By Mahrokh Gholamhosseinpour
September 18, 2020
The Iranian transgender information portal Six Colours has recently published a report entitled “Hidden Wounds: A Study on Violence Against Sexual and Gender Minorities in Iran,” which came to shocking conclusions.
Published on Wednesday, September 16, the study found that 62 percent of people in sexual and gender minority groups have been abused at least once by their first-degree relatives. Almost half had been sexually harassed or raped.
Azita Doosti, a gender researcher who collaborated in the study with Six Colors, and Shaya Goldoust, an activist and member of the LGBTQ community, shared their thoughts on the findings with IranWire.
Some 230 members of the Iranian LBGTQ community, from 39 cities including Tehran, Shiraz, Mashhad, Qom and Mahabad, took part in the newly-published, harrowing survey by the Six Colors Institute. More than 90 per cent of the participants were still living inside Iran.
A total of 42 percent of the participants said they had been sexually harassed or raped in a public place. Fifteen percent said that they had been sexually harassed at school or university in Iran, while 30 percent had been victims of sexual violence by their peers.
But at the same time, 68 percent said they were reluctant to seek help from the judiciary in dealing with such attacks. In fact, nineteen percent of respondents had been subject to violence on the part of the Iranian police or judiciary.
More painfully still, many members of the LBGTQ community in Iran appear to be suffering from a chronic lack of family support. Only a quarter of respondents said they were supported by their families after being attacked outside of the home. Another 53 percent described their families as unreliable and unsupportive. Because of the violence, 73 percent of respondents had had suicidal thoughts.
Who was Surveyed?
The situation for sexual and gender minorities in Iran is critical. Azita Doosti, a psychologist and gender researcher who has worked with Six Colors for the past four years, told IranWire that LBGTQ people are an “invisible” part of Iranian society and forced to live secretive, underground lives.
“This data,” Doosti said, “is in complete agreement with what we know about the issues faced by this community. None of these narratives are exaggerated or artificial. We already knew that these people were under all kinds of strain from various institutions in Iranian society.”
Fifteen percent of the respondents who participated in the Hidden Wounds study were under 18 years old, while almost half were between 15 and 25 years old.
Shaya Goldoust, a sexual and gender minority rights activist, was one of the respondents. She told IranWire that she has not experienced physical violence but has been abused and harassed since childhood “by family, relatives, classmates, teachers, and at university.”
“From a young age at school,” she added, I was ridiculed and called names because of the ignorance of my classmates and teachers, and because my behavior and body language were different from others’.
“I remember even being afraid to go to the bathroom. I was afraid that someone would harass me, maybe take off my clothes or strip me naked. Of course, the situation became even more difficult during high school, because there you are with adults, not innocent children who are not familiar with sexual and gender issues.”
In those days, Shaya’s female gender identity was never recognized. She was constantly discriminated against by both men and women. “All of this,” she said, “had such a devastating effect that even now I’m 34 and do not live in Iran, I do not feel completely safe.
Who is Most Vulnerable in Iran?
“No group within the LGBTQ community has been immune to this violence,” Azita Dousti told IranWire. “Some may mistakenly assume that transgender people are less vulnerable to violence because they are recognized by the law in the Islamic Republic. But these people are often the targets of ridicule, violence and sexual harassment because their gender expression is outside the framework of societal norms, and fear of rape is one of their most enduring concerns. Many are bullied at school and then raped at work.
“On the other hand, Iran’s criminalizing the relationship between homosexuals has exposed homosexuals and bisexuals to intimidation, threats and extortion. They have to constantly take care to keep their relationships secret in the workplace, at school and in the family home. Violence including forced marriage has afflicted most gay and bisexual women, and transgender men who have not had gender reassignment surgery.”
Shaya Goldoust also experienced this prior to her own surgery. “I had no place in the male community, nor in the female community,” she said. “My female gender identity was not recognized by women, and from the men’s point of view I was a man with a feminine spirit who was more sexually attainable than others; a kind of accessible sexual tool. I grew so frustrated with this outlook.”
At one stage she chose to isolate herself from the insults, humiliation and unpleasant stares, opting to stay at home for a lengthy period. “I was rejected by my family and some of my friends,” she said. “In the days before I took hormone therapy I went out wearing a headscarf and hiding my masculine body, so that I could attract the respect of society: the respect that should have been given to my female identity.
“The ridicule and harassment had such an adverse effect on my mind and soul that eventually I either did not leave the house or, if I had to, I hid myself away under a hat and glasses.”
Doosti notes that sexual and gender minorities from poorer backgrounds, those with disabilities and those with non-Persian ethnicities, experience multi-layered discrimination in Iran and are even more vulnerable to violence.
“Disability increases a person’s dependence on the family and may deprive him or her of the opportunity to move freely,” she said. “Therefore, their ability to deal with violence is reduced. Unfortunately, there is also a reduced opportunity for them to finish their education and find a job. The combination of these factors leads to the continuation of violence against these people and in addition, makes it harder for them to get out of violent relationships.
“In smaller living environments, it is harder to hide your gender identity and sexual orientation, and the danger of being discovered is greater. A transgender person who works and lives in Tehran, for instance, after undergoing surgery, might have the opportunity to change his or her neighborhood and live with a new name and identity. But someone who lives in a small village or town, whose livelihood depends on agriculture, has little opportunity to relocate, putting them under pressure.”
Nowhere to Turn for Legal Redress
The permissive legal environment means that most of the violence enacted against LBGTQ people in Iran, Doosti said, takes place out in the open – but is rarely spoken about. “There is a lot of talk about violence and sexual harassment in cyberspace these days, but unfortunately we read much less about violence against sexual minorities.
“Individuals in the LBGTQ community may also face sexual violence when dealing with the judiciary, police, judges, and security officials. Unfortunately, this community has no voice in Iran, because sexual minorities’ identities and lifestyles are considered a crime. If they complain, not only is there no sympathy from society at large, but the law and public opinion may also indict them. It is practically impossible for a gay man or a transgender woman to press charges against an assailant.”
When Goldoust made a complaint about the abuse she had suffered, she had to endure hours of frivolous interrogation even before the ordeal of medical examinations and court hearings. “I had to endure flirtation and verbal aggression,” she said, “just to be able to get onto the tortuous legal path. I had to answer a thousand questions that had nothing to do with the case and were asked out of pure curiosity – or I had to explain irrelevant things in order to progress.”
For as long as she lived in Iran, she said, she was terrified someone would find out that she was a transgender or had had surgery. On several occasions she lost her job after her employer found out she was transgender. “Once out of Iran I did my best to put aside my fears and gain self-confidence,” she said.
We All Have a Role to Play
Based on the outcome of its research, Six Colors has now made recommendations to NGOs, the media and other international organizations to help combat the ongoing violence and discrimination faced by LGBTQ people in Iran. Each and every citizen, says Doosti, has a role to play in this: “We need to not only to change discriminatory laws at the macro level, but change on a smaller scale. Each person must recognize their role in reproducing the cycle of violence and ask themself, as a teacher, a psychologist, a parent, a taxi driver, an employer, a classmate, a conscript, or a user in cyberspace, how have I acted in dealing with people whose lifestyle, sexual orientation, lifestyle, gender expression, and identity do not conform to the norms? If I am a sponsor, if I have a platform, if I am an influential person, what have I done to support this marginalized group? What steps have I taken? How many people have I made aware?
“The concerns of activists and NGOs such as Six Colors are not enough. Change requires public determination.”