Homosexuality in Iran
For hundreds of years, the homosexual community, heretofore referred to as the LGBT community, has experienced discrimination and persecution around the world. However, the world has progressed since the times of such irrational displays of hatred and fear as the blood libels of Europe or the Salem Witch Trials. Yet, there are still places that are shrouded in retrogressive, un-liberated policies of the Middle Ages. Iran is one of these seven remaining countries in the world that still employs the death penalty as punishment for homosexuals acts.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights have been reduced to nothingness. According to numerous human rights watchdog organizations, Iran’s treatment of people who have committed such “crimes”1 is in direct and flagrant violation of the most essential human rights. Although the Iranian government claims that they have never executed anyone for said crime of homosexuality, this is of course disputed by many sources, including viral internet videos of gay men being publicly hanged.
Human rights activists and opponents of the Iranian regime claim between 4,000 and 6,000 gay men and lesbians have been executed in Iran for crimes related to their sexual preference since 1979” (The Telegraph). The unjust treatment and persecution of homosexuals in Iran has led to numerous deaths by stoning, hanging, and suicide, along with the fleeing of many Iranian homosexuals to surrounding countries to try to  seek political asylum.
There are several factors, historical, religious, and socio-political, that culminated in the social backwardness that is evident in Iran’s horrific and unjust treatment of its own homosexual citizens. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a land whose social and cultural landscape has been shaped by a myriad of religions, including Zoroastrianism and Islam, and the sweeping influence of European interference.
Conveniently situated in between the Middle Eastern nations and the Eurasian continent, the expansively vast Iran (636,372 square miles) is literally the bridge between two worlds. After the unification of the ancient Iranian tribal peoples, there were four dynasties that preceded the Muslim conquest (651 AD). The peoples of Persia before the Muslim conquest adhered to the teachings of Zoroaster, which stressed equality, the prohibition of slavery, and human rights. The Zoroastrian religion flourished during the time of the
Achaemenid Dynasty, and the Persian region in this period saw an unmatched measure of prosperity and peace. The battle of al-Qadisayyah in 632 AD marked a turning point in Persia’s history as it released the flood gates and made possible a full-fledged Muslim invasion and subsequent conquering of Persia. Although the Muslim conquest of Persia left the conquerers in control of a huge portion of the unified Persian territory, the Persian conversion to Islam is considered to be a gradual and complicated process.
By the 9th century, Islam was the majority religion of the region, and the conversion of native Persians to the Islam had a profound affect on their lives; similarly, the interaction of the unique Persian identity with Islam had a singular affect on Islam in the region. The Middle Ages in Iran saw accomplishments in arts, literature, sciences, religion, mathematics, and architecture that paralleled that of the European Renaissance. The Early Modern Era (1501-1925) ushered in a new period for Persia. Under the auspices of Shah Ismail I and his Safavid Dynasty, Persia was united into the first Shia Islam state.
Following this initial unification were a series of political moves in which the leaders of the dynasty moved the capital of the state from city to city. Two more dynasties followed the Safavids, in spite of their weak leadership and political scandal, they managed to maintain sovereignty until the corruption of the Qajars yielded increased colonization efforts and ultimately, the institution of the first parliament of Persian in 1906. The continued abatement of the strength of the Qajar Dynasty reached its pinnacle when Reza Khan led a coup d’etat against them and became Shah in 1925.
Under his leadership, Iran industrialized, leading to the establishment of an educational system and a railroad network that took advantage of Iran’s convenient location near the Caspian Sea. Reza Khan was forced to abdicate his position, at which point the Pahlavis came to power. The Pahlavis led lavish lifestyles, and using revenues from oil reserve profits, they made enterprising moves towards “The White Revolution,” which was a series of reforms that were aimed at empowering the social classes that supported the monarchy.
In essence, the reforms targeted the lowest classes in order to co-opt efforts against the increasingly alienated middle class. However, the middle class was not the only enemy of the Pahlavis; the (mostly exiled) religious institution of Iran was incredibly hostile towards their efforts towards the White Revolution. One religious clergy, Ayatollah Khomeini advocated for a return to relgious Islamic values and a rejection of the Pahlavi agenda. The efforts of Khomeini culminated in widespread uprisings and revolts, and ultimately would be referred to as the Revolution of 1979.
The foundation of the revolution rested upon the return to highly fundamentalized Islamic values, and thus laid the groundwork and the future justification against homosexuality. The new Islamic Republic of Iran, founded by Ayatollah Khomeini, rests on three pillars, the rule of Islamic jurists, the hijab (veil) for women, and the continued opposition to Israel and the United States. The modernizing efforts of the Pahlavi reign was replaced by cultural repression that embraces outmoded stances on women’s rights, religious tolerance, and human rights that has coalesced into the Iran we know today.
