Lesbians in Iran

Between desire and taboo

When one speaks of homosexuals in Iran, it is usually men who are meant. The existence of Iranian lesbians is simply not mentioned, even as the subject of homophobic jokes. But Cupid's arrows also inflame passions among Iranian women – wherever and however they strike. By Shirin Soltani

In Iran, women's roles are determined by the state, the family and society: and are restricted to the functions of wife and mother. Having a career, although frowned upon, is at least socially acceptable. But sexual needs that diverge from these ideals and functions are either denied or hushed up. Lesbian love is taboo in Iran.

Women are not supposed to freely express their feelings in Iran. They are forbidden to sing or dance in public or even to wear the clothes they would like. Extramarital sexual intercourse with a man is subject to punishments ranging from house arrest to stoning. "Unnatural acts", among them lesbian sexuality, are punishable with 100 lashes. And for repeat offenders, the death penalty awaits.

To make sure it doesn't come to that, the government offers lesbians the possibility of having sex-change surgery. The counselling centre for transsexuals even gives them papers that allow them to try out the role of man first by going out in public without a hijab.

This puts lesbians in an impossible situation, because women not wearing a hijab immediately draw attention to themselves and become the target of reprimands of all kinds. The ID provided to them by the counselling centre forces them to publicly declare their homosexuality. The women are thus forcibly outed and subsequently stigmatised. And no one even asks them in the first place whether they would actually choose to live out their sexuality as a man.

Raising awareness rather than turning a blind eye

Schools in Iran do not offer sex education and there are no institutions or non-governmental organisations to assist women in coming to terms with their personal sexual orientation. There are only a few illegal Iranian weblogs operated from abroad that deal with homosexuality. Women dare to interact only in secret chat rooms.

Stock image of Iranian women and male dominance (photo: Jamejamonline)
Under male supervision: women are not supposed to freely express their feelings in Iran. They are forbidden to sing or dance in public or even to wear the clothes they would like. Extramarital sexual intercourse with a man is subject to punishments ranging from house arrest to stoning. "Unnatural acts", among them lesbian sexuality, are punishable with 100 lashes

In particular lesbians living in exile devote themselves to making the stories of their Iranian sisters known. One such organisation is the Berlin lesbian advice centre LesMigraS e.V., which also publishes its brochures and programmes in Farsi. This allows reasonably skilled Internet users in Iran to bypass government censorship and obtain information.

Saideh Saadat-Lendle, who directs the anti-discrimination and anti-violence efforts of LesMigraS and has been dedicated for over 25 years to education and support in lesbian issues, has noticed a change occurring of late: "The young people of the 'Generation Internet' who have left Iran since 2009 are much more open to the topic of homosexuality than the generations before. The Internet and other contacts to queer activists and theorists outside of Iran have obviously enabled socio-politically interested people there to confront the issue of enforced heterosexuality and same-sex lifestyles," says Saadat-Lendle.

On thin ice

Iranian lesbians who have become activists in Germany come mostly from the Iranian women's movement, having joined it in many cases to make their demands for self-determination over their own bodies and way of life heard. Since the late 1980s, they have been able through their presence and their outreach work to shed light on and give shape to the stories of Iranian lesbians.

Their intention has been "to take advantage of the active political opposition and the women's movement as multipliers in order to sensitise the active group of people there to the ignorance and intolerance towards female sexuality and lesbians." Saideh Saadat-Lendle notes that this strategy has also succeeded within the women's movement in Germany.

Saideh Saadat-Lendle (photo: private)
"The young people of the 'Generation Internet' who have left Iran since 2009 are much more open to the topic of homosexuality than the generations before. The Internet and other contacts to queer activists and theorists outside of Iran have obviously enabled socio-politically interested people there to confront the issue of enforced heterosexuality and same-sex lifestyles," says Saadat-Lendle

Socially committed lesbians that try to move beyond this context, however, are skating on thin ice, the gender activist warns. In those parts of the Iranian community interested only marginally or not at all in socio-political issues, there is still little understanding for lesbians. Same-sex partnerships are still taboo, so that few women have dared to come out.

Shock therapy

Nevertheless, the work of the Iranian women's movement has helped more and more lesbians in the diaspora to dare to come out publicly and to their families. And, Saadat-Lendle adds, most families quickly calmed down after their initial rejection and irritation and learned to accept the women as they are.

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