Relatively speaking, lesbians have it good in Iran. A man who gets arrested for homosexual acts is immediately executed, whereas as women get off with 100 lashes. They are only stoned to death after the third offence.
But 22-year-old architecture student Samira Ghorbani Danesh didn’t take that positive view of the situation when a party she was attending in a Teheran apartment on an August evening two years ago was busted by the Basij, the Iranian religious police. Men were dancing with men, women with women. Alcohol flowed and the music was Western pop. A clear-cut case as far as the Basij concerned – a female informant had tipped them off about the alleged “birthday party.” Seeing the men approach from the balcony, Samira tried to warn her friends, but no one could hear her over the music. She headed out the back door and holed up with neighbors until the paddy wagons dispersed.
Samira stayed with the neighbors for several days, trying to figure out what to do. Her girlfriend was arrested in the raid, and she has had no word from her since. One thing was certain: She could not return home, where the police had already showed up asking questions. “My parents didn’t know I was lesbian,” she said. “I was so terrified of my family. That they could take revenge on me for soiling their name.”
With no place to go, Samira withdrew all her money, contacted a trafficker, and escaped first to Turkey, and from there to Europe.
Samira’s situation is typical of Iranian gays and lesbians. According to Katayun Pirawardi, an Iranian exile and LGBT activist living in Berlin, “If they catch you, they arrest you. Whoever can, escapes eventually. … But if you’re caught, they rarely charge you with homosexuality as such. They usually pin some other charge on you.” After all, it was none other than Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who said during a talk at Columbia University in 2007: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you we have it.”
Despite Ahmadinejad’s assurances, homosexuality is sometimes used as a weapon against gays and straights alike. “If I have a colleague I can’t stand,” Pirawardi says, “then I declare him to be gay. Then he’s out. That’s the reality.”
Even if Samira could somehow escape prosecution in Iran, her life there would scarcely be worth living. “I want to live with my girlfriend,” she told journalists at a Nuremberg women’s café. “I can’t do that in Teheran. In Iran I have to marry a man selected by my father.”
Samira finally ended up in Bavaria, where she promptly applied for political asylum. However, the authorities have turned her request down, claiming that she “cannot plausibly demonstrate that her safety is threatened in Iran.” While the judge handling her case recognizes that homosexuals are persecuted in the Islamic Republic, she told Samira that she should return and “pursue a correspondingly restrained lifestyle, as practiced by all homosexuals in Iran who wish to live undisturbed.”
Samira, who was also politically active in Iran and has been recorded on video demonstrating against the Ahmadinejad government in 2009, has attracted considerable support from regional politicians as well as the German Green Party, who point out that their constitution guarantees a right to political asylum. “It cannot be our policy to force people to adjust to an inhuman and oppressive system,” the politicians wrote in an open letter to the federal interior minister.
Our goal must be to support or grant asylum to people who dedicate themselves to the right to a self-determined life or who simply want to live a self-determined life.
But the courts will not be moved. The Bavarian authorities would probably explain that they cannot assume responsibility for all the lesbians in Iran, and they do have a point there – even though only three to four persons file for asylum on these grounds each year in the entire country. But this is no comfort to Samira, who is terrified of ending up like her girlfriend, who seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth. “She has been publicly outed,” Samira’s lawyer says. “Her case has attracted public attention.”
Her residence permit expires tomorrow.