Over the last two decades, issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity have gained significant visibility and attention across the globe. The case of Iran is particularly fraught, and has received plenty of coverage due to the work of international non-profits.
One such organization, OutRight Action International (formerly the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission), convened three interrelated experts on October 13 to discuss some of the theological, legal and social issues facing LGBT-identified people living in Iran. The panel was hosted by the Political Science Department at City University of New York, Brooklyn College and moderated by Hossein Alizadeh, regional program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at OutRight Action International. It came on the heels of two rounds of meetings held in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2012 and 2014, in which OutRight Action International brought together lawyers, human rights activists and academics for a roundtable on the situation of LGBT and queer people in Iran. The results were published in a report titled “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights in Iran: Analysis from Religious, Social, Legal and Cultural Perspectives.”
The panelists presented a bleak picture of the social lives of sexual and gender minorities in Iran and the limited legal remedies available to them in cases of injury or rights violation. During the question-and-answer session, however, the panel noted many positive changes that seem to be taking place in the “mentalities” of religious scholars, medical professionals and the public at large, underscoring the shifting terrain of queer and trans acceptability and visibility both inside and outside of Iran.
One pertinent theme is the role of Islamic law in administering justice to sexual and gender minorities. According to panelist Arash Naraghi, associate professor of philosophy and religion at Moravian College, traditional Islamic law has taken a harsh view toward sexual minorities—an approach that has often included cruel and inhumane application of the death penalty. At the same time, the injustice faced by gender and sexual minorities has been questioned and challenged by Muslims themselves. Reforming Islamic laws that relate to the treatment of homosexuality in Muslim-majority countries like Iran requires both a religious reformation and a theological intervention. The latter means making the crucial, though often elided or forgotten, distinction between fiqh and shari‘a in Islamic jurisprudence. Shari‘a contains all the guidance communicated by God to the Prophet Muhammad in the text of the Qur’an, as explicated by Muhammad in word and deed. Fiqh, on the other hand, consists of rulings reached by scholars through the reading of those divine sources. As a human-made discipline, fiqh is subject to change, criticism and error in interpretation. Therefore, if it can be demonstrated that there is “no morally sufficient reason” to discriminate against people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, then such discrimination is unjust from a theological and legal standpoint. As Naraghi pointed out, a few Islamic scholars have adopted the second approach in the past decade. This development could have immense consequences for gender and sexual minorities in countries such as Iran.
The particularity of the Islamic religious and legal bases for discrimination and justice intersects with the goal of developing a universal standard of human rights, enshrined in many of the institutions and documents of the United Nations. The increasing visibility of LGBT identities, movements and discourses has led to a proliferation of international human rights organizations that have become attuned to documenting and addressing violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity across the world. The second panelist was Rose Richter, special assistant to the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Situation of Human Rights in Iran. She placed the UN’s work on incorporating LGBT rights into its agenda for the past two decades in the context of social movements that have moved beyond challenging patriarchal norms as sources of discrimination and bias. Instead, these movements have progressed into “an ideational and social sphere where gender and sexuality are negotiated, defined and expressed,” prompting the UN to be more inclusive in its approach to human rights by recognizing gender and sexual orientation as important sites of discrimination and violence. The UN has faced some challenges in consistently documenting these violations, mainly due to underreporting and the gap between the kinds of protections that these human rights mechanisms can offer.
According to Richter, two recent studies undertaken by the Special Rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, document a range of violations by state or official actors such as restrictions on access to information, violations of the right to assembly, police harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, sexual harassment and assault, forced marriage, pressure to undergo sex reassignment procedures, and subpar medical treatment associated with such procedures. Other major struggles faced by LGBT groups in Iran are social in origin, such as being bullied in school or disowned, beaten or raped by family members or feeling compelled to run away from home, a phenomenon known in most parts of the world, including the United States. These abuses are often not reported to authorities due to the threat of additional violence from officials themselves. Security officers often raid the parties and other gatherings of LGBT Iranians, sometimes leading to arrests and detainment.
One way that LGBT people are targeted is through Internet entrapment in which security agents pose as gay or trans people interested in “meeting up.” The third panelist, Mani Mostofi, an Iranian-American human rights advocate and director of Impact Iran, identified the transformative power of Internet access. The Internet and social media provide forums for positive information about LGBT identities, images and rights. Moreover, the interactive nature of the Internet creates spaces through which communities are formed and communication and discussion occur. The interstitial nature of the online and offline worlds was highlighted as affording opportunities for individuals to socialize, provide support, build movements and engage in information-sharing techniques of survival. At the same time, the Internet in Iran has limitations, as the Iranian government blocks websites that it deems politically, religiously or morally dangerous. Many people in Iran do, however, have access to anti-filtration software that allows them to circumvent the censors. In this vein, Mostofi suggested that the international human rights community should be concerned with a bundle of rights that can empower the LGBT community in particular, but that can also create broader change in Iranian society.
English-language media have given much favorable attention to the availability of gender confirmation procedures for trans people in Iran—one of the few Muslim-majority countries where such medical treatments are legal and available. Since the law recognizes transsexuality, those desiring access to hormones or various surgeries and medical procedures can get it. As Iranian law and bureaucratic rules recognize only a strict male-female binary, trans people are able to change their gender designation from one to the other on various identity documents, including birth certificates. Individuals are often able to receive a permit that attests to their trans status, on the assumption that they are following up with state-designated hormone therapy and subsequent surgeries.
While wide-ranging, the October 13 panel could have provided a fuller picture of the social realities of gender and sexual minorities in Iran. The lack of a voice of an LGBT Iranian at the event was glaring—especially given that international NGOs often stress the high number of LGBT Iranian refugees who attempt to reach European or North American countries through Turkey. NGOs are by definition built around expert knowledge of legal, human rights, social, political and economic realities. This framework often does not allow the target populations of NGOs to tell their own stories, which may or may not correspond to the overarching universal discourse of human rights.
This panel’s focus on the legal and rights-based challenges of gender and sexual minorities in Iran, while informative and important, was self-limiting in its expository power to depict the lived lives of the very people it takes as its object of intervention. Gender and sexuality are always constituted and articulated at the intersection of religious, cultural, medical and legal regimes of truth and control. A privileging of rights-based discourse in this case leaves little room not only for nuances and complexities of lived experience, but also for the agency of sexual and gender minorities in shaping, contesting and “living through” the religio-medico-legal regimes of disciplinary power. Presenting a narrative that refracts the lives of gender and sexual minorities through a legal or human rights lens can only conceive of those individuals as suffering victims.
While victimization does occur at various levels of family, society and the state, ethnographic studies such as the one done by Afsaneh Najmabadi in Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (2013) illustrate how gender and sexual minorities in Iran have opted to approach the Iranian bureaucratic order through the discourse of “needs” and not “rights.” That is to say, LGBT individuals use the fractious Iranian bureaucracy to their advantage in order to shape the various rules and regulations that will give them access not only to medical resources, but also to spaces of relative maneuver through which they can create livable lives. As Najmabadi demonstrates, instead of attempting to change laws through Parliament, for example, gender and sexual minorities in Iran work with the Welfare Organization and other state bureaucracies to create the changes they need.
Ultimately, theological and legal questions with regard to homosexuality and transsexuality are important and need to be addressed. A rights-based discourse, however, cannot fully capture the subjectivity and agency of sexual and gender minorities and will only center the authority, expertise and knowledge of the West-based subject that often imagines itself as universal. It is thus imperative that we raise the question of which narratives are privileged and which are silenced.