In early May 1972 I set out to visit my sister who at that time was living in Tehran in Iran. The Shah was still on the throne and the experience of living in a city controlled by a dictator was an eerie one; the British and American families that I met socially would never mention the Shah by name in case their flats were bugged. Rather, if they wished to talk about him they would silently point upwards with their index finger. This was not because he was regarded as a God – far from it – but because his only means of travel about his capital city was by helicopter. All other means of transport were considered unsafe.
After doing the usual social rounds and visiting some beautiful mosques I decided to explore the poorer parts of the city on foot, paying particular attention to the souks with their stalls and street vendors. I bought a few silver trinkets for my daughters and ‘for she who must be obeyed’ and a small hand-woven carpet. Then my eyes fell with delight on a small stall which, among other things, was selling chastity belts. At this time in 1972 I was a Senior Lecturer in gynaecology, and one of the lectures I was scheduled to give to new medical students was entitled ‘An Introduction to Contraception’. In finding a chastity belt I had here found the perfect contraceptive; in fact it prevented coitus altogether. (‘Coitus: a useless exercise which consumes energy and wastes time’ – Karl Marx.) Of course like all other contraceptives available today it was invented by males.
When introducing students to this topic it is conventional to describe the attributes of the ideal contraceptive. This includes cheapness, availability without a prescription, simple and attractive use, without side effects, both short- and long-term, and a nil or near-nil failure rate.
I thought that a chastity belt, passed around a lecture theatre, would be a suitably entertaining beginning to a series of Family Planning lectures. After haggling with the vendor I managed to buy an iron chastity belt with two keys and one lock for the equivalent of eighteen shillings, or 90p today for those too young to remember. (Yes, two keys – I am unable to explain this: perhaps someone could help me here?)
On returning to the flat my sister failed to persuade me to try it on and refused to wear it herself as she had little faith in the engineering ability of Iranian locksmiths. The belt was thrown into my suitcase and soon forgotten.
I left Tehran on 31st May 1972 by Israeli airlines (Israel and Iran were friendly states then and the safest airline to fly was El Al.) We first landed in Israel at Lodd Airport where, unbeknown to me and the rest of my fellow passengers, there had been a massacre the day before carried out by Palestinian terrorists. Many people had been killed and the guards at this airport were very jumpy indeed.
In changing planes one was obliged to pass through a metal detector with one’s baggage. As my suitcase went through the detector an alarm sounded and I became the object of Krakatoan military interest. I was frogmarched to a bare room, much to the astonishment of my fellow passengers.
The Israeli police and border guards simultaneously searched my body and cases. They soon found it. I cannot tell you how difficult it was to explain to an angry security guard why an English gynaecologist was attempting to import chastity belts from Iran to the UK via Israel. I eventually failed to convince them: my prize was confiscated and I was grudgingly put back on my plane.
On returning to England I wrote to the Israeli ambassador in London asking for my chastity belt back, but there was no reply. So my lectures to the medical students remained without unusual illustration. If anyone reading this is planning a holiday in Iran, please bring me back a chastity belt. But keep it in your hand-luggage.
Oh yes: chastity belts do have one potentially serious side effect, especially if you have a nickel allergy!