The roots of the criminalization of homosexuality in the Islamic Republic of Iran has its foundations in the Islamic Religion. In order to understand the policies of modern Iran regarding this issue, it is crucial to examine the historical implications. “Of the Islamic states that ban lesbian and gay sex, Iran is the most zealously homophobic. Since 1980, when the fundamentalists came to power under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini, over 4,000 lesbians and gay men have been executed, according to estimates by the exiled Iranian homosexual rights group, Homan” (Tavakoli).
Islam is one of the most intolerant world religions when it comes to homosexuality. Verses from the Koran are clear in forbidding sexual acts if they are not between a married man and woman. In all Muslim countries where the Islamic Shari’a law is enforced, homosexuality is illegal. The specific origin of the religious injunction can be found in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which two men who engage in a carnal relationship and therefore suffer the consequences from G-d. The passage says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.
The Koran has seven references to Sodom and Gomorrah. Surprisingly, there is only one passage in the Koran that pertains to what can be referred to as a legal position on homosexuality. It states, “And as for those who are guilty of an indecency from among your women, call to witnesses against them four (witnesses) from among you; then if they bear witness confine them to the houses until death takes them away or Allah opens some way for them.
And as for the two who are guilty of indecency from among you, give them both a punishment; then if they repent and amend, turn aside from them; surely Allah is oft-returning (to mercy), the Merciful” (Translated by Shakir). Although this is not black and white with what to do, it has provided guidance. Islamic jurists often turn to the collections of hadith, “a narrative record of the sayings or customs of Muhammad and his companions,” (Merriam-Webster) and Seerah, accounts of Muhammad’s life) to further their argument for punishments that may be very harsh by modern standards.
Many Islamic scholars see homosexuality as a sin and punishable offense. Because there is no specific punishment established, the law is usually interpreted by local authorities at their own discretion. The moral that some people draw from the Koran is that someone who participates in homosexual acts is contradicting G-d’s creation of humans and by default is disobeying G-d. However, Islam is not the only religion to condemn homosexuality, in fact, almost all Western religions consider it to be a transgression of some holy law, including Judaism, Catholicism, and Christianity.
The difference between these religions and Islam in Iran is that in almost every Westernized nation there has a separation between Church and State. In the case of Modern Iran, however, there is no such separation, and thus violating religious law is synonymous with violating civil law. It is in this way that fundamentalist clerics in Iran consider homosexual acts analogous to treason: If Islam is the law of the State, and Muslim law considers homosexuality blasphemy, then by proxy it is comparable to high treason.
Since the Iranian revolution, the legal code has been based on Islamic Shari’a law. “This law states that all sexual relations that occur outside of a traditional, heterosexual marriage are illegal and no legal distinction is made between consensual or non-consensual sexual activities. Homosexual relations that occur between consenting adults in private are a crime and carry a maximum punishment of death. These laws apply to males as young as fifteen, who then become eligible for the death penalty” (Misak).
Forced homosexual relations, rape, often results in execution. In some circumstances, sodomy can be a crime for which both partners are punished by death. “If this crime of sodomy is committed, both partners are punished. The punishment is death if the participants are adults, of sound mind and consenting. The homosexuals are executed based off the decisions of the Shari’a judge. A young male who is not considered an adult who engages in homosexual activities is punished by being lashed 74 times. ” (Misak).
In the case of a person not consenting, the punishment would only apply to the rapist. The punishment for consenting gay females is 100 lashes. If the homosexual act is repeated three times and punishment is enforced each time, the death sentence will apply the fourth time. “Under Islamic law, which has been adopted by Iran’s legal system, it takes four witnesses to prove an act of homosexuality, which is a capital crime. That’s why it’s much easier for the Islamic government to invent other criminal charges against gay people to get rid of them” (Ireland).
Ireland also shares, “Iranians found guilty of gay lovemaking are given a choice of four death styles: being hanged, stoned, halved by a sword or dropped from the highest perch. According to Article 152 of Iran’s penal law, if two men not related by blood are found naked under one cover without good reason, both will be punished at a judge’s discretion” (Ireland). Often, other charges are fabricated and tacked on to the initial charge in order to imprison or execute homosexuals.
An example of this is “a prominent social critic and historian, Ali Akbar Saidi-Sirjani, died in detention in November, 10 months after his arrest on improbable criminal charges. The Government claims Saidi-Sirjani died of a heart attack but did not permit an independent autopsy” (U. S. Department of State). Saidi-Sirjani was charged with offenses ranging from drug dealing to homosexuality. These convictions are falsely obtained leading to more inhumane and unjust acts against the people of Iran.
