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

Evin Prison: Iran’s Notorious “House of Detention”

By Insiya Raja

A massive fire broke out, supposedly coincidently, at one of Iran’s most notorious detention centres, Evin prison, located in the northern hills of its capital Tehran on October 18, 2022.[1] Accompanied by an infographic conveying basic statistics and information, this article briefly examines the systemic treatment of political prisoners in Evin, one of Iran’s most infamous and overcrowded prisons.

The Washington Post found that at least one of the fires seemed to be started intentionally at a time when prisoners would be locked in their cells. As prisoners tried to flee the fire, guards and other forces ambushed the prisoners with live ammunition, metal pellets, and explosives. As tall flames engulfed Evin prison, killing at least eight people and injuring over sixty-one, it is worth looking at who has been detained there and how they have been systematically dealt with in the recent past.

Evin prison’s horrific past can be traced back to the regime of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown by the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Run by Shah’s secret police, the SAVAK, Evin bore witness to thousands of Iranians arbitrarily detained, tortured, and executed. After the Revolution, it became a prison incarcerating not only pro-monarchists but also countless others who were seen as a threat to Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime. According to Human Rights Watch, the darkest period in Evin’s history came in the late summer of 1988 when thousands of mainly leftist political prisoners were executed after cursory trials, crushing dissent at the end of the Iran-Iraq War and paving the way for a smooth succession to the next Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. [1] 

Iran has a history of taking dual national citizens as prisoners and holding them hostage on trumped-up and facetious charges of conspiracy against the regime and spying (see Reuters’ recent report for an analysis on which foreign nationals are held at Evin). Ana Diamond, a dual British-Iranian citizen, was detained at Evin as a result of hostile diplomatic and political circumstances. First, she was banned from travelling and then charged with spying. She was also the victim of a flawed judicial system that can detain and abuse anyone under the pretext of national security charges.

Many political prisoners are taken to Section 209 of the prison – suspected to be operated by the Ministry of Interior. First, they are blindfolded and taken downstairs into a basement, into a section consisting of ninety solitary cells in multiple rows. A light remains on twenty-four hours a day, and there is only one small window in each cell. The smaller cells have only a barred window to the corridor, and prisoners have described these as suffocating. For more details on the prison, see Tortoise project where former inmates have given testimonials and helped recreate a map of the prison.

In Ana’s experience, wardens and staff in prison constantly used different ways to humiliate the prisoner and make them suffer in their daily lives. For example, prison guards took all of Ana’s personal belongings and only gave her men’s clothes to wear and a single kitchen towel to use. She would be blindfolded everytime she had to go from her solitary cell to the bathroom, which is the norm in the prison. Women prisoners were denied or given rationed sanitary products. This prison now holds thousands of recently arrested protesters who have protested against the regime since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. In Ana’s perspective, the situation now is likely to be much worse within the prison due to overcrowding. Most famous amongst these are two journalists, Niloofar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, who were vital in reporting on Mahsa’s case in the immediate aftermath of her death. Evin is a massive compound where prisoners are driven from one place to another, and different security agencies are responsible for managing the various wards: the Ministry of Intelligence takes on national security prisoners and is known to be quite brutal; solitary confinement cells run by the IRGC usually hold political prisoners who are subjected to harsh interrogations and torture.

There is a joke amongst former inmates at Evin prison that illustrates painfully the situation:

Once an inmate goes to the library at Evin prison and asks for books to read; the librarian says: “We don’t have the books; but, we have the authors”

Special thank you to Ana Diamond for sharing her firsthand experience about Evin prison.

Resources used for infographic:

[1] It is hard to determine conclusively whether the fighting and the fire were directly related to the ongoing protests, given the lack of independent access to the prison.

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

How virtual social networks translate into street protests: The case for Mahsa Amini’s death under IRI (Islamic Republic of Iran’s) Morality Police?

By S. I. Ejaz

On September 16, 2022, a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini of Kurdish ethnicity, succumbed to wounds while in the custody of the country’s notorious morality police. What followed was a series of protests, both at home and abroad, against the incumbent Iranian regime, the flagbearer of the post-1979 Islamist ruling ideology. The presiding political communication scholarship often perceives Iranian conflicts from a binary standpoint. They categorize the population as either pro-Shah or pro-Khomeini, a limited understanding of a country of 80 million people with an average age of 31. Most Iranians today did not experience life under the Shahs or the 1979 Revolution. Therefore, it is essential to develop an updated and nuanced conceptual framework to study the country’s political networks. 

