Laws and Practices Governing Sexual Minorities in Morocco, Iran and Turkey

Hossein Alizadeh in
by Norman L. Greene

New York University School of Medicine's Colloquium on Medical Ethics (Loren Wissner Greene, M.D., Chair)[1], part of the Master Scholars Program, in conjunction with its Medical Humanism Program (Allen Keller, M.D., Chair, and, also, Director of the NYU School of Medicine Center for Health and Human Rights and Director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture[2]), presented a combined human rights and Islamic Law program at a well attended conference at NYU Langone Medical Center entitled Homosexuality in Muslim Countries: A Comparative Study of the Legal Status of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender People, on May 26, 2010. Also attending the event was Mekbib Gemeda, the Assistant Dean for Diversity Affairs and Community Health and the Director of the Center for the Health of the African Diaspora at NYU School of Medicine. The Masters Scholars program and their chairs hold the NYU Colloquium monthly during the school year on a variety of topics.

The featured speaker was Hossein Alizadeh, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator, who surveyed the legal and extra-legal discrimination against the non-heterosexual practices of sexual minorities in Morocco, Iran, and Turkey. According to its website, the Human Rights Commission is “dedicated to human rights advocacy on behalf of people who experience discrimination or abuse on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”[3]

Mr. Alizadeh addressed the variety of penal approaches to non-heterosexual conduct (Morocco, punishment of up to two years in prison, limited fine; Iran, punishments may be flogging or capital punishment, depending on the conduct concerned; Turkey, a secular but majority Islamic country, no codified sanctions). He paid special attention to the particularly harsh and graphic laws in Iran on sodomy depicting in virtually X-rated fashion precisely what is permissible and what is not and with whom and when and to what extent. Despite the absence of laws prohibiting non-heterosexual conduct in Turkey, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) minorities nonetheless suffered appreciable discrimination and harassment there. [4]

In discussing the different countries’ legal systems (particularly the complex and religious-dominated Iranian system of government), Mr. Alizadeh observed some outlandish medical diagnoses in Iran, such as “diabetes,” that is inappropriately applied to attribute a disease to transgender persons; contrasted the treatment of persons within the various LGBT categories; and reported on the status of the overall effort to improve conditions for these populations, both legally and practically. He also mentioned the peculiar reasoning that leads the government in Iran to give government support to (and even urge) transgender operations, so that by 2009, there were at least 4,000 self-identified transgender people in Iran. At the same time, Mr. Alizadeh noted that in the case of male to female operations, some resulting women suffered “gender shock”– that is, the realization that by becoming female, they degraded their social status and worsened their position in society.

Despite the general harshness of some laws against sexual crimes, including non-heterosexual or LGBT conduct (especially in Iran), Mr. Alizadeh said that there are also ameliorating features, at least in theory. These include the intentional difficulty of enforcement because of onerous proof requirements in Iran, such as the requirement of having four men as witnesses and the extent of observation required to convict of various acts.

For proving any sexual crimes, witnesses are needed to observe the sexual act in question from start to finish, which would undoubtedly be rare. Other deterrents to prosecution include severe punishment for “sexually malicious accusations” either for homosexual or heterosexual crimes. He also touched on patriarchal domination affecting heterosexual relationships in most Muslim countries where Sharia law is being enforced by the courts, including the requirement that married women be “available at all times,” and under some circumstances, the allowance of marriage of very young girls. (By law in Iran, puberty is defined as 9 for girls and 15 for boys). In contrast, the 2004 reform of the Moroccan family code legislatively disapproved such underage marriages, but in some areas, enforcement is concededly lacking.

Mr. Alizadeh observed that the Koran does not expressly condone discrimination against sexual minorities – let alone punishment for non-heterosexual practices. “Most of the religious discourse on punishing homosexuality,” for example, he said, “is based on the Sunnah and Hadith (narrations from the Prophet and his deeds), but there is an ongoing debate about the authenticity of those quotes from the Prophet as well as the accuracy of the reports about his deeds. Some scholars also argue that sexual taboos are cultural and traditional values repackaged as religious norms.”

“Also, in Islam, sin is a private matter, and publicizing a private sin is a bigger sin,” said Mr. Alizadeh. “Talking about other people's private lives, let alone accusing them of committing a sin, is often compared in religious literature to committing rape in public. Islam strictly forbids Muslims from speculating about other members of the society and gossiping about the private lives of other Muslims. Protecting individuals’ privacy, and their good names, is repeatedly emphasized in the Koran. This is important, since most legal cases against ‘homosexuals’ in Muslim societies are often based on speculation and gossip, rather than witnessing the sexual act itself, which is the only way one can claim knowledge of someone's sexual orientation...”

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