Draped head to toe in a black chador designed to protect female modesty, the woman stood quietly by the road. When a white sedan pulled over, the woman jumped in without hesitation. She said her name was Simin Hossini and her price was $5.
Maybe she was tired, desperate or, most likely, both. But she insisted that she wasn't worried about getting in a car with a stranger, even though a serial killer has been targeting women who sell themselves on the streets of one of Iran's holiest cities.
Since last July, at least 12 "truck women"--so-called because truck drivers and delivery men are their main customers--have been strangled. In each case, the weapon has been the same: a head scarf knotted twice to the right side of the neck. The slayings have been dubbed "the spider killings" by a local newspaper because of the way the women are wrapped in their chadors before being dumped into local streets or canals.
"We have heard the killers are religious vigilantes and this is their duty," Hossini said matter-of-factly. "I have to work. I have expenses. I work in the day, when it is safe."
Prostitution and murder would be horrible partners in any country. But throw in religion and politics, and a chilling murder mystery becomes an exploration of core challenges facing the young Islamic Republic, from its battle with secular ills to larger questions about the nature of its system of governance.
The killings have become another front in the battle between conservatives and reformers seeking to loosen the controls of the ruling religious leadership. Some believe that the killings are a cold-blooded conspiracy aimed at undermining moderate President Mohammad Khatami, who has tried to open society and force it to confront difficult social issues.
"Those that have done this, yes, they want to undermine the government, and since Mashhad is a camp of conservatives, this is resistance against the reform group," said Ali Tajernia, an outspoken reformer who is Mashhad's representative in the Majlis, or parliament.
H. Zaare Seffat, deputy governor general for security and law enforcement in the region, Khorasan province, said that there is no proof of a conspiracy but that the conservative religious community is not terribly disturbed by the affair. "Extramarital relations--our society cannot accept," he said, though he added that he does not excuse murder.
"From the number of killings in Mashhad, considering the insecurity that exists in society, and considering the population of Mashhad and compared to other societies, they don't seem like much," added Seffat, who said 41 people were killed last year in Mashhad, a city of 1.5 million people.
But the idea that conservative forces could be behind a spate of killings is hardly farfetched here: Three former agents with the Intelligence Ministry were sentenced to death in January for killing four dissidents in 1996.
If the women's slayings are a plot to bolster the hard-liners' cause, however, it has seriously misfired. The spider killings have compelled the leadership to acknowledge that its faith-based society is susceptible to the same kinds of problems that plague secular societies.
The killings also have focused attention on the extraordinary pressures facing young women in a society that demands, for example, that they hide their heads and their bodies as soon as they're 9.
"Because of the special rules in Iran, they didn't want to accept that this was happening. 'We are an Islamic state. We don't have prostitution. We don't have drug addicts,' " said Fatamh Mansourian, director of the first and only nongovernmental organization allowed to work on the issue of prostitution. "The first step is saying, 'Yes, we have prostitutes; we have problems.' "
The authorities are especially sensitive about the women's deaths, not so much because they are killings but because of the issue of prostitution, and because this has all been playing out in Mashhad. The city--whose name literally means Place of Martyrdom--is an extremely sacred site for Iran's Shiite Muslims, drawing as many as 12 million pilgrims annually.
In the center of the gritty metropolis sits a magnificent mausoleum complex with a golden dome and elaborate tile work. Inside is the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth grandson of the prophet Muhammad. His burial site has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries.
The tomb is the spiritual center of Mashhad. But the city has a seedy side, too, dating back long before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when prostitutes and drug dealers plied their trades with transient crowds of pilgrims. Even the creation of an Islamic state couldn't wipe that out.
Opium and heroin addicts stumble through back streets, prostitutes work in flophouses, and the destitute come searching for salvation--only to find themselves trapped in ghettos of despair. The city is overwhelmed with 200,000 refugees from Afghanistan and drugs that pour over the border, which is just a two-hour drive from the shrine.
The main avenues in Mashhad begin at the entrance to the shrine and head out of town past bustling shops selling rose water, prayer mats and other religious paraphernalia. The shops give way to rows of brick buildings, many painted only as high as the painter could reach. Dusty roadsides are planted with scrubby trees.
One road leads to Khein Arab, the name of the district and a street where the "truck women" live and work.
The first body was found on the roadside last July. The dead woman, Afsaneh, 30, was a convicted drug user. No one paid much attention to her death. Over the next week, two more prostitutes were strangled, both with those two knots on the right side of the neck. Still, it wasn't until five months later, when three more bodies were added to the total, that police acknowledged a link between the killings and set up a special investigative unit.
Local newspapers suggested that the killings were the work of religious vigilantes. The news was read with interest in Mashhad and with great concern in the capital, Tehran.
There, the reform-minded parliament ordered an inquiry and summoned the intelligence minister for questioning. Members of parliament said they weren't satisfied with the answers they had received, and on April 1, with the death toll at nine, the investigative team was replaced with a special squad from Tehran.
The killer or killers appeared to respond. Within two weeks, three more prostitutes were killed. The last victim was Ozra, 35, whose body was discovered April 13 by a group of young men playing soccer. To protect the dignity of the families, the full names of the victims have not been released.
Authorities say they have three theories. One involves religious radicals. Many years ago, when the shah was still in power--and prostitution was legal--radical religious groups attacked stores that sold alcohol and cinemas that played movies they viewed as sinful. Some see the killings as an extension of this legacy.
Others say the killings were politically motivated, to undermine Khatami before the June 8 election. Seffat said investigators are focusing on those possible motives but that he leans toward a third, calculating that this is the work of a single person out for some sort of revenge.
"To give a special political message to society, they would choose some other group," he said. "These prostitutes were little and unimportant. . . . Why kill isolated and forgotten prostitutes?"
The investigation has been slow-moving, at best, and while reformist lawmaker Tajernia blames conservative forces for trying to thwart the probe, local customs and values have also played a part. The women's families, for example, are so shamed by the circumstances of the deaths that no one has come forward to claim a body, let alone press for justice.
There also is no pressure from the community to make an arrest. One local civic leader who runs a social outreach program pointed out that strict Islamic law, known as Sharia, calls for prostitutes to be stoned--which generally leads to death.
"Even in your country, when corruption increases, don't you get upset?" asked Sayed Abdul Reza, who refused to give his family name. "If someone brings Satan and says this is Satan, are you going to just stand there and look, or are you going to do something? The people of Mashhad are not upset by the murders, because the women were corrupt."
Elham is typical of the forgotten women targeted in the killings.
She was standing alone on Khayom Boulevard recently and jumped into a car that pulled up beside her. She said she's 22, with a 2-year-old daughter.
"I would like to find a job in order to have money for my family," she said, refusing to give her family name. "I would like to be a secretary. Since my parents are not in a bad position, they could help me. But since I have been divorced, I cannot go back to my family and ask for support. I have lost face."