Living as a Lesbian in Iran, Where Being Gay Is Illegal
In Iran, being gay can carry a death sentence for men. Though lesbians are discussed less frequently, they too face severe government-sanctioned punishment, including lashes and flogging.
Illustrations by Lucy Han
The three days Azadeh* spent in interrogation felt to her like months.
In a remote villa on the outskirts of Iran, she sat listening to clergymen preaching quotes from the Quran as the burns on her arms stung with infection.
Growing up, the 25-year-old says she was often bullied for her "boyish" looks. But several years ago, the harassment took on a more sinister form when she was arrested and tortured by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The guards had found a short story by Azadeh about two male soldiers who were lovers during the war, after a tip-off from a girl Azadeh says held a personal grudge against her.
"I never directly used the word 'homosexuality' in my writings," Azadeh says, "but they wanted to use those writings to get a confession from me that I'm a lesbian. I denied everything."
Regardless, she was forced to undergo a three-day long "reorientation course", which she quickly learnt was a euphemism for interrogation. It consisted, she says, of religious instruction and repeated attempts to force her to admit she was gay.
"They tortured me by pouring boiling water on my skin and beating me, especially on the head. [But] more than physical torture, I was subjected to verbal abuse," she says. "They kept telling me that I was a 'pussy licker'."
It is illegal to be gay in Iran: The country's strictly enforced penal code means possible death sentences for men in same-sex relationships, and lashes and flogging for women. Death might seem a worse fate than torture, but in practice gay women face double discrimination—first as women, and then as lesbians. This is because women's rights in Iran are already severely restricted: Fathers, brothers, and husbands can assert unquestioned control over their daughters, sisters and wives. In the legal arena, such as inheritance disputes, a woman's testimony is very often just half the value of a man's.
It wasn't always this way: Iranian women achieved suffrage under the Shah's government in the 1960s. But since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, many of their legal rights have been stripped away with the enactment of Sharia law, an legal system derived from the Quran and the Sunnah (sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad).
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New enforcements meant all women had to wear the hijab, and women could no longer file for divorce unless it was specifically written into their marriage contract. The marriage age for girls was reduced to nine, and, in 1981, parliament introduced flogging, stoning, and payment of blood money.
For Azadeh, being a practicing Muslim and the daughter of a decorated military official hasn't saved her from years of discrimination and injustice, sometimes simply because she dresses in a "masculine way."
"When I get harassed, I can't go to the police. Sometimes the harassment and arrest comes from the police [themselves]," she explains. "I've been arrested because of my appearance. Once I was taken with a group of men to the police station and the police wanted to do a body search on me without a search warrant. I refused and argued, and ended up in a fist fight with them."
Ironically, the country's leaders have explicitly denied the existence of gay citizens. In the notorious words of former-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said while addressing Columbia University in 2007: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. In Iran we, don't have this phenomenon."
Far from the former president's claims of the gay-free country, Kevin Schumacher, a Middle East expert from at OutRight Action International, says there are likely thousands in Iran who identity as LGBTIQ, many of whom don't necessarily know the name or term for how they're feeling. (Iran's population sits at 77 million; however, he says, there is a total absence of LGBTQ education.)
Schumacher has spent the past five years heading a report for OutRight International on the challenges of being lesbian in Iran. He and his team interviewed 41 Iranian lesbians inside and outside the country, both online and in person. The resulting report, titled Being Lesbian in Iran, honed in on the experience of lesbians in Iran specifically, and was the first study to do so.
"You don't see much about lesbians," Schumacher explains. "You're left wondering how it feels to be a woman [in Iran] who wants to be with another woman. From a very young age, you see these girls being bullied at school, harassed by their classmates and their teachers. The untold story is really the societal pressure, the domestic violence that happens to these women."
Under Iranian Penal Code, punishment for mosaheqeh, or the rubbing of female genitalia between women, is 100 lashes. Women can also be flogged simply for same-sex kissing. "It's a very vague article and basically allows officials to go after women who are perceived to be gay. Even if you're dressed in a way that might insinuate you are a lesbian, you can be punished," says Schumacher. "Their very existence is criminalized."
Azadeh doesn't see any contradiction between her religious beliefs and her sexual orientation. Her own (legally unofficial) marriage to a woman followed Muslim marriage rituals, and she considers her partner to be her wife in accordance with religious rules. "I used to struggle a lot to interpret the Quran in a way that was more compatible with my situation as a lesbian," she says. "I think we need new fatwa for this issue."
The OutRight report makes several substantial recommendations directly to the Iranian Government, including the abolishment of all laws criminalizing homosexuality and the elimination of all legal barriers to full equality for women.
While the recommendations may seem far-fetched in light of the current regime's stance on homosexuality, Schumacher says the report is as much an "educational tool" as it is a plea for governmental change. "At end of the day, it's important for the enlightenment of the community and the allies in Iranian civil society, so they know what's happening."
*Name has been changed to ensure the safety of the interviewee