Oct 05, 2007
Commentary: Queer Iranians and Mr. Ahmadinejad in the Press
By Arsham Parsi
On Monday September 24th, Mr. Ahmadinejad gave a talk at New York's Columbia University. The President of Columbia, under great pressure for having invited Mr. Ahmadinejad, tried to compensate by creating a favourable atmosphere for himself, an atmosphere which did not materialize until the question about homosexuality was raised. A question was asked about the situation of homosexuals in Iran and in response Mr. Ahmadinejad replied: "In our country we don't have homosexuals like in your country. This does not exist in our country. I don't know who has told you that we have this." This response elicited laughter and booing from the crowd in attendance.
As a result of the Iranian president's response, the board of directors of IRQO (the Iranian Queer Organization) found itself confronted with a heavy volume of interview requests and questions last week in regards to this matter. We were giving interviews with numerous news agencies on a daily basis, explaining the organization’s perspective. Some of the major media outlets who approached the organization for interviews include: New York Sun, Fox News, BBC, BBC Brazil, BBC Farsi, Voice of America’s Iranian program (VOA), CNN television, CBC Canada, ABC Australia radio, Radio Farda, America’s National Public radio (NPR), New York Public Radio, KGO Radio San Francisco, Wall Street Journal, Brazilian newspapers, SBT Brazil (national television network), Iran Emrooz website, Seattle television and many other independent stations and newspapers in England, Spain, Holland, France, Germany, USA, Canada and Australia. Whenever possible we connected these outlets to queer Iranians living in that country who were willing to give interviews.
The question is this: what did this response mean? Is the president of Iran literally unaware of the existence of homosexuals? Or does he imagine such a phenomenon to be something particular to Western countries only and not something that could exist in Iranian society? Or if it does exist, does Amadinejad consider homosexuality to be a Western cultural import and therefore agrees with Judge Mortazavi that it must be met with legal retribution so as to prevent the spread of immorality? Or was it that the question caught Mr. Ahmadinejad by surprise and he simply did not have an appropriate response?
Logic informs us that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not surprised by the question. We can as an example to last year’s incident when Mr. Khatami was confronted with the same question while giving a speech at University of Chicago. His answer was that in Islamic law there are punishments for homosexuals and other such groups, and this is something based on Islamic jurisprudence. Based on this we can logically conceive that the government of Iran knew this issue would likely come up during Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit. Therefore our guess is that before the speech was given there had been much time spent on forming a response to this kind of question.
The first point is why Mr. Ahmadinejad used the phrase hamjensbaaz (derogatory Farsi slang word for homosexuals, equivalent to the word Sodomize, faggot in English). One reason is to present a homosexual relationship in a negative way because this is the phrase most commonly used in Iranian society and most people do not know the difference in meaning between hamjensbaaz and hamjensgara (politically-correct Farsi word for homosexual). It is necessary to mention that even amongst the current Iranian Diaspora population in Western countries those who use the kind of language common in Iran thirty years ago still widely use the phrase hamjensbaaz when approaching the issue. So it is possible that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s translator used the phrase hamjensbaaz; maybe if the translator had used the phrase hamjensgara Mr. Ahmadinjead might have also used hamjensgara in his response to the question. Either way, this response does not differentiate between hamjensbaaz and hamjensgaraa as it refers to any individual of a different sexual orientation.
It was often claimed in the press that this statement pointed to the lack of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s knowledge about the situation of minorities in Iran and many news agencies called him uneducated. But in the press interviews we repeatedly stated that considering Mr. Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran, he is responsible for all the official and legal actions of the government. So he is naturally aware of information, statistics, and figures that have to do with administering the country. One should not use the assumption that he is uninformed as an excuse to not hold him responsible. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comment was not based on lack of information; its purpose was rather to announce an intense denial of queer rights in Iran. The message behind his response is that any question regarding the situation and social rights of homosexuals is irrelevant and meaningless. So by eliminating the issue, Mr. Ahmadinejad relinquished any responsibility to answer to it. Naturally if he had responded truthfully to the question, the next question would have been “why does Iran’s legal system punish homosexuality?”, “why are their rights not respected?” and …. By announcing a denial of the existence of homosexuals in Iran Mr. Ahmadinejad ended this chapter of discussion.
By denying that homosexuals exist, Mr. Ahmadinjead assumes a position that specifically addresses the issue of queer rights. If he did not wish to assert the government’s position he could have easily related the issue to the judicial system, religious commandments, and Islamic jurisprudence and left the argument at that, in much the same way that Mr. Khatami left the issue unanswered. Instead Ahmadinejad denied the existence of homosexuals and ceased to officially recognize or announce their citizenship rights – a clear assertion of the government’s position on this matter.
In interviews our organization has reminded Western governments to note that these sentences were not spoken by any average person. These are the chosen opinions of the top one/two figures of the Iranian government. Accordingly, governments whom till now have claimed Iran to be a safe country for LGBTs and sent refugees back to Iran without recognizing the danger they faced, must now accept that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has never granted rights to this section of its citizenship, so much so that even in the explanation of this discrimination it denies their existence.
In spite of the points already mentioned, we believe that in some interviews Mr. Ahmadinejad was scrutinized in a way that was by no means acceptable. Mr. Bush’s government is also not accepted by many of the American people and is one of the opponents of queer rights, yet he is not officially condemned in international press, but rather addressed respectfully as Sir or Mr. President. In recent interviews we have tried to object to these biased and insulting representations in the media and respectfully use official prefixes when referring to the Iranian president because he was invited to give this talk not as an individual but as an official representative of the Iranian government.
The Farsi program of the Voice of America did not air Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments on Monday. We asked many friends to protest this censorship by sending letters, and in a telephone message to the Farsi desk of Voice of America we reminded them that censorship in any of its dimensions is not right. We were informed that the Farsi desk of Voice of America was under pressure by various groups including the Iranian government, groups implicated with opponents of freedom and elements of censorship. Fortunately Voice of America decided to cover this news and conducted a television interview, a number of radio interviews, and announced in its Shabahang program that it had received many letters about the station’s initial evasion of the homosexuality issue. This change of position was met with thank you letters from listeners.
All of us are aware of the long road we face before we reach our desired conditions in terms of rights and legal and social status for Iranian queers. For all of us it is a cause for happiness and encouragement that the issue of queer rights now exists in a sphere far beyond where it was when we initially began our work. A movement that began four years ago by a few active innovators in the basements of a few unknown houses in an unsafe atmosphere inside Iran, today sits in major news headlines related to Iran; the voice of this oppressed minority now functions side by side with other acknowledged Iranian minority groups working in similar conditions in the effort to attain their fundamental rights. This progress is indebted to the cooperation and support of individuals and organizations that have helped us in this cause and the continuation of this movement is only possible with their help.
The author is representing the IRanian Queer Organization. First published in Cheraq Magazine, No 33. Translated by Ava. Reprinted here with permission.