On Feb 22, 2017 Broadly reported: In Iran, being gay can carry a death sentence for men. Though lesbians are discussed less frequently, they too face severe government-sanctioned punishment, including lashes and flogging.
The three days Azadeh* spent in interrogation felt to her like months.
In a remote villa on the outskirts of Iran, she sat listening to clergymen preaching quotes from the Quran as the burns on her arms stung with infection.
Growing up, the 25-year-old says she was often bullied for her “boyish” looks. But several years ago, the harassment took on a more sinister form when she was arrested and tortured by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The guards had found a short story by Azadeh about two male soldiers who were lovers during the war, after a tip-off from a girl Azadeh says held a personal grudge against her.
“I never directly used the word ‘homosexuality’ in my writings,” Azadeh says, “but they wanted to use those writings to get a confession from me that I’m a lesbian. I denied everything.”
Regardless, she was forced to undergo a three-day long “reorientation course”, which she quickly learnt was a euphemism for interrogation. It consisted, she says, of religious instruction and repeated attempts to force her to admit she was gay.
“They tortured me by pouring boiling water on my skin and beating me, especially on the head. [But] more than physical torture, I was subjected to verbal abuse,” she says. “They kept telling me that I was a ‘pussy licker’.”
It is illegal to be gay in Iran: The country’s strictly enforced penal code means possible death sentences for men in same-sex relationships, and lashes and flogging for women.
Death might seem a worse fate than torture, but in practice gay women face double discrimination—first as women, and then as lesbians. This is because women’s rights in Iran are already severely restricted: Fathers, brothers, and husbands can assert unquestioned control over their daughters, sisters and wives. In the legal arena, such as inheritance disputes, a woman’s testimony is very often just half the value of a man’s.
It wasn’t always this way: Iranian women achieved suffrage under the Shah’s government in the 1960s. But since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, many of their legal rights have been stripped away with the enactment of Sharia law, an legal system derived from the Quran and the Sunnah (sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad).
Read More: The Illegal, Underground Ballerinas of Iran
New enforcements meant all women had to wear the hijab, and women could no longer file for divorce unless it was specifically written into their marriage contract. The marriage age for girls was reduced to nine, and, in 1981, parliament introduced flogging, stoning, and payment of blood money.
For Azadeh, being a practicing Muslim and the daughter of a decorated military official hasn’t saved her from years of discrimination and injustice, sometimes simply because she dresses in a “masculine way.”
“When I get harassed, I can’t go to the police. Sometimes the harassment and arrest comes from the police [themselves],” she explains. “I’ve been arrested because of my appearance. Once I was taken with a group of men to the police station and the police wanted to do a body search on me without a search warrant. I refused and argued, and ended up in a fist fight with them.”
Ironically, the country’s leaders have explicitly denied the existence of gay citizens. In the notorious words of former-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said while addressing Columbia University in 2007: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country. In Iran we, don’t have this phenomenon.”