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"Death to the Islamic Republic" and "Death to Khatami." Related Gully Coverage

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Family members of 15 liberal Islamist dissidents protest their secret trial in Iran's hardline Revolutionary Court. REUTERS/STR/IRAN

Queering Democracy in Iran

by Kelly Cogswell

JANUARY 23, 2002. In the last 20 months in Iran, the hard-line judiciary has pulled out all the stops to try and destroy the pro-reform movements. Some 60 newspapers have been closed down. Scores of journalists, politicians, and student activists have been jailed, thousands have been harassed by state security forces.

The latest wave of repression began in early January with the trial of 15 people, including journalists, intellectuals, even a former cabinet minister. Tried in the Revolutionary Court for ostensibly plotting to overthrow the Islamic system, they will have no jury. The judge will be the prosecutor, and the defendants' lawyers will have to maneuver through the trial without having seen the several-hundred-page indictment or meeting with the prisoners.

So far, the crackdown doesn't seem to be working. Members of Parliament, like Fatemeh Haqiqatjou, are increasingly outspoken. One of the 11 women in Parliament and a former student activist, Haqiqatjou was charged for libel and slander for daring to read out a letter in Parliament holding Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameinei, accountable for the anti-constitutional actions of his judiciary. Her 22-month sentence was upheld last month.

Thousands of ordinary citizens streamed into the streets following soccer games in October and November, shouting, "Death to the Islamic Republic" and "Death to Khatami," Iran's President, who was once hailed as a reformer. They are fed up, not just with the controlling, punitive clerics, but with a disintegrating economy, widening unemployment and a host of other ills, including an AIDS epidemic that simply cannot be addressed in a fundamentalist Muslim state.

Increasingly, Iranians feel that the Islamists have had their chance to run the country and failed. Many now think that, one way or another, hard-line clerics will eventually be forced to relinquish power. The only question is, what then? Will the new Iran include women, queers, religious and cultural minorities? Will it turn to the East or to the West, or embrace both?

Even without a shift in government, society is already changing inside Iran. Despite the government attacks on the news media, and on reformers, Iranians now have access to information from the Internet and illegal satellite TV dishes that spring up all over the country as quickly as they are torn down. Two expatriate satellite TV stations operating from Los Angeles actively encouraged Iranians to take to the streets during last year's soccer protests.

Pro-democracy students are using the Internet to organize, and report on their demonstrations. Homan, a queer expatriate group, is using it to provide information about Iranian lgbt lives and issues. Queers in Iran, despite facing the death penalty, are taking the risks to create informal social networks via email, occasionally meeting in private homes.

Niloufar, a Homan member now living in California, marveled at the progress inside Iran. "People are beginning to believe that they can identify as gay or lesbian and be accepted some day. More importantly, lgbt people are beginning to accept themselves."

Outside Iran though, even in countries like the U.S. and the U.K., the expatriate Iranian community seems mostly untouched by the dramatic gains of queers worldwide in the last decades. Of the handful of Iranian queers I talked to, only Nassim, one of Homan's founders, felt there had been some progress in the decade since the pro-reform expatriate group he once worked with in Britain refused to address lesbian and gay issues. Neither Niloufar nor Nassim felt safe enough to use their full names in this article.

Niloufar, like other Iranian queers I've spoken with, says she usually avoids the Iranian immigrant community because their bigotry is too painful. "They still have a lot of prejudice," she says. "Many of them still believe homosexuality is a Western thing, and that we are imitating Westerners, that we're not really gay, just acting."

This ambivalence about "Western" influences is not just a struggle about homosexuality, but with democracy itself. As the United States, the most powerful democracy in the West, makes its presence increasingly felt in the Middle East via a disturbing combination of bombs, aid packages, and oil interests, many there, from corrupt, autocratic governments to virulent Islamists, are characterizing human rights as a hypocritical Western construct designed to manipulate and discredit the East.

The Iranian state, though, pleased to watch the downfall of the enemy Taliban, has shown small signs of unbending to the West, in particular, the United States. The Iranian street has also begun to enthuse again over Coca Cola and rock and roll, less out of devotion to the United States, than a desire to tweak the greying, malevolent beards of the humorless hard-line mullahs.

It's hard to know how the Middle Eastern fascination for American culture, and hatred of the American state, will play out in Iran in the long run. In the "East," women, queers, religious minorities, anyone who dares to speak up for equality, will always be vulnerable to charges of "Westernization." Unlike homosexuality which blesses all nations alike, democracy and the idea of equal rights were undeniably born in the West. To advocate human rights means you can suddenly be held accountable for the whole history of Western Civilization, crimes and all.

At best, the charges are draining and demoralizing; at worst they lead to scapegoating, the sacrificing of others to save yourself.

On the defensive since the September 11 attacks and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, some Middle Eastern feminists have been reduced to thinly veiled lesbian-baiting to prove their nationalism. Accused of being contaminated with "Western" ideas, they've declared that they don't want to be like Western feminists, who all want to be like men.

Iranian queer activists like Homan's Nassim may lead the pack with the only real solution of how to address the ambivalent charge of "Westernization." That is, they admit it. They claim it.

As Nassim, and others have said... "though ideas of gay rights, women's rights, freedom, democracy and human rights originated in Western civilization, they are not only the West's values; they are human values and belong to the whole world." No simplistic divisions of Good and Evil, East and West, Muslim, Christian, Jew. In the name of Iran, they just take what's theirs.

Related links:

For The New York Times' Opposition TV Stations Stir Up Unrest in Fundamentalist Iran (registration required).

For The New Republic's Reza Pahlavi's Next Revolution. Will the Shah's son bring a "secular democracy" to Iran?

For Human Rights Watch World Report 2001: Iran: Human Rights Developments.

For the lgbt Iranian group Homan.

For the site of the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran.

For Coca Cola slogans and facts.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

For Complete Coverage Asia

For Complete Coverage 9-ll and Aftermath

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Puerto Rico to Taiwan and more.

From global warming to gay-trendsetting. Includes headlines, politics, and news from beyond.

9-11 Attack
Guide to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on NYC and DC. Includes info on Afghanistan and the Taliban.

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