By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
Saghi Ghahraman is an Iranian lesbian poet and gay rights activist who lives in Toronto. Born in 1957 in the holy city of Mashhad, she studied classic and contemporary Persian literature at Azarabadegan University in Tabriz. She left Iran in 1982 after attacks on the women's organization she worked at, and was a refugee in Turkey until 1987 when she emigrated to Canada.
She now works with PEN Canada's Exiled Writer program. She has published three collections of poetry and one collection of short stories. She also serves on the board of the Iranian Queer Organization.
Ghahraman recently spoke about what life was like for her growing up as a lesbian during the Shah's regime and just after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Q: Lesbians in Iran do not get much attention internationally. Is this because the Iranian authorities pay less attention to them than to gay men? Are some of them also arrested and charged with being homosexual?
A: The gay movement in Iran started right before the Revolution, and then picked up again around 1990, with gay men leading the fight without any lesbian involvement for a very long time. Lesbians appeared very slowly and reluctantly around 2005 or 2006, and without much fuss or pretense in making their presence felt as part of a social movement. So the attention is rightly given to gay men.
Iranian lesbians were heavily oppressed by the Iranian women's movement and its concerns. Lesbians were told to be quiet so as to prevent any labeling of the movement by the regime. They argued that all activities in the women's movement should deal only with Muslim women's requirements, lest the movement [be] attacked by the regime with allegations of Westernization of the movement.
When lesbians began to show up in society, or online, they were mostly interested in meeting, eating out, and having some fun with other women, and then going back to their "normal" lives. Many of the lesbians have married, either by force or by choice. You might know that, according to sharia in Iran, women aren't allowed to study, get a job, rent apartments, be operated on in hospitals, travel, rent hotel rooms, etc., without a male kin's permission. To have this permission, many lesbians have to get married and comply with traditional requirements and respond to their own desires and preferences only in the private setting of "all-women parties." That limited women being outspoken, or from taking chances with the law and/or the negative publicity of being openly gay.
Q: I have heard about lesbians in various cities of Iran being murdered, or arrested and jailed. I have even heard of harsh treatments in jails of lesbians, but I have not directly interviewed women who have been arrested or jailed.
A: What was it like for you to grow up in Iran during the Shah's regime as a lesbian? How did things change for you after the Revolution of 1979?
At that time, nobody paid attention to what girls did when they got together. Parents thought it was the safe way to have girls mingle only with girls, and this gave us a lot of room to explore. I had my own early experiences when I was ten years old, and my first serious sexual relationship at 16, and my first love at 19, and nobody ever suspected anything. It [lesbianism] was practiced, but wasn't talked about.
I remember a married woman who was a distant relative, who was said to be a lesbian, and had many girlfriends who were changed every couple of months, and although no one approved of her, no one attacked or insulted her. She was a very strong woman, with a husband who very obediently followed her instructions and kept quiet and seemed okay with his wife's active extramarital life.
All the harsh treatment, the stigma and horror around gay men and lesbians began right after the Revolution with the strong force of the regime encouraging parents and the public to harass homosexuals.
I fled Iran three years after the Revolution. I was working with a communist party and its women's branch at the time. I had stumbled into an unpleasant marriage and right after the Revolution, by changes in the laws, I had lost the right to get a divorce.
I had a very supportive father who would do everything to protect me, and when the party was cracked down upon and demolished and members arrested and executions started, he was convinced I couldn't stay and arranged for smugglers to take me over into Turkey via the bordering mountains. I was never out [of the closet] when I was in Iran, and I wasn't there long enough to face complications. The last person I said goodbye to before I left for the border was the woman I loved and spent four years with in a room in the university dorm. And then I was out of Iran. But I had many problems within the Iranian community in Canada, and had my share of fights.
Q: Has life improved for lesbians in Iran over the past 20 years?
A: Life went downhill and became horribly unbearable during the first decade of the Revolution. It started to get better only when people found the means of finding venues to have private lives, and also by seeking asylum in the West. During the last couple of years, it has gotten worse because now everyone is looking for signs of homosexuality and their first guess when faced with a woman refusing dates, suitors, and marriage is that she is a lesbian, and thus, the family and political pressures begin.
In the Persian Gulf Arab states, because of the extreme segregation of the sexes, especially in Saudi Arabia, this has allowed a flourishing subculture of lesbianism to develop in girls' schools. My Saudi women friends tell me that there were many lesbians in their classes who had romances with other girls, giving them flowers, chocolates, and other gifts. Does a similar thing happen in Iran, and do the teachers punish the girls or look the other way?
I remember when I was about to start my grade 1 elementary school, my mother told me on the way to school not to talk to "baroonis," not to accept gifts from them, and not to follow them when they asked to go with them, anywhere. I asked, who the baroonis were. And she said, "They're girls who are sweet on girls, and give them flowers or chocolate and follow them around everywhere."
This was my first encounter with the image of girls who fancy girls. And, yes, it was a common scene to see a girl admiring another girl, getting too close to her, and shadowing her everywhere. Rarely would the other girl respond openly, but then it was common knowledge that in private they'd be having more intimacy.
Parents would not allow their children to hang out with the other children of the opposite sex, but it was very common for girls to sleep in the same bed when sleeping over and take showers together, so having a relationship without being exposed was very easy. I remember I had many occasions to make out with girls at my house or theirs, with our parents taking their afternoon nap not very far from where we were supposed to be taking ours. My girlfriend, when I was 16, visited me every day, and we spent hours and days together, and at the same time, my parents didn't allow me to stay in the same room with my uncle, who was only slightly my elder, out of fear of letting -- as they say in Iran -- fire and cotton brush by each other.
This subculture of lesbianism in Gulf schools has led some female academics to study the issue and they have called it the "boyat" phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, they have lectured against it, calling it an un-Islamic and perverted state of mind, urging psychotherapy as a way of "correcting" this behavior. Has something similar to this happened in Iran?
This has never happened in Iran openly. Feminists and women's movement activists have tried hard to stay away from those openly lesbian figures like myself and made it a point to keep the scene clear of lesbians up to and until the 2009 presidential elections and the aftermath. And although Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize winner, openly opposed homosexual rights, no member of the women's movement has asked for the psychological treatment of lesbians.
Q: As an activist for human rights, do you think there is any hope that gay rights are respected in Iran as long as the clerics and sharia law reign?
A: It depends on how much the longevity of the regime's life depends on it complying with LGBT rights. This regime doesn't want anything and doesn't respect anything besides staying in power. If their future depends on it, yes, they'll oblige, for sure, and they'll say, as Khomeini said, "Alas, I'll drink the cup of hemlock." So it depends then on how the international community deals with the regime. I mean, they don't care much about sharia; only staying in power counts for the group that is ruling Iran.
Islam allows for many different readings and interpretations of its rules. Also, it takes only one religious scholar to announce a fatwa that says: It is not okay to kill homosexuals.
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 O Globo.