“Silent Voices” reflects on the vulnerable and dangerous circumstances of lesbian women in Iran. The series owes much to the brave LGBT+ women in the country, who—despite the risk to their personal safety—were willing to work with me in order to raise awareness about their lives in Iran. The courage of these strong women is truly inspirational.

Under the Iranian penal code, homosexuality is a punishable crime. Furthermore, the Iranian regime denies the existence of homosexuality, evidenced by the famous remark from ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “We don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.” In order to deny and eliminate the existence of homosexuality, LGBT+ people are often pressured to undergo unnecessary sex-reassignment surgeries, which are permitted in Iran, with devastating physical and psychological results.

Homosexuality is against the law in Iran. Sharia, the Islamic legal system, condemns homosexuality as a crime worthy of death. Men always face the death penalty if they are the “passive” partner in a homosexual act. According to the underlying logic, such men behave like women. The “active” partner faces the death penalty under certain conditions. Women receive a sentence of 100 lashes. © Marinka Masséus

The situation of lesbian rights in Iran is particularly complex, since Iranian lesbians face double discrimination—first as women and then as lesbians. Women’s rights are restricted in terms of their freedom of movