Drug Addiction in Iran: Women Marginalized from Services

Iran women drugs

Women in a drug treatment center in Iran. Source: Washington Post

Women are frequently marginalized from harm reduction services in Iran despite the growing number of females battling problematic drug use.

A handful of media organizations recently ran the story of a "rising" number of women in Iran addicted to drugs, drawing attention once again to an issue that piqued the press' interest earlier last year. 

Accurate figures on people suffering from addiction in Iran are notoriously difficult to come by, though The Washington Post reported last May that Iran's Drug Control Headquarters put the number at around 3 million, of which 700,000 are women. Most jarring among the statistics is the fact that the number of female problematic users has doubled in a two-year period. 

Speaking to the Financial Times recently, Zahra Bonianian, an adviser to the Drug Control Headquarters, said:

“The addiction of women may not be as high as men’s. But if fathers are like ceilings who give protection to the family, mothers are like columns who keep the family together. If columns collapsed, the ceiling would fall down too, and there would be no home to live in.”

Opium and its derivatives, along with crystal meth, or Shisheh (meaning “glass”), are the most popular drugs among Iranian women. Targeting the country's flourishing female middle class, the selling of under-the-counter meth as a slimming aid even used to be relatively widespread among beauty salons until a crackdown in the past couple of years. And, this phenomenon of course says nothing of society's marginalized -- homeless women, sex workers -- who suffer from addiction.

One might imagine that given Iran's track record on drug policy -- the country has some of the most draconian measures in the world and still imposes the death penalty for drug offenses -- services for those addicted would be virtually non-existent. Somewhat surprisingly, this is not always the case, with harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges, opioid substitution, and rehabilitation centers all available, if only on a small-scale.

However, many of these initiatives have been designed solely with the male population of drug users in mind, making them extremely hard to access for women. Drug use -- particularly addiction -- in any society is typically faced with stigma and discrimination, but for Iranian women this is amplified considerably.

The Washington Post noted in its report last year just how "taboo" the issue is in Islamic society, with pockets of the population believing these afflicted women deserved nothing less than death. As a paper published in the Women’s Health Bulletin in November set out, there are four key obstacles for women seeking help:

  1. Stigmatization and shame feeling.
  2. Humiliation along with family and society rejection.
  3. Fears of losing significant relationships with friends and relatives.
  4. Unnecessary bureaucracy and male-biased treatment plans.

This is not to say efforts aren't being made to address the problem. Dr. Shabnam Salimi, a doctor working for the harm reduction NGO Persepolis in Tehran, has been one of the first to openly tackle the problem when, in 2007, she established a women’s clinic with only female employees to help female drug users. Studies into the project found it to be a success due to Iranian women's desire to seek treatment in a female-only setting.

These types of programs are comparatively isolated, though, and the Persepolis women's clinic was reportedly under the threat of closure in 2011 due to funding issues*.

There is hope that the scale of the problem is at the very least beginning to be recognized with there seemingly an increasing emphasis on the need for integrative programs that could also benefit women.

Yet, if the problem continues to grow at the exponential rate seen in recent years, the government and services will need to hasten their response to ensure significantly less women are left on the periphery. 

*It was unclear at the time of writing if the clinic had indeed closed.