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Comment | Protecting Rights of Gay Citizens in Iran

by RASHEED ABOU-ALSAMH in Brasília

10 Dec 2011 15:28Comments
maryam-keshavarz-circumstance.jpgIn land where homosexuality can yield death sentence, little hope that regime will heed a recent U.N. appeal.

[ comment ] It has always been hard to be gay in the Middle East, even more so in Iran, where a hardline regime, with ultimate power in the hands of the clergy, has been in power since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons in Iran were given the tiniest glimmer of hope in November when the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, released its latest recommendations on how the Iranian government can improve the human rights of its citizens, including for the first time GLBTs.

"The Committee is concerned that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community face harassment, persecution, cruel punishment and even the death penalty. It is also concerned that these persons face discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, including with respect to access to employment, housing, education and health care, as well as social exclusion within the community," said the report of the committee's 103d session, held October 17 to November 4.

The report continued,

The State party should repeal or amend all legislation which provides for or could result in the discrimination, prosecution and punishment of people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It should ensure that anyone held solely on account of freely and mutually agreed sexual activities or sexual orientation should be released immediately and unconditionally. The State party should also take all necessary legislative, administrative and other measures to eliminate and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, including with respect to access to employment, housing, education and health care, and to ensure that individuals of different sexual orientation or gender identity are protected from violence and social exclusion within the community.
Iran is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 and entered into force in 1976. Iran signed it in 1968 and ratified the covenant in 1975. The Human Rights Committee is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the treaty by signatory states. The 18-member committee also has the authority to interpret the treaty by issuing general comments. The Human Rights Committee reviews the compliance of member states on a regular basis using official reports from governments as well as input from independent human rights organizations. Several human rights groups contributed information to the committee on gay life in Iran, including the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights Watch, and Iranian Queer Organization. Many U.N. member states, especially Islamic and African nations, have flatly refused to carry out many of the Human Rights Committee's recommendations, saying that they go against Islamic or local values. And the committee, for all its suasive authority, has no means of enforcement. "The government of Iran will perhaps continue to ignore the committee's recommendations," said Hossein Alizadeh, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the IGLHRC in New York. He said Iran had already notified the committee that they believe the LGBT issue is beyond the mandate of the ICCPR, and that they are not obligated to discuss this issue.

Iran is not alone in this respect. Over the past few years, a growing number of countries at the U.N., especially members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the African Union, have said they are opposed to any discussion of the LGBT issue in the framework of human rights, arguing that homosexuality is irrelevant to their cultural and religious values. "Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have used their cultural relativism argument to walk away from their responsibilities in regard to LGBT human rights," explained Alizadeh.

"Although the Human Rights Committee does not have an enforcement mechanism, their frequent reference to LGBT rights and their repeated emphasis on states' responsibilities to respect the human rights of consenting individuals who engage in same sex practices can in the long term serve as a source for international standards in addressing LGBT rights violations."

Iran's penal code incorporates severe punishments, including the death penalty, for men charged with engaging in lavat, or sodomy, and for women charged with mosahegheh, or lesbian sex acts. For two men to be charged with sodomy, under Islamic law, there needs to be four adult male witnesses who actually observed the act of penetration. Since in practice this is almost impossible to come by, Iranian police regularly employ torture to extract confessions. Women convicted of lesbianism are sentenced to 100 lashes for each of the first three offenses, according to Human Rights Watch. The death penalty is applied once a woman is convicted of mosahegheh for the fourth time.

The number of gay Iranian men executed for homosexuality appears to have risen sharply in the past few years, causing outrage in gay communities around the globe. This has prompted the Iranian government to order state media to give less publicity to such cases, which in turn has made it harder for international human rights groups -- already effectively barred from entering Iran and interviewing victims of violence and discrimination -- to compile relevant data. Iranian authorities also routinely charge those they execute for sodomy with other crimes such as drug trafficking or rape, making it harder for researchers to ascertain the real reasons for many executions.

"One of the issues that has been frequently raised by various U.N. bodies, [and by] U.N. Special Rapporteur on Iran Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, are the extremely high number of executions in Iran in the past year," said Alizadeh. "There have been cases of executions for sodomy, including three cases in September 2011 in Ahwaz, a city in the southwest of Iran, that is populated mainly by ethnic Arabs. Although later, we had reports indicating that those executed in Ahwaz were political activists and the sodomy charges brought by the government were bogus."

Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report in December 2010 on the mistreatment of Iranian gay men and lesbians, "We Are a Buried Generation: Discrimination and Violence against Sexual Minorities in Iran." The report, which took five years of interviews with people in Iran and abroad to compile, details how most Iranian families view homosexuality in their children as an illness and take them to psychologists to be "cured"; how police regularly raid gay parties and arrest gay-looking men on the streets; how gay men have to go through many procedures to get exemptions from military service for alleged "sexual deviancy"; and how gay men are regularly entrapped through gay chat rooms on the Internet.

One would think that in countries, such as Iran, that are heavily gender segregated, it would be easier for same-sex couples to spend time and even live together. But the fact remains that most apartment owners are reluctant to rent to unmarried men and women, forcing most gay Iranians to live at home with their parents, who keep a constant eye on them.

"Gay men can rent a room with their partners without raising any suspicions. But at the same time, this free-style bachelor life has a limit: There is no legal protection in case people find out about the true nature of the relationship between the 'roommates,' and so they live in constant fear of being discovered," explained Alizadeh. "If LGBT individuals choose to hide their identity and live their entire life in the shadows, they may be safe. But this is not what we as human rights activists advocate for. No one should be forced into hiding and become invisible just because of their sexual orientation and gender identity."

Many observers of Iran and the Muslim world have noted the fissure between the discourse of Western human rights groups, which are progressive and activist, and Muslim nations that feel LGBT rights are a Western and therefore "foreign" concept. This has led some gay Muslims in the West to form support and advocacy groups, such as Al-Fatiha in the United States and Canada, to try and reach an accommodation between their Islamic faith and sexual orientation.

"There is a disconnect between Muslim societies and the global human rights discourse, since there are many who question the compatibility of human rights principles with Islam," admits Alizadeh. "That's why LGBT activists in many Muslim countries prefer to work in coalition with other human rights activists, including feminists and those advocating for individual rights and freedoms."

In Iran, the chance of any sort of dialogue between the clerical and LGBT communities seems nil, even though there has been a group of more liberally minded imams who have issued religious verdicts (fatwas) on a range of social issues, according to Alizadeh.

"Over the past few years, there have been a number of progressive Shiite clergymen, both in Iran and in places such as Lebanon, who have written revolutionary fatwas regarding gender equality, human rights, rights to privacy, and sexual offenses," said Alizadeh. "These fatwas have been used in courts by lawyers with various degrees of success. Although the ruling establishment remains untouched by those progressive views, they can't simply dismiss them as Western and have to take them into consideration as part of the court hearing process."

Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who trained for many years at seminaries in Qom, does not believe that there is any school of thought in Shiism that takes a nonhostile attitude to homosexuality.

Regarding the recommendations of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, Khalaji said in an interview that he was doubtful the Iranian government would take any notice: "Pressure through human rights themselves would not change Iran's behavior, unless Iran felt that suspending some of its juridical verdicts would decrease the political and economic pressure on Iran."

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh is a Saudi American journalist who lives in Brazil and blogs at rasheedsworld.com. He is a regular contributor to Al-Ahram Weekly and Brazil's O Globo. Photos: From the film "Circumstance" (above); homepage via BeLikeOthers.com.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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