Iranian lesbians, like their gay brothers, are not allowed to have an existence in Iran. Many are forced by society and by their family to live a lie and marry a man. Women convicted of lesbian sex face flogging or, after conviction for a fourth time, the death penalty. Lesbians have no security of person vis-à-vis the government. Each time they are arrested, they risk being raped, whipped, persecuted or even tortured to death. If they are raped by strangers or acquaintances, they and their family members are often reluctant to file a formal complaint because being raped is itself a matter of shame and disgrace. Even when complaints are filed, they do not prosper as the law pertaining to the crime of rape requires four male witnesses to prove the legitimacy of the accusation.
Those forced into marriage by their families experience the trauma of rape every night as a wife’s first duty is to serve her husband’s sexual needs. Under Iranian law, it is lawful for a man to rape his wife. The only unlawful rape of a woman is zena or adulterous rape. Many of these women suffer from depression and other mental and spiritual problems. If their sexuality is discovered by their family members, they are likely to be beaten and abused if not abandoned. Abandonment often means drug abuse and prostitution. Sometimes, lesbian women are forced by their families to consult a doctor, a process which can involve agitation and trauma. There have been cases where a lesbian required hospitalization after being prescribed a dangerous pill used typically for serious mental illnesses. They may even be persuaded to undergo sex-change operation, which can lead to depression, various mental and physical conditions and even suicide.
For lesbians and bisexual women, family and institutional social control may be the greatest threat to their safety and well-being. Research conducted by IRQR in last few years with Iranian lesbians indicates that their families and communities pressure them to repress their sexuality in myriad ways. Their fear of discovery is well-founded.
Lesbians whose families suspect them of homosexuality may be punished. A university student in her mid-twenties in Tehran told us that she was barred from leaving their home for there months when her mother discovered she was a lesbian. After which she was under constant supervision and was prevented from communicating outside the family.
A Human Rights Watch report (Scott Long, Human Rights Watch) describes the experience of a 23-year-old woman in Tehran who had two girlfriends who were subjected to forced therapy and drugging. After the parents learned of her lesbianism, she was told that she must take estrogen for her condition of hormone deficiency. One of her girlfriends was forcibly medicated from age 15 until age 21. The side effects of the drugs included an inability to concentrate, constant dizziness, chronic fatigue, and loss of sexual interest. (www.hrw.org)
Maryam is a 29-year-old Iranian lesbian refugee whom we were able to help get an early legal interview with the UNHRC in Turkey. She had a terrible life in an abusive situation. Her family forced her to marry one of their relatives. The husband raped her every night. She could do nothing about it because one of the first duties of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran is “sexual delivery” to their husbands. This poor girl went to a doctor after the repeated brutal marital rapes. The doctor told her, “You appear to have been raped by an animal and you need urgent health care now.” However, her family ordered her to be patient and stay at her husband’s home. She was then repeatedly beaten by her husband but she eventually escaped and went to a friend’s house. While she was there, her brothers came when she was out and told her friend they were going to kill their sister to save the family’s honour. She allegedly had dishonored the family because she had left her husband and has suspicious connections with other women. That was when she fled Iran to Turkey, where she was put in touch with us by one of our members in Iran. She cried when she told her story and I lost control too. I told her, “Don’t go back to Iran. We don’t want to lose any more members of our queer family.”
As part of the routine pressure on Iranian women, lesbians are forced into marriages. Sanaz, 32, explained that her mother forced her to marry a man after discovering she was a lesbian. Had she refused, her parents would have disowned her. She had no means of supporting herself. She continues to live in fear of her husband discovering her sexuality and thus might become abusive or publicly “out” her in a shameful divorce. She also described a pattern of forced sex with her husband.
Taraneh is an Iranian lesbian refugee who has lived in the Netherlands for the past 17 years. She was 21 when she was first arrested in Iran and consequently spent three months in prison where she received 100 whip lashes. Later, she was forced into marriage by her family. Yet, she continued her relationship with her girlfriend clandestinely. Her neighbors became aware of her same-sex relationship and reported her to the police. The police forces raided her house, beat her severely and took her to a detention centre. She was severely tortured there and was forced to confess to her lesbianism. She spent several days in solitary confinement while bleeding and lacking access to sanitary and medical facilities. In the Revolutionary Court of Esfahan, Taraneh was offered freedom if she agreed to co-operate with the secret police to identify other lesbians. After rejecting this offer, she was beaten again and was then sent to prison. She spent two years in prison and received 180 lashes. She was flogged in front of other prisoners. Throughout this period, she was repeatedly threatened with imminent execution. Every night, she and other prisoners were taken to the prison’s courtyard and were forced to run. They were told by the guards that “people like them must be burnt to death.” When Taraneh was finally released after several years of torture and trauma, she immediately escaped to Turkey and applied for refugee status.
Shaghayegh is another Iranian lesbian who was forced to escape from Iran along with her partner in February 2007. In 2001, she was forced into marriage, which consequently made her depressed and suicidal. During this period, she became friends with Nazanin, who is now her partner. Shaghayegh’s husband became aware of their relationship and blackmailed them. He repeatedly threatened that he would report them to the police. His threats continued even after Shaghayegh divorced him. The husband once attempted to murder Nazanin by throwing a stone at her while she was driving. Left without any legal recourse, Shaghayegh and Nazanin had to buy themselves short periods of safety by giving the former husband a lot of money. They spent many of their days in fear as they sometimes heard stories about a lesbian friend of theirs getting arrested, beaten up, tortured and raped by the Basiji forces. One month before leaving the country, the couple received constant threats from a stranger who wanted to force them into group sex. The stranger harassed the couple repeatedly by knocking at their door and windows at night and calling their cell phones. Once again, Shaghayegh and Nazanin were unable to report these incidents because, in the eyes of the police, they would have been not the victims but the criminals. On Feb. 22, 2007, Shaghayegh was alone at home when she heard a knock on her door. She opened the door to be informed that police forces had come to confiscate her satellite receiver. While in her apartment, the police agents also noticed several DVDs beside the TV set. Among the DVDs were “illegal movies,” lesbian movies, and pictures of Shaghayegh and Nazanin kissing and making love. The police took the DVDs with them and asked Shaghayegh who the man of the house was. After telling them that he was away, Shaghayegh was told to send her husband to them by next week. Understanding that the DVDs contained enough evidence to sentence her and Nazanin to arrest, torture and rape, if not outright execution, Shaghayegh and Nazanin arranged their escape to Turkey immediately and applied for refugee status once they arrived there.