Background & Context

This is not the first-time young Iranians are protesting against the theocratic Islamic Republic, although the average Iranian today is on the street to protest the gruesome killing of Amini. Lately, the regime has seen waves of protests from 1999, 2009, 2017, and 2021, and the ongoing one. However, this wave of protests differs from the rest. It encapsulates the wider Iranian society and is the first to reflect elite-subaltern harmony (Al-Sulami, 2022). One fundamental trigger to the recent protests has been online social media in an otherwise severely censored media regime. How do virtual social networks translate into street protests? Are social media platforms bringing like-minded Iranians together via forming homogeneous networks? Or is it vice versa, and Iranians from different socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds uniting for a single cause? In this essay, I aim to answer these questions. 

Before I begin, it is essential to acknowledge that network diversity remains a contested term. It stems from a Western standpoint, where the phenomenon of individuals forming networks with like-minded individuals originated from the US (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1954), followed by subsequent literature from McPherson et al. (2001), Lawrence and Shah (2001), etc. While the literature illustrates the existence of homophily in social networks, the empirical evidence might differ from one society to another. For this article, I shall look at the ongoing protests in Iran and ask whether the protesters are coming together due to shared socio-demographics (status homophily) or values (value homophily)? An alternative explanation could be the common objective of reconstituting the state-society relationship by eliminating Islamic Republicanism in present-day Iran. This common objective, however, took decades of conflicts, protests, disruptions, and often international interventions, to coalesce. 

Having established the existence of homophily in the wider Iranian society, I will dissect the networked movement in question, the anti-regime protests across Iran. Unlike the previous ones, these have lasted more than three months across the country’s urban and rural pockets.

Conceptual Framework

I will use Tufecki’s (2021) framework to classify the movement into three parts: the movement’s making, the tools of protests, and the aftermath of the said protests. Tufecki’s works, unlike other political communication scholars, are far more apt towards events in the Middle East, Turkey, and volatile regions. Her take on the 2011 Tahrir Square protests in Cairo and the 2013 Gezi Park in Istanbul compels us to reconceptualize the public sphere. To what extent does religion play a role in constructing a networked public sphere? Are we heading towards a post-Islamist and post-secularist world order? Egypt and Turkey, though not theocratic states, have often found themselves in a conflicting social contract between Islamism and secularism (Yilmaz, 2014). Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and individuals like Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen in Turkey are resorting to post-Islamic practices such as democracy and modernity to win votes and maintain their influence on the electorate, which brings them closer to post-secularism in the public sphere, which Jurgen Habermas discussed. Not only are such forces trying to limit the political roles of religion, but they are also trying to diffuse tensions between one’s faith, personal freedom, and the state’s invasive role towards one’s religiosity.

On the other hand, Iranian authorities are yet to follow this path of post-Islamism, as they are adamant about maintaining a theocratic order. Iran cannot afford to follow states like Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, and the recent wave of liberalism in the Arab world due to its hegemonic power structure. In principle, Iran has a presidential system, legislature, and judiciary. However, unlike a Western democracy, the Islamic Republic is under the direct supervision of the Supreme Leader, who holds power over the President and his cabinet and acts as the Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces. Therefore, the whole state apparatus, with its different branches, stems from the clerical oversight of the Supreme Leader. In Dahl’s (1957) terms, the Supreme Leader here is A, who exerts power over the Iranian state to the extent that he can get the state to do something that it would not do otherwise. For instance, the whole state apparatus around policing the morals of its citizens, especially the ‘hijab’ mandate for women, has faced severe backlash from the public but has remained in effect since 1983, barring a few relaxations and exceptions over three decades. Suppose we hold the Iranian state to any other self-serving rationale of a nation-state. In that case, none of the other Islamists except Afghanistan under the Taliban regime will go to such extents, including physical and mental torture, lobbying, and censorship to enforce a piece of clothing on women. Having said that, there are examples of ultra secular states, for instance,the French Republic under President Macron using state apparatus to ensure women do not cover themselves as per Islamic rituals. Whether France, Iran, Afghanistan or Al-Shabab in Africa, the underlying issue remains the state’s approach towards policing female bodies to propagate power, and hegemony.

Nevertheless, unlike other states, present-day Iran derives all its power from  so-called “Islamic” values, interpreted by the Supreme Leader and his group of hand-picked clerics. Networked protests against discriminatory legislation, state-enforced morality, and patriarchal governance have been part and parcel of Iranian society since 1979, or even before that against the Shah’s regime. However, until the advent of digital media, previous protests could not have a significant impact due to the lack of resources, global attention, and economic outlook of those protesting. Now that current protests can evade traditional censorship, publicize, coordinate, protect, and make themselves heard worldwide, the regime seems on the edge of collapse. According to Tufecki, digital technologies have transformed the trajectories of social movements and reset the power dynamics of state and society, where giant software platforms can tilt a social movement in either direction. I shall now break down the ongoing movement into the previous sections and argue for the success of online-offline mass mobilization in the case of Iran today.

