includes sexuality, in its many definitions…
Saghi Ghahreman is the president of the Iranian Queer Organization – a nonprofit organisation that defends the human and civil rights of Iranian LGBT individuals living in Iran or as refugees. A published poet, Saghi is the first openly lesbian Iranian who has written extensively on the controversial issue of homosexuality and gender fluidity against the oppressive norms of Iranian culture. An interview with her published in an Iranian daily, Sharq, in 2007 forced a two year suspension of popular reformist paper. Saghi fled Iran in 1984 with her young son and husband whom she divorced five years later after finally reaching safety and settling in Canada.
One of the strongest opponents to the Shari’a laws governing Iran since 1979 has proved to be the youth of Iran.
The problem of sexuality and state interference has remained the constant irresolvable battleground between the youth of Iran and the Islamic state in the last thirty years. Curbing the natural urges and inquisitiveness of young minds has remained the biggest problem on the regime’s social and political agenda – from dress codes, attempts to segregate public spaces and invasion of their private spaces to banning books and access to independent information on the topic have been tried and defeated.
Intertwined with concepts of religious guilt and sin gender, sexuality, sex, equality, opportunity, right, wrong, rights and pleasure are defined in the context of Islamic Shari’a without any opportunity for healthy, independent and up to date dialogue with heavy punishment for anyone who challenges this interpretation and morality. Individuals are left to find out answers for themselves with little or no independent guidance.
Sex, acknowledged as a physical need of heterosexual men is recognised and sanctioned within marriage – hence legal polygamy – with very little available in Persian that deals with cultural gender imbalances. The slow progress of the feminist and queer movement in Iran can be blamed on the limited clinical and theoretical knowledge in this field.
The youth of the middle and upper middle class families are able to explore and experiment thanks to their privileged position and courage in the face of harsh punishments. They engage in single and group sex; exchange partners; experiment with different positions; use it as a drug as well as along with drugs; equate it with modernity and include it their works of art and literature.
In conversations with me a young emerging female writer from the alternative contemporary literature school living in Iran said, ‘we have abundant access to sex. We begin experimenting with sex when we’re still very young’. When asked about safety and protection she added, ‘we just follow trial and error, and we hope to manage without much damage to ourselves’.
And what happens if they are caught? A young male feminist artist/photographer in Tehran said of his own encounters with his girlfriends who he would meet in his apartment, ‘Every time, my body would be in severe pain with fear in anticipation of the Moral Police kicking the door down to arrest me and my girlfriend. I can never relax and enjoy myself. My orgasms are always twinned with paralysing fear of arrest there and then’.
Another, a woman of 38, recalled her arrest when she was 17. She was arrested with an older male friend while out walking. They were taken to the police station, detained, assaulted and then released on bail on the condition that they would marry. Her parents were ordered to arrange the marriage between the two and she was forced to remain in a loveless abusive marriage for twenty years.
These are common experiences of many during the first years following the 1979 Revolution. Many will have similar stories to tell. The years that followed saw flogging and detention replace enforced marriage as punishment. Many young people have had to learn how to deal with the physical and emotional scars of such treatment.
However, on the other hand, the youth belonging to the poorer families fall victim to paralyzing limitations caused not only by the governing Shari’a but by their own binding class-originated circumstances. This is particularly harsh on women whose fundamental rights are denied them and unlike their richer counterparts cannot buy their way out of problems or cannot afford the luxury of negotiating marriage contracts that may secure them some civil protection later on. Young girls are married off to older men for money or women are forced into Sigheh (time specific temporary marriage) for financial or societal safety. The problem of sex and sexuality is turned on its head with girls as young as thirteen (or even younger) forced into marriage or prostitution with no say, choice or control over their sex life. They exercise no choice over the age, look or intellect of their partners as whether married or not their young bodies are being used as commodities.
The outcome of this paradox in the sexual behaviour of the youth in Iran is like all other contradictions of extremes and excessive behaviour within the Iranian society under Shari’a law – the struggle between progress and primitivity. However, as far as sexuality is concerned the society is not only divided between the progressive and the primitive, privileged and the poor, religious and the secular, traditional and the modern members of society, but it is also divided in terms of homosexuality versus heterosexuality which carries its own set of peculiar dilemmas.
Between them, those who live a colourful if risky life style, those who are victims of state-sanctioned pedophilia under Shari’a based marriages and those whose sexual orientation and gender identity deem them the hunted ghosts in their own homeland, have together created a ‘carnival of violated rights’ during the past three decades. The youth of Iran have literally recorded violations of human rights over their bodies; it is hard to imagine any other section of the society complying with such suffocating limits of Shari’a.
While the heterosexual youth suffer under the strict laws of Shari’a they nevertheless, enjoy relatively more freedom and support from their families than the homosexual and transsexual youth. Sexuality remains the worst dilemma for this group under Shari’a law.
