Between desire and taboo
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beneficial here is that families in many European countries as well as in Canada and the USA have counselling centres available to them. Same-sex marriages are either already allowed in many of these countries or they are being discussed, as in Germany, so that the prejudices and fears of anxious parents have been put into perspective by family physicians and psychotherapists and by registrars conducting same-sex weddings.
The families quickly come to see that lesbians are perfectly healthy individuals in keeping with God and nature. Saadat-Lendle stresses however that this applies only to families living outside of Iran. Inside the country, lesbians usually try to protect their families from shame and social repercussions by keeping their private lives a secret.
The fate of homosexual Iranian women is being addressed not only by politically active women and dedicated men. Iran-born artists are also taking a stance. The most spectacular statement in recent years was the 2014 video "Behesht" ("Paradise"), sung by the Iranian pop icon Googoosh.
"Behesht" tells the story of a young woman who receives a marriage proposal. But her love for her suitor, who is at first not shown, meets with rejection at home and in society. The young woman withdraws in despair, until she crosses paths with her love again at a Googoosh concert. This is the moment when it becomes clear that the story is about a lesbian couple. The video ends with the message: "Freedom to Love for All".
The director of the video, actor Navid Akhavan, touched the hearts of Iranians worldwide with his taboo-breaking storyline. In an interview with Iran Journal, he reported that he himself had been moved the most by the reactions of LGBTs in Iran: "Many members of the LGBT community in Iran wrote to tell us that the release of the video led to some positive changes in their lives." He realised for the first time "what kind of power art gives you".
The singer Googoosh, whose fame contributed greatly to the popularity of the video, did not take a clear position in "Behesht". But this is the first time an artist of her calibre has addressed the topic of same-sex relationships at all. The powers that be in Iran accused her of "opening the floodgates to moral depravity". Navid Akhavan was not spared negative feedback either: "The comments, some of them equating homosexuals with paedophiles, really shocked me," he recalls.
But it is exactly this kind of resistance that Akhavan sees as a challenge to continue advocating for the acceptance of same-sex partnerships: "We have to show that we are on the side of the people in the LGBT community and accept them as part of our society just like anyone else."
It will take tenacity and commitment on many levels to break sexual taboos. Because addressing the (homo-) sexuality of Iranian women also means shaking the very foundations of a deeply patriarchal system.