As Tüfekeci mentions, the ongoing protests are the first stage in a potentially long journey; initially, the movement shall reconfigure itself through the assimilation of digital technologies and then burst into smaller sections. The chant, ‘women, life, freedom,’ initially originated in the Kurdish parts of Iran in 2013. A decade later, down the line, it is now a famous slogan for a country-wide mass-movement, which seems unstoppable despite the brutal disruption measures by the government. An authoritarian regime like Iran, in the last month, has not been able to curb the country-wide protests, despite propaganda-peddling on state television, shifting the blame to its “enemy” countries, and cracking down on regime critics. A leaderless movement just must persuade the masses to come out and protest for a common goal, unlike the state, which must execute and use the bureaucracy, military, or other arms of government through a defined order.

Social Media & Social Movements

Similar movements in the past including Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and the Arab Spring in 2011 were all successful to an extent. These movements relied on disruption, civil disobedience, chaos, and social media mobilization. If Darnella Frazier had not filmed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, the BLM movement would not have “gone viral” and initiated change around the world. Amini’s alleged murder triggered an unstoppable wave of protests breathing down a dying regime, which may be in sync with the events in Tunisia following Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Unlike the urban and middle-class background of the previous protests, Amini was an ordinary Kurdish girl who, like most of the protestors, came to Tehran for a better life, making it more relatable and culturally appropriate for most conservative Iranian circles. As the protests continue, cities like Mashhad, and Qom, previously considered as loyal to the regime, are up in arms against the state, with chants of “Death to the dictator”, replacing the 1979 era slogan of “Death to America”. Drawing on Zhu’s (2017) analysis of the Occupy Central Movement, events in Iran can be attributed in a similar fashion, where the country in question lies in the peripheries of the world system, is undergoing a constant wave of protests fueled by low national income, high political grievances, and international isolation in addition to high internet penetration. 

However, as protestors continue to mobilise, the masses are uniting on an ideological basis. One can only trace the events leading up to Amini’s death and its repercussions. The online mobilisation had already started from Amini’s arrest on September 13 to her death on September 16. Through Instagram, Twitter, and Telegram, women’s rights groups had already gone public with Amini’s arrest. It is important to note that these groups, just like the BLM movement, have been protesting for decades, but Iran’s George Floyd moment was September 16, 2022, when Amini passed away. The official version of her cause of death was a heart attack, which was not bought by the Iranian public. Therefore, state authorities initially released a video on Twitter and then onto other platforms, where Amini collapsed in the morality police detention centre. The public and human rights organizations did not accept the validity of the video footage when it went viral and was picked up by all mainstream media outlets. The regime was already on the back foot. Three days into the protests spiraling out of control, the authorities started cracking down on internet access, restricting access to Instagram and WhatsApp, proving that the internet-fueled protests had already converted onto the streets of Tehran and urban centres. A few weeks later, the UN sanctioned Iran’s morality police, and a motion has already been forwarded to the UN Women’s Rights Council for Iran’s expulsion. As Iran continues to restrict internet access, it is evident that the regime is beginning to fear the politically motivated use of the World Wide Web (Wojcieszak & Smith, 2014). 

That said, there is ample evidence of the recent online-offline mobilization within the Iranian public sphere. Even with a crackdown on all major social media platforms, the protests are growing from rural villages to girls’ schools and markets and spearheading into neighbouring Afghanistan, currently under Taliban control. However, one can still not conclude whether the latest protests are bringing Iranians closer or drifting them apart. The movement’s heterogeneity or homogeneity can only be established after the protests have subsided. Scholars can gather empirical data from the protesting groups precisely because the protesting parties have vested interests and may have been operating with a self-serving bias. For example, certain sections of the women, life, freedom movement want to go beyond the gendered frame. They want a complete overhaul of the Iranian Constitution annihilating the Islamic Republic. These groups are primarily based in Iran and have always criticised the ruling regime.

It will be important to monitor the movement and its eventual result, which might have a long-lasting effect not only on the Muslim world but on all such nation-states which tend to invoke religiosity for political legitimacy, and unending control over their subjects. Scholars, political scientists, and concerned governments can use this research line to predict the Iranian state’s possible future, which is not only a formidable military might but also a next-to-nuclear power being the second nation with a constitutional recognition of Islam to nuclearise after Pakistan. While the ongoing networked movement is political, it can soon have profound national security implications for Iran’s friends and foes.


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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