The Intersection of LGBT Identity and the Protest Movement in Iran

By Guy Fiennes

Image Credit: Sahar Ghorishi

President Raisi’s speech commemorating the 44th anniversary of the Islamic Republic was punctuated by his rejection of the ‘Zan, Zendegi, Azadi’ (or, Woman, Life, Freedom) movement. Raisi declared that the protests which erupted across Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini had nothing to do with women, life or freedom; and everything to do with an insidious campaign launched by Iran’s enemies to undermine the regime.

Rather, he charged, it was the West which was guilty of commodifying women and, he added, propagating the vilest form of obscenity – homosexuality.

This is not the first time that the Islamic Republic has pointed to queerness as a sign of Western moral deficit, centre-staging the spectre of homophobia to shore up conservative support. Raisi’s framing of queerness as a foreign degeneracy aligns with his conservative predecessor President Ahmedinejad, who proudly announced that Iran had no homosexuals in 2007, and further back to Ayatollah Khomeini, who justified the execution of a boy for same-sex activity with the words: “Corruption, corruption. We have to eliminate corruption.” The country remains one of the few in the world to retain the death sentence for consensual same-sex relations, and Iran’s LGBT community might reasonably be expected to keep to the shadows. However, this is not the case – younger Iranians are increasingly accepting of diverse sexual identities, and urban centres are home to lively queer scenes and community spaces. Online, across social media platforms, the Iranian queer community is active and politically engaged.

The killing of a young gay Iranian man, Alireza Monfared, by his family in 2022 sparked widespread outrage on social media, as did the arrests of prominent online LGBT activists Elham and Sareh, whose death sentences were first reported on September 4 – days before Mahsa Amini’s death on September 17. Since reformist President Khatami’s term ended in 2005, the country has been dominated by conservative elements who reject liberalising voices, prefer repression to accommodation, and opt for a hardline policy against the West.

Source: Amnesty International

There are many similarities between the regime’s handling of LGBT individuals/activists and those involved in the Mahsa Amini protests calling for more general liberalisation and freedoms, not least of which is the regime’s insistence that such opposition is a foreign innovation. As has been the case with homosexuality and LGBT rights activism, when the protests spread across Iran in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death the regime pointed the accusing finger of blame squarely at morally decrepit Western states. Protesters and LGBT activists alike are charged with moharebeh ‘enmity against God’ or efsad-e fel arz, ‘corruption on earth’, both of which can carry the death sentence and have historically been used against any political opposition to the regime. Toomaj Salehi, an anti-regime Iranian rapper, was charged with efsad-e fel arz in November 2022, while Sareh was charged with it in January 2022, explicitly by way of ‘promoting homosexuality’. Thus, in judicial terms and the perspective of the conservative factions of the Islamic Republic, anti-regime democratic liberalisation sentiment and homosexuality/LGBT activism are located within a singular category: a political threat to the state and to society, fomented by the West and antithetical to authentic Iranian values.

A salient feature of the protests is how diverse they have been in their composition of different groups within Iranian society. From the ethnic minorities, Kurds, Baluch and Azeris, to women both religious and secular/liberal, the private sector, the working class, women’s rights activists, liberal dissidents and LGBT individuals, the protests have united an unprecedented cross-section of the Iranian public in an expression of discontent with their authoritarian regime. Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police epitomises the brutal excess of a system based on state-enforced interpretations of conservative religious morality. Queer individuals and women alike are subject to surveillance, arbitrary detentions, beatings, forced confessions and torture by state security services, including the paramilitary basij and plain clothes officers. Their behaviour and dress is prescribed by conservative religious ideals and imposed both by their own family members and by the many unaccountable and castigating arms of the state.

The momentum of the protest movement has also spurred queer Iranians in exile to raise their voices online and tell their stories of abuse and liberation. Some explicitly refer to the intersectionality of their ideals; as one organiser of the Berlin-based collective Woman*Life Freedom quoted in online feminist platform gal-dem explains: “when we stand with the ethnic minority provinces in Iran such as the Baloch, the Azerbaijanis, the Kurdish and the Turkish people, we are also standing by the LGBTQIA+ people in those communities.” Queer rapper Saye Skye, also in Berlin, extends the intersectionality even further: “Jin Jiyan Azadi is not only about Iran, it’s a message of freedom for every single oppressed person around the world.” (Jin, Jiyan, Azadi is the original Kurdish phrase which translates into zan, zendegi, azadi.)

Indeed, the intersectionality of the protest movement is exemplified by its slogans and hashtags, among them #ما_همه_باهم_هستيم ma hameye baaham hasteem – we are all together, tweeted in a comment by the prominent protest account 1500Tasvir under a photo of two girls kissing, itself hashtagged #مهسا_امینی (Mahsa Amini). Thus – and in part because of the state’s interpretation of homosexuality as an act of political opposition – the public display of same-sex attraction becomes in and of itself an act of political defiance against the regime, just as removing the hijab in public is a political act which contests the regime’s legitimacy and authority over Iranian bodies.

The Islamic Republic is not alone inframing the LGBT community as a sinister foreign import and using it as a rallying issue in the culture war between the conservative regimes defending tradition and the imperial progressive-liberalism of the West. Putin’s Russia has acted similarly to portray itself as the bastion of traditional values against Western degeneracy, and some academics go so far as to cast homosexuals as agents of Western imperialism. As conservative regimes escalate repression and targeting of LGBT communities, it is important that activists and LGBT individuals are able to access asylum, and that they do not feel alone or forgotten by the international community when they risk retaliation in their countries by making their voices heard against injustice.

As it has become clear that the regime is opting for repression and retrenchment in lieu of accommodation and reform, it seems certain that repression of the LGBT community will only persist or escalate, as has been the case for ethnic minorities and women’s rights’ activists. Many Iranians who leave the country, including those who apply for asylum, cite abuse or fear of abuse related to their LGBT identity as a primary motivation. They are unlikely to feel emboldened to return to Iran in the near future, as the number of executions rises and the protest movement simmers under Raisi’s boot.

This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran

“Kurds and Baluch are brothers, thirsty for the leader’s blood” – Iran’s minorities, the Mahsa Amini Protests and Iranian identity

By Guy Fiennes

Kurds and Baluch have long complained of discrimination within the Islamic Republic of Iran. The nationwide protest movement following the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in police custody has pulled the issue of longstanding tensions and state repression between the regime in Tehran and the minorities of Iran back to the fore. The regime specifically blamed secessionist elements – such as the exiled Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) in northern Iraq – for fomenting the protest movement and smuggling weapons into Iran. Beginning days after Amini’s death in September, Tehran launched various ‘retaliatory’ strikes against KDPI targets in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq which killed at least 18 people[1], and even went so far as to threaten an unprecedented land offensive[2]. Meanwhile, a separate protest movement was already underway in the south-eastern, majority Baluch province of Sistan and Baluchistan at the time of Amini’s death. These regional tensions were inflamed and underscored by a particularly bloody incident in the regional capital of Zahedan on 30 September in which at least 82 were killed and hundreds injured, including four security service members.[3][4][5]

Mahsa Amini was detained for allegedly wearing ‘bad hijab’ – a notoriously ambiguous term – and died on 16 September in custody of the controversial ‘morality police’ or gasht-e-ershad, who operate across Iran to enforce religious law. While some Kurdish activists argued that Amini’s Kurdish identity likely made her a target, making the incident an example of wider discrimination against Kurds[6], there is no hard evidence to support this view. Rather, what Iranians saw in Amini and her story was a woman who could have been any one of them – their mother, sister or daughter – regardless of Kurdish identity. Indeed, she was far from the first woman to be brutalized for alleged violation of the conservative dress code, and prior incidents in the same year[7] had already set the stage for public anger against clerical rule to burst through.

Despite Amini’s Kurdish identity being somewhat incidental to the wider protest movement, the protests in Kurdish-majority regions and cities were nonetheless more intense, as was the regime crackdown. From November 18, the regime sent military convoys into Kurdish cities such as Mahabad and established military suppression of the protests, a step-up from the use of the Basij paramilitary forces and the police[8].  The higher intensity of unrest in Kurdish majority regions stems from historical and ongoing discrimination and repression, exemplified by the more heavy-handed regime response in those regions, as well as Amini’s Kurdish background. A gathering of thousands marking the anniversary of Amini’s death was met by a strong security presence and gunfire amid clashes in her hometown of Saqez. Many Kurdish activists objected to using her non-Kurdish name, Mahsa, instead of her Kurdish name, Jina, as yet another form of cultural erasure and argued that media reporting should recentre her Kurdish identity.[9] However, the sentiment is far from unanimous. Not only did her father refer to her as Mahsa in interviews following her death, but also insistence on framing her as a particularly Kurdish symbol rather than one of the Iranian women regardless of ethnic identity would weaken the wider protest movement and corroborate with the regime’s narrative that the source of the unrest is primarily dissident minorities (besides foreign conspiracy), rather than frustration with the regime from Iranian society at large.[10] Ultimately, her death came as a result of a conservative religious law in Iran which targeted Iranian women rather than one which targeted ethnic minorities.

The Baluch make up around 2% of the Iranian population at an estimated 1.5 – 2 million and form the majority in Sistan and Baluchistan province, south-eastern Iran. The Baluch people, like the Kurds, have long complained of state discrimination, both religious and linguistic, and held surpressed aspirations for statehood and autonomy with the 5 million Baluch across the border in Pakistani Balochistan. Life expectancy and literacy in the province trail far behind the average in Iran[11] with 45% of the population reported to live below the absolute poverty line and water scarcity considered a growing issue.[12] Several separatist militant groups, such as Jundullah and Jaish ul-Adl exist in the region and are considered terrorist organisations by the central government in Tehran and the international community, with the line between Baluch anti-regime ethnonationalism and Sunni extremism blurring.[13]

The alleged rape of a Baluch minor by an Iranian police commander led to protests in multiple cities and rare condemnation of the regime from the influential religious leader of the region, Molavi Abdolhamid[14]. On 30 September, during a protest in the capital city of Zahedan, a police station was attacked, and the head of regional intelligence was killed along with three other members of the Basij paramilitary force. According to Amnesty International, at least 82 protesters and bystanders were killed and hundreds injured as the security services fired upon protesters. While the regime sought to paint the unrest as an issue purely of minority separatism, slogans such as – az Zahedan ta Tehran, janam fedaye Iran (from Zahedan to Tehran, I sacrifice my life for Iran)– reject[15] the state narrative that separatists are driving unrest in the region, although targeted killings of security service members have spiked after the incident.

Forty days after the Zahedan massacre – forty days being an important mourning date in Iranian tradition – demonstrations were held, and businesses shut down in Tehran and  across Iran, including in majority Kurdish cities such as Amini’s hometown of Saqez. As the regime stepped up its repression in Kurdish-majority cities, protesters in Sistan and Baluchestan chanted in solidarity: “Kurds and Baluch are brothers, thirsty for the leader’s blood”.[16] (kurd o baloch baradarand, teshneye khoone rahbaran).

It would be misguided to suspect any tangible coordination between the two groups, as the protest movement has been characterized by grassroots, spontaneous collective action rather than directed by specific organizations. Instead, as the chant suggests, the two groups are bound by similar, even parallel, grievances against the regime in Tehran – as is the case for the various other participants in the protest movement. The two groups are ultimately bound by their being Iranian, as with everyone else in the movement from Zahedan to Tehran to Saqez.

Curiously, while the protests have highlighted the divides and tensions between Tehran and the minorities of Iran, they have also sharpened and foregrounded Iranian nationwide solidarity. The Iranian public have mostly rejected the regime’s attempts to frame the protests as secessionist or foreign conspiracies. The protests are also notable for their ubiquity throughout Iran. Deaths and crackdowns on one side of the country have inspired demonstrations in solidarity on the other, and the popular anger echoes the 1979 revolution in its clear crossing of the geographic and ethnic lines of Iranian society. Despite a sense of discrimination along ethnic lines playing a key role in the unrest in Kurdish and Baluch areas, the protests have so far united them – and their fellow protesters regardless of ethnic affiliation – as Iranians with a common cause against a repressive regime, to the extent that the unrest manifests more as a popular, patriotic movement than the explosion of ethnic separatism decried in state media.

Whether the newfound sense of national unity will be maintained in the case of regime reform or continued intransigence is uncertain. It is possible that protest momentum in ethnic minority areas will outlive and alienate the Farsi-speaking majority, with the regime sticking to the fearmongering narrative that foreign powers seek to turn Iran into a Syria-esque civil battleground. Indeed, in the context of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movements, nationwide unity against dictatorial regimes quickly descended into inter-communal rivalry and conflict. It is possible that the same process would occur in Iran, in the unlikely event that the protest movement leads to significant militant resistance or regime change. In the more likely event of limited regime reform, it is unclear to what extent the Iranian people would remain in solidarity with ethnic minorities without the momentum of a dynamic common cause – for example, if Tehran tones down conservative religious laws and further restricts the morality police. However, for the moment at least there is a sense that Iranians have never been more united, regardless of ethnic identity and in spite of the regime’s best efforts.

















This piece was published as part of “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”: A series of weekly articles and interviews that unpack different symbols and concepts at the heart of the most recent developments in Iran

Vol 4., No. 1 (Trinity)

Editors’ Foreword

Dear reader,
As managing editors, we are excited to present the fourth issue of the Oxford Middle East Review (OMER). The journal was founded in 2016 at St Antony’s College, Oxford, by two Middle Eastern Studies students, who sought to create an engaging forum for students and aspiring scholars to critically discuss issues pertaining to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Today, the journal provides a platform for young aspiring academics and hopes to provide them with a platform by publishing their best work.

While continuing OMER’s interdisciplinary approach, the current issue features articles around the theme of Identity and the Middle East. Undoubtedly, the study of identity has long been a staple of the field, from the early studies of Arab nationalism to the contemporary focus of sectarianism in the Persian Gulf. In the current issue however, we have tried to challenge our contributors to provide new perspectives on this much treaded terrain. With articles covering topics from inter-religious solidarity and tribal identity to issues of identity in education and sexual violence, we believe this has been a fruitful endeavour. The articles of the current issue will undoubtedly advance the academic debates within their respective fields.

Another feature of this year’s issue is the inclusion of three shorter policy pieces that engage with the current affairs of the region. By doing so, we hope to expand OMER’s relevance beyond academic circles and make it more accessible to policy makers and observers of current affairs in the Middle East.

Like everything in our world today, OMER has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of our editors have not been able to remain in Oxford and the many complications related to the pandemic have led to a delay in publication. The current issue will therefore be published online without the launch event normally held in May every year. The launch event would have given the authors an opportunity to present their work and we are deeply saddened that it had to be canceled. While the current issue has been published online, we hope to produce printed copies at a later point when academic life in Oxford returns to normal.

Despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic, we are delighted that this year’s issue is published without impediment and hope that it will stimulate our readers with fresh insights on the Middle East.

The managing editors,

Nia Clark, St. Antony’s College
Eirik Kvindesland, Balliol College
Zein Nasser, Mansfield College

Contributing Editors

Frederike Brockhoven, Thomas Coyne, Mazen Loan, Gilang Lukman, Nadine Lutzelschwab, Mathew Madain, Michael Memari, and Piotr Schulkes.


Shaykhs and tribal entrepreneurs: Tribal hierarchies, governmental development policies, and the struggle over representation in Petra’s tourism economy
Nicolas Reeves

Remembered One Hundred Years Later: Al-Salt, Transjordan, and the First World War
Mathew Madain

#Masaktach: Social Media and Sexual Violence Against Women in Morocco
Ella Williams


The JCPOA is dead, long live the JCPOA: Understanding Iranian foreign policy thinking
Mahshad Badii

Policy Implications of Alternate Medical and Nursing Education in northwest Syria
Adrienne Fricke, Valerie Dobiesz, Rahaf Safi, Bharathi Radhakrishnan, Timothy Erickson and Phuong Pham

Teacher identity formation in the Arab region: A key to renewal
Amin Marei