There is much less understanding of sex as gender and sex as sexuality when it comes to gender identity and sexual orientation, in any written material in Persian; or in the mind of the mainstream whether they are parents, teachers, counsellors, therapists, or judges dealing with the life and livelihood of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) in Iran. While a straight girl or a boy is certain about his or her gender identity, and is in harmony with the culture regarding his or her sexual desires, and knows pretty well what are her or his rights according to culture and legislature, a transgender girl or boy is puzzled about his/her own gender identity and is attacked for this same reason by the society. A homosexual girl or boy is understandably puzzled about his or her sexual orientation, wondering why he or she is not attracted to those he or she is supposed to be. There is hardly anyone to help, support or understand a transsexual or homosexual teenager with up-to-date information or to put their mind at ease. At best they are given wrong counselling and information hoping to ‘cure them’, and worst still is the fact that they are given deadly punishments because of their identity and orientation.
While being homosexual is forbidden and punishable by death as the most heinous crime, being transsexual is conceived as being ill and in need of cure through surgery – surgery that is carried out without adequate care, support and counselling leaving the ‘patient’ mentally and physicaly scarred for the rest of his/her life.
So, how do the young homosexuals and transsexuals cope with their identity and their sex life? How do they deal with complications of growing up in a community that disowns them, eliminates them, exploits them and takes advantage of them from early ages? Based on my interviews and conversations with the Iranian gays and lesbians, every gay man I interviewed had made at least two attempts on his own life before his 30th birthday. He was also heavily reliant on anti depressants. Based on the same interviews every lesbian girl was fighting to escape forced marriage, or was trying to survive the wifely obligations expected of her. To escape enforced marriage and exposure of their orientation many girls run away from home to live in parks and in the street only to be forced back home after arrest and into forced marriage. In these loveless marriages they have no choice but to put up with constant marital rape. As a result of this traditional social setting girls have no way of survival if they’re not surrounded and supported by their families.
Based on my interviews and conversations with Iranian transsexuals (TS), every TS who has had sex reassignment surgery suffers from painful, debilitating side effects due to unsuccessful or incomplete surgeries. Before surgery their sex life was crude and unsatisfactory and after surgery not much improved. Religion and tradition together with physical and psychological limitations before and after surgery put the vulnerable transsexual and homosexual individual at great risk of abuse.
Misunderstandings and confusion over sexual orientation and gender identity coupled with the Islamic regime’s keen interest in the denial and elimination of homosexuality result in many being labelled as transsexual and consequently as a cure coerced into erroneous sex change operations which in a tragically twisted way trap them in wrong bodies with their lives ruined. The problem remains unresolved as to how with sexually repressive religious laws and morality gender-reassignment surgery can address larger issues of gender, sexuality and sexual orientation.
Without a doubt, the young generation in Iran has and will continue to find its own way and answers; however, their experiences differ greatly according to their social and financial status and family culture. It must not be forgotten that despite the positive or successful sexual exploits of some, even they are not safe from the wrath of the State if caught. As many explore and discover their sexuality many more fear the extreme punishments and are afraid of arrest and sexual abuse and rape during detention at the hands of their accusers. Others fall victim to incest and sexual violence at home. The problems of the LGBT community are far more as not only do they have to fight State persecution they have to fight their own self doubt and unanswered questions at the same time. They are vulnerable and fall victim easily.
While the straight youth fights for their rights, the LGBT youth fight for their life. Under Shari’a law for them the physical act of sex means death and not joy or pleasure – as it rightly should be. By continuously demanding their equal rights they keep the fight alive – for them celibacy is not an option. They look to the Iranian society and the International community for support in their struggle for recognition and equality.
A gay poet, Barbod Shab, display the scene of a blind date between two gay men in Tehran:
By: Barbod Shab
What could the meaning of your gaze be
We are here to pass the moment
We are here to conquer moments
Do not forget my presence
I am watching you with all I might
Are you thinking of pulling out my eyes with that fork?
What if you’ve poisoned this dish?
We are here to pass the moment
We are here to conquer moments
Have you made a bed for us?
Why this sheet is red all over?
What mischief you’re up to do to me?
Is your belt tough enough?
We are here to pass the moment
We are here to conquer moments
The shimmering white under your shirt does not blind me
Do you always keep a rifle at home?
Why the fruit knives are razor-sharp
Did you know I carry a knife, too?
Show me your nails
Is it because you play guitar or…?
We are here today only to pass the moment
We are here today only to conquer moments
What’s your favourite music?
Did you know I can yell loud?
Why did you turn the sound so high?
So no one can hear us making love?
By accident we are here today to pass the moment only
By accident we are here today to conquer moments
A glass of juice would be nice after all the bustle
What if you mixed something with the juice?
Sure you haven’t locked the door?
Can I believe my eyes? Am I really leaving now?
Wouldn’t you clutch on my neck when you say good-by?
The moment is passed
We have been conquered
I am leaving now
Can I believe that this cab will take me home?
2005 – Iran
Collections of Gay Poetry by Iranian Poets (residing in Iran)
 9 Lunar years for girls, 15 for boys