigoted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president last summer, have branded the home-made flick a "national shame." They see the video as evidence of the decadent West's growing influence on the youth of the Islamic republic. Tehran's public prosecutor has already initiated "special investigations" into the starlet who sank into the mires of pornography. Her lover is also being investigated.

Every kind of public intimacy between men and women is prohibited under the strict moral precepts of the Islamic republic. Even innocent cuddling on a park bench can create legal problems for young couples -- especially if they're not married. Sex outside of marriage is punishable by up to 100 lashes of the whip. The punishment applies to both men and women.

Death by stoning?

In the Ebrahimi case, the DVD's producers even face the prospect of capital punishment. Iran's much-feared attorney general, Ghorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, has gotten involved in the investigation, and he's demanding death by stoning -- a controversial punishment in Iran. Dorri-Najafabadi is arguing that the porn flick promotes prostitution, a thoroughly demonized activity in the country.

But there is a controversy over just how reliable the evidence is. Ebrahimi's black-haired film lover, apparently a TV production assistant, has already been arrested and is said to have confessed to the filmed sex act. But he claims to have been "temporarily married" to Ebrahimi at the time the video was made. In Shiite Islam, being "temporarily married" makes both sex before official marriage and infidelity somewhat less sinful. Ebrahimi's partner also denies all responsibility for the distribution of the film. He says he probably forgot to delete the files containing the two-year-old film from his laptop when he sold the device. So far, eight people have already been arrested as part of investigations into the affair.

For her part, Ebrahimi is staying home for now in Tehran's university neighborhood, and trying to "sit this out as a woman." Ebrahimi insists she is not the person seen in the film. And she fears that her career may be over.

"All the clouds in the world are weeping in my heart," she says.

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