As a young, smart and ambitious university graduate, Mahsa could have been a model of the modern Iranian woman.
Instead, the 30-year-old symbolizes a new generation of female drug users: well off, well educated and tech savvy but addicted to multiple synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, methadone and sedatives as well as heroin.
Drug problems are not new in Iran. Opium smoking dates back to at least the 17th century, and the country has one of the highest rates of opiate addiction in the world, partly because it is a trafficking route from Afghanistan to Europe.
At least 6m out of 77.7m Iranians have drug-related problems, according to official reports.
Shisheh — a high-purity crystalline methamphetamine — has become the second most popular drug after opium among young people seeking an escape from social and economic hardship.
However, addiction is increasingly spreading across all social classes and affecting a rising number of women — a trend triggering alarm in the government.
The problem was first revealed in a 2011 study on the prevalence of addiction, says Zahra Bonianian, an adviser to the state-run Drug Control Headquarters for women and family affairs. “It was when we realized that the number of married female addicts was going up, the age of addiction going down while the educational level [of addicts] was high.”
The roots of the problem lie in the social change bubbling beneath the surface of Iranian society. Young adults, steeped in new ideas gleaned via the internet and social media, are increasingly rebelling against the traditional and Islamic strictures to which their parents conformed and seeking to emulate what they see as more modern norms. In recent years, the divorce rate in Iran has risen and marriage and birth rates have fallen.
At the same time, the Islamic regime has improved women’s access to higher education, and they now account for more than 60 per cent of graduates.
But young women in particular find themselves caught between increasing freedoms and educational opportunities on the one hand and the conservative values of their elders on the other.
“Girls and boys under 25 years old largely enjoy equal freedom in terms of social and educational activities, but girls have a more gloomy perspective, [seeing] more responsibilities ahead,” says Amir-Hossein Yazdani, a professor of psychology.
Highly educated girls “do not enjoy equal job opportunities, or they feel under pressure to behave like a traditional woman”, he says. “This is fanning fresh tendencies to addiction.”
Mahsa is emblematic of this trend. “I had big dreams, but they were all destroyed,” she says. Graduating from a high school for top students, her family forced her to marry at the age of 18. The couple had a son but the marriage ended in divorce after a year and Mahsa took refuge in drugs. Her ex-husband has stopped her from seeing her son in recent years.
She went to university and studied psychology but ended up at a Tehran addiction treatment centre last year with a drug habit that was costing her 1m rials ($37) a day.
After five months of treatment she is considered clean. But fearful of social pressure, she is refusing to return to her family in Arak, a conservative city in central Iran.
“I’ll stay at this centre hoping that my parents will sell everything and agree to move to Tehran,” she says, clad in tight black shirt and leggings and wearing make-up and orange nail polish. “In that small city, everybody knows I was an addict. I am shy to [leave the house].”
Iranian officials and experts have been warning in recent months that the speed at which addiction among women is growing is rising.
The latest official figures indicate the number of female addicts has almost doubled since 2007, with women making up 9.3 per cent of Iranians affected. More than 50 per cent of addicted women used drugs for the first time between the ages of 15 and 19.
Abbas Deilamizade, chairman of the Asian Drug Demand Reduction NGOs Association — an umbrella group for 32 regional organizations — warns that the country’s social welfare system is not geared to helping female addicts.
“A lot needs to be done to help the treatment of women,” he says. “We still do not have enough rehabilitation centers and prevention programs for women, and there is no plan [for it] in the country’s social security system.”
Some experts argue this is because women have been seen as a lower priority than men because they make up fewer than 10 per cent of Iran’s addicts.
But Ms Bonianian warns against complacency. “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,” she says. “If columns collapsed, the ceiling would fall down too, and there would be no home to live in.”