Analysis: Iran protests for women, but not for lesbians

Sareh, who was sentenced to death along with another woman, Elham Choubdar, for “corruption on earth through the promotion of homosexuality.” (Youtube Screenshot)

Mahsa Amini didn’t have to die. While visiting Tehran, Iran with family, Amini was dragged off the street for not wearing her hijab properly and taken to the police station for some “re-education.” 

She was never seen alive again.

Amini’s death on September 16 has propelled protests throughout Iran, with women illegally removing their hijabs — which must be worn at all times when women are in public or in the company of men — and burning them in huge bonfires. The protests have turned violent as police have clashed with protestors, using live ammunition, tear gas and water cannons to quell the protests. More than 75 people have been killed, with reports suggesting the death toll could be much higher. 

The protests are the most intense in years, with many calling for the end to the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as calling him a dictator. Iranian officials confirmed that more than 1,200 people have been arrested. In addition, activists, lawyers and journalists are reportedly being detained along with protestors.

The death of the 22 year old Amini came under suspicious circumstances after she was detained by Iran’s morality police, who accused her of wearing “unsuitable attire.” 

There is a glitch in the videotape of her being detained and her family disputes the determination that she had a heart attack and died as a result. CNN, BBC and CBS all report that Amini died after three days in detention and that an image of her bruised, bloodied and intubated body was circulated after her death.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has vowed there will be an investigation.

Amini’s family is less sure, certain that the government will cover up the circumstances of Amini’s death. “She was tortured, according to eyewitnesses,” Amini’s cousin, Erfan Mortezaei, who lives in self-exile in Iraq, told CBS News. “She was tortured in the van after her arrest, then tortured at the police station for half an hour, then hit on her head and she collapsed.”  

On September 5, two lesbian activists, Zahra Sedighi-Hamedani, 31, known as Sareh, and Elham Choubdar, 24, were sentenced to death for “corruption on earth through the promotion of homosexuality.” A third woman, Soheila Ashrafi, 52, also a defendant in the case, is awaiting sentencing.

“Corruption on earth” is said to be a deliberately vague catch-all charge levied frequently against lesbians and gay men in Iran. It also comes with an automatic death sentence. Amnesty International says that “the offense of ‘corruption on earth’ fails to meet requirements for clarity and precision needed in criminal law and breaches the principle of legality and legal certainty.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a U.S.-designated terrorist entity, accused Sareh and Choubdar of “promoting homosexuality, gambling, fraud, and promoting illicit sexual relations and publishing them on the Internet.” According to the Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the security forces, the women were first detained on charges of “forming a gang for trafficking girls and supporting homosexuality.” 

There were no protests over the death sentences of Sareh and Choubar, and in all the discourse over the plight of women in Iran since Amini’s death, the names of these women have not been mentioned. PGN is one of the few news outlets to have reported on their case. On September 15,  Amnesty International published a letter demanding the women be released and that they be given legal representation.

Amnesty states unequivocally that Sareh, who was tortured for 53 days by the IRGC, was “targeted for discriminatory reasons tied to her real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity, as well as her peaceful LGBTI rights activism, including on social media, and her association with LGBTI asylum seekers in Iraq.”

The organization adds that “Court documents and other information reviewed by Amnesty International indicate that Elham Choubdar was similarly targeted for discriminatory reasons related to her real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity, LGBTI supportive activities on social media, and association with Zahra Sedighi-Hamadani. The proceedings leading to the women’s convictions and sentences were grossly unfair.” 

And yet, there is utter silence on these lesbians’ fate even as the protests rage throughout Iran over the status of women. Don’t these two lesbians count as women? Aren’t the same issues of restrictive Sharia law that led to Amini’s death the rationale for the death sentences of Sareh and Choubdar?

The lack of protest over these draconian sentences is indicative of a broader disconnect that exists in the U.S. as much as Iran. Protests by Democrats over the Roe v. Wade reversal have not extended to protests over the draconian laws being passed in nearly every state against LGBTQ people.

A political and activism alliance between women’s rights and LGBTQ rights has always existed. Issues of bodily autonomy that have so defined the abortion rights debate were also emblematic of many aspects of LGBTQ rights. But as evidenced more definitively in Britain, where many leading feminists have become stridently anti-LGBTQ and an “LGB without the T” movement has begun to take root (gaining international prominence when author J.K. Rowling voiced her support for it), that alliance has become less strong in many quarters. 

Yet there is no question that patriarchal norms are harming women and LGBTQ people globally and are imperiling to both groups. Ironically, in the U.S., the GOP is voicing support for the protests in Iran, even as Christo-fascism is a defining element of GOP MAGA politics. As Will Bunch wrote in the Inquirer, in the U.S., “the long arm of misogynistic social control can appear in many uniforms, from the black robes of Supreme Court justices hellbent on rolling back women’s reproductive rights, to the QAnon-chic of hockey rinks packed with politicized mobs chanting “Lock her up!,” to the ridiculous khaki fashions of well-dressed thugs who incongruously call themselves Proud Boys.” 

The U.S. is not a theocracy like Iran, thanks to the Framer’s determination to separate Church and State. But the MAGA GOP would like to change that. Christianity, while dominant at 63 percent, is only one of many U.S. religions and people with no specific religious affiliation account for about 3 in 10 Americans

The stridency of the Christo-fascist MAGA GOP is no less dangerous than its Iranian Islamist counterpart — it just doesn’t have the backing of the State. Yet GOP state legislatures are passing laws that allow schools to check the genitalia of girls who perform too well in sports to be sure they aren’t trans. This is at least as invasive as re-education for a hijab.

Feminist theorist Mona Eltahawy wrote in a column on Sept. 27, “So successful has white supremacist patriarchy been at convincing you that you’re lucky to live in the U.S. and not Saudi Arabia or Iran, that so many of you did not pay enough attention to the theocracy that white supremacy was building right here, at home.” 

The female victims of patriarchal oppression are everywhere — and so are their oppressors. Reversing Roe was supposed to be the right’s goal. But now Sen. Lindsey Graham wants a National Abortion Ban. Reversing Roe was supposed to be the right’s goal, but Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito want to extend that to same-sex marriage and sodomy laws.

Sareh and Choubdar are on death row in Iran. Soheila Ashrafi could soon join them. No one is protesting their fate. In the U.S., anti-LGBTQ hate crimes are surging as they are in the U.K., because the silence surrounding these legal assaults on LGBTQ people fuels anti-gay and anti-trans violence. And as was learned during and forged by the AIDS crisis, silence equals death. 

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