Iran: Iran’s Sodomy Law - Reading Between the Lines

<a href=#endnote>By Hossein Alizadeh and Grace Poore</a>
Note: This reflection is meant to take the discussion on Iran beyond the anniversary of the execution of the two young men in 2005 - facts on which the charges against them were based are inconclusive to this day - and to address the Iranian government’s strategy of using criminal law to annihilate sexual rights.)

Sodomy laws make it a crime to engage in non-procreative sex. Crimes against nature, deviant sexual conduct, and homosexual conduct are among the many terms used within criminal codes around the world. Frequently, in the context of arrests and imprisonment, an actual act of sodomy has not been committed. Rather, the law is used to target those whose sexuality is believed to defy social norms and preferences for heterosexual relationships and to justify state action in removing the “offenders” from the community.

At the same time, within the structure of many penal codes, if not in the minds of the general public, sodomy laws are grouped together with rape, sexual assault, incest and sexual abuse of children thereby conflating crimes of sexual violence with acts of non-procreative sex. People in both groups are lumped together as social deviants. They must be cast out, punished and, in the case of some countries like Iran, executed.

In Iran, a disturbing pattern of joining rape and sodomy charges has emerged, leaving LGBT, women’s and sexual rights defenders somewhat immobilized in terms of a response. It is difficult enough to challenge a government that cloaks its criminal process and manipulates public opinion around sexuality. But, add to that the quandary of how to respond to cases of public execution of young men on combined charges of sodomy and rape. If LGBT rights groups assume they are gay and mount a campaign to stop the targeting of gay men, they risk relying on unofficial information, putting others in the country at risk, and being insensitive to the fact that perhaps a rape was committed. If women’s rights groups remain silent, they risk tacitly agreeing that execution for charges of rape is acceptable and ignore the targeting of same-sex sexuality. Also, if we question the accused men’s innocence, we run the risk of capitulating to the Iranian government’s campaign of framing charges to carry out homophobic assassinations. If we assume their innocence and defend them unquestioningly, we play into the cultural bias against victims of rape who are routinely disbelieved.

Iranian authorities seem satisfied to publicly flaunt its laws allowing for undue punishment of lesbians and gay men. Just a week ago the Spokesperson for the Iranian Judiciary announced that in the next few days 20 criminals will be hanged in Tehran on a variety of charges, including rape and sodomy (ISNA News Agency, July 10, 2007). This echoes the situation in July 19, 2005 where two teenage boys, Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, were hanged in public for their alleged involvement in sodomy and rape. Both teenagers were juveniles at the time of the offense, and one was believed to have been a juvenile at the time of his execution.

Iran’s penal code considers sexual intercourse between members of the same sex to be a crime punishable by death for men and by lashings for women (Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 108-134). Any man found guilty of having penetrative sex with another male should be killed, whether the sex is consensual or not. It does not matter whether the other party is a minor or an adult (Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Article 108).

By contrast, the second book of the forth chapter of the Islamic Penal Code, which covers all forms of sexual crimes, remains silent on the subject of rape between a married couple. And, raping a minor is a crime only if the sex act is conducted outside religiously sanctioned relationships. Therefore, an adult man who forces sex on a nine-year-old girl is not considered to have committed a crime if the victim’s father agrees that the rapist can marry his daughter.

The law also requires all claims of sex crimes to be accompanied by at least four adult male witnesses. In cases where those who bring claims of sex crimes to court fail to provide what the court considers to be adequate evidence, they are punished. (Islamic Penal Code of Iran, Section five, Book Two, second chapter, articles 139-164). In total, laws that govern adult rape and child sexual abuse make it nearly impossible for many victims to come forward, let alone demand justice.

Given the legal ambiguity of Iran’s penal code on rape and child sexual abuse, and considering the fact that in most publicized cases, the alleged perpetrators of rape and/or child abuse are also found guilty of sodomy, it is not possible to determine whether the convicted people are truly guilty of sexual offenses, or are being penalized for being homosexuals. Furthermore, in the case of Iran (and also other countries like Malaysia), it is difficult to know whether those accused of sodomy are really gay or being framed by the government as gay. Not surprisingly, in recent cases documented by IGLHRC, Iranian authorities have made no effort to publicly present the required four male witnesses needed for conviction – thus lending to our suspicions that their current practice really is to rid society of lesbians and gay men and promote fear. But, of course, we will never really know.

Take the instance of Ali-Akbar Saidi Sirjani, the well-known Iranian author, who was arrested and killed in 1994 by the Iranian authorities. He was charged for a variety of what were called, “morality crimes,” including homosexuality. His case is an example of how the Iranian authorities used the sodomy law to discredit and frame one of their outspoken political opponents.

Executing people is inhumane and illegal under human rights law. Rape and child sexual abuse are reprehensible and heinous crimes. IGLHRC does not believe that condemning one is antithetical to condemning the other. Both are part of a larger pattern of oppression.

A women’s rights activist from Iran who uses the pseudonym, Azzadeh (which means freedom) observes: “All kinds of people are being executed. All kinds of people are being jailed. We have people from the women’s movement, university students movement, public transportation workers movement, teachers movement -- all working for civil rights, and one after the other they are being arrested. Passports are taken, activists can’t leave the country. This is like a place where a bomb is coming down and people are running around, trying so hard not to be damaged in order to survive.”

It is an important time for all of us to band together, confront the nuances and ambiguities, and find the way to speak out against these atrocities. As human rights defenders it is our mandate. As human beings we have no choice.


*Hossein Alizadeh is IGLHRC’s communications coordinator and a gay Iranian man. Grace Poore is IGLHRC’s research and policy associate for Asia and the Pacific Islands and a Malaysian feminist advocate.