Offside and Out of Bounds: LGBTQ Rights in Iran (Opinion)

By AIC Research Fellow Shiva Darian

When most people hear the terms “Iranian women” and “soccer,” they are reminded of Iran’s recently lifted ban on women entering sports stadiums.

A few months ago however, I discovered this hilarious and ironic 2015 news story about the Iranian women’s soccer team actually being comprised of a number of male players. The photos made for great laughs, but also sparked an interesting series of discussions and thoughts. Apparently, upon being caught using male players, the team manager defended the decision by stating the players were transgender. Unfortunately, this attempt to deflect the blatant cheating scandal by sparking dialogue on transgender rights was largely ignored, mostly due to the fact that the team had only won a single game that season.

 Iran’s “women” national football team (red and yellow) play a friendly football match with club Malavan Anzali football team in Tehran; Source:  The Telegraph , Photo: Getty Images

Iran’s “women” national football team (red and yellow) play a friendly football match with club Malavan Anzali football team in Tehran; Source: The Telegraph, Photo: Getty Images

Iran’s “women” national football team (red and yellow) play a friendly football match with club Malavan Anzali football team in Tehran; Source: The Telegraph, Photo: Getty Images

It may seem counterintuitive that Iran, with its theocratic government, would have transgender rights, particularly since thatboth homosexuality and “fornication” are considered to be punishable offenses. Yet Iran was second only to Thailand for gender reassignment surgeries as of 2007. This is mostly due to the efforts of the late Maryam Khatoon Molkara, an activist who became Iran’s first officially recognized transperson. After facing discrimination under the Shah’s regime, Ms. Molkara began writing to then-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini regarding her situation. However, the early years following the 1979 revolution did not bring her much relief. Despite numerous clerics and psychologists supporting and encouraging her to embark upon hormone replacement therapy and eventually sexual reassignment surgery, she struggled for basic human rights.

Following 54 exchanged letters throughout nearly 15 years, finally, in 1986, seven years after the revolution, Ms. Molkara was granted an audience with the Ayatollah to discuss her discrimination case and transgender rights. The meeting resulted in the 1987 fatwa (religious edict) legitimizing transgender as an identity and allowing for hormone therapy and reassignment surgeries. This fatwa was later re-confirmed by current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who went further to provide subsidies for those who need such treatments.

The late Maryam Molkara and her husband photographed during an interview with Kaveh Kazemi in 2010 source: Getty Images

Life is difficult for transgender people in Iran despite the work of a few prominent scholars working toward shifting public perceptions and inclusion within the legal framework. The nation remains one of the worst places in the world to be a sexual minority. Human Rights Watch has traced the jarring details of numerous cases of local and legal discrimination for “sexual deviance.” Iran faces a unique dilemma in this regard; there are some rights for those who identify as transgender, so long as they decide to follow through with a full physical and legal transition, and yet, little to no societal acceptance of sexual minorities.

The American gay rights movement lies in stark contrast with Iran’s. The American fight for LGBTQ rights succeeded by expanding the Overton window. Activists advocated for gay marriage during a time where it seemed inconceivable. Eventually, the nation conceded to incremental changes, first with domestic partnerships, then with civil unions, and finally by legalizing gay marriage when it no longer seemed like a far stretch. In the west, laws trailed behind social norms as public attitudes shifted. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, social norms must instead follow the dictates of the clerics in charge. Where American activists shifted social norms, Iranians need to convince a theocratic government.

Ms. Molkara established the basis for transgender rights in Iran by legitimizing it within Shia sharia law. She argued that hormone replacement therapy and gender reassignment surgeries were treatments for a mental illness. Iranian LGBTQ activists need to demonstrate a precedence within Islamic law or prove the need for a new perspective in order to facilitate change. While activists can’t look toward the west for inspiration, there are a few cases of liberalization and moderate acceptance within the Muslim world.

Though looking toward nations that merely lack legal consequences for homosexuality may seem bleak, abolishing corporal and capital punishments for acts of “sexual deviance” unrelated to rape are critical first steps to take. The current situation has forced the LGBTQ community to consider fleeing the nation, which shrinks the potential pool of activists. Perhaps incremental change is the most vital for the Iranian LGBTQ community. Below is a table of some Muslim-majority nations with more toleration for homosexuality than Iran.

 Sources:  ILGA report  on State Sponsored Homophobia and  equaldex.com

Sources: ILGA report on State Sponsored Homophobia and equaldex.com

Even though these nations do not prohibit homosexuality in their laws, none claim it is “legal” within Islamic law. The lack of legal consequences surrounding homosexuality does not extend to protections for sexual minorities; there are many cited instances of local communities punishing LGBTQ residents with little to no government intervention. Even Turkey, which has not legally punished same-sex relations since 1858, has only 9% support for societal acceptance of homosexuality according to a Pew Research Study. Lebanon is perhaps the only one of these nations actively working to abolish anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Iraq presents a promising example for Iran; the country has not prohibited same-sex relations in every government since 1969, though there have been many instances of local violence against LGBTQ people. Prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has released multiple statements condemning such violence. In 2012, al-Sadr addressed a series of killings in Sadr City by stating that though the targets were “a lesion on the Muslim community,” they should be dealt “within the law,” calling for an end to the murders. In 2016, al-Sadr addressed the issue again, stating that transgender people and those in same-sex relationships deserve the right to live and that instead of attacking them, one must “guide them using acceptable and rational means”. Human Rights Watch Deputy Middle East Director, Joe Stork states:

“While al-Sadr is still a long way from fully embracing human rights for LGBT people, his statement shows that he understands the importance of stopping abuses against them,” Stork said. “The statement represents an important change in the right direction, and should be followed by concrete actions to protect LGBT people from violence.”

Maryam Molkara’s journey began with the encouragement of clerics who supported her by issuing statements that were likely similar in sentiment to that of al-Sadr’s. Though these statements are by no means ideal, they are definite steps toward progress. The Iranian LGBTQ movement needs to continue to amplify these statements in order to establish basic human rights. Tehran remains an abysmal place to be a member of the LGBTQ community, under the shadow of corporal and capital punishment. Iran has taken small steps toward acknowledging the right of its sexual minorities to exist. It has far to go.