There are no laws that protect Iranians from hate crimes related to sexual orientation. The Iranian government believes that no such thing exists within the borders of the country and that everyone there is heterosexual. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated in a speech at Columbia University, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country” followed by, “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I don’t know who has told you that we have it” (Agence France-Presse). Not only is he ignoring the truth, but he is blatantly lying.
Because of this harsh reality of ignoring what is really going on and the severity of the punishment if found out, many gay Iranians do not feel comfortable coming out to even their family members. In traditional Iranian families dating is usually prohibited, so telling your parent that you are gay is an unfathomable thought. Often, gay couples are scared to even be seen together in public. Social prejudices, fear of being caught, and overwhelmingly realistic threats of punishment often keep LGBT Iranians in “hiding”. They socialize discretely at private get togethers, but even in private these get togethers can be raided by the police.
In 2007, “Iranian authorities staged a brutal and violent May 10 raid on a birthday party in Esfahan which they suspected was a gay party, beating the guests and arresting 87 people, including four women, one of whom had a child with her. Some 80 of those arrested made bail or were released immediately but face possible prosecution in the future; while 17 of those arrested were imprisoned awaiting trial, and a judge told their families that they would be charged with ‘homosexual conduct’ and the consumption of alcohol” (Direland).
Raids like these are reoccurring and unlawful. Media and press are constrained by censorship and are subject to violating “national security”. Unless used to promote the policy of the government, anything related to the LGBT community is prohibited. An example of this is in 2005 when. “Iran’s leading reformist newspaper has been shut down by the country’s hardline government after the daily Shargh published an interview with an Iranian-Canadian poet who called for greater gender equality in her homeland” (CanWest News Service).
In the interview, “Saghi Ghahraman, a 50-year-old lesbian who fled Iran after its 1979 fundamentalist revolution and now lives in Toronto as a Canadian citizen, told CanWest News Service on Monday that the interview with Shargh (East) focused largely on poetry and literature but that she also stressed the importance of people being able to ‘choose one’s own identity, and one’s own sexual identity’ — provocative views to print given Tehran’s strict policies against homosexuality” (CanWest News Service).
To avoid being shut down, “Shargh published a front-page apology for its interview with Ghahraman, saying it had been ‘unaware of this person’s personal traits’ and would in future ‘avoid such people and movements’” (CanWest News Service). This is just one of the form the government’s control of the people. By limiting any possible resources, it is taking away the ability for people to connect with other homosexuals around the world. Most Iranians who have attempted to seek asylum in other countries have failed.
“Gay and lesbian individuals fleeing Iran seek refugee status under the ‘members of a particular social group’ (MPSG) clause of the 1951 United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, despite the international nature of the 1951 Convention, member states serving as Third Countries in which the refugees are permanently settled subscribe to differing interpretations of the 1951 Convention, resulting in conflicting applications of international law to those seeking refugee status for their sexual orientation” (Bretz).
There was in increase in Iranians fleeing the strict restraints in 2007. “300 gays who have fled Iran since the rise of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who infamously proclaimed in 2007, to guffaws from his audience at Columbia University, that there were no gays in Iran. Most have crossed the border into Turkey, joining 2,000 Iranian refugees — largely political dissidents and religious outcasts — facing waits of two to three years as the United Nations processes their applications for asylum” (Fiola).
Turkey is only a stepping stone in the whole process of living in a permanent, safe environment. “Turkey grants the refugees sanctuary just until the United Nations can find them homes in the United States, Canada, Western Europe or Australia” (Fiola). Hussein Nasseri, a gay Iranian man escaped Iran and fled to the UK because he “feared he would be executed if he were deported to his native Iran” (Moore London Bureau). Nasseri “killed himself after the British government turned down his second appeal for asylum” (Moore London Bureau).
Another story is of “one young Iranian who fled to Turkey [who] says he was targeted by authorities for two offenses: going public with his homosexuality and taking part in last year’s post-election anti-government protests” (Kenyon). The young man went to “Turkey in May, fully intending to return to Tehran and his family. But now he’s applying for asylum to the United States and says he can’t go back as long as the current government holds power. He says he would face arrest not just for
his sexuality but for taking part in the protests that rocked Iran in 2009 after the elections, which were attacked as fraudulent, that returned Ahmadinejad to power” (Kenyon). “While he was in Turkey, Voice of America interviewed him and broadcast a part of the documentary in which he talked about being shot during the protests, and about Ahmadinejad’s views on homosexuality. The next day, he was told, security forces raided his house in Tehran and took his father for questioning.
Haghjoo went straight to the U. N. refugee agency and applied for asylum” (Kenyon). These pleas for a safe haven in a new country are not rare. People seeking a better life should have the option to do so and not be exported when in need of help. In conclusion, discrimination and persecution of homosexuals in Iran is intolerable. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 has reduced the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to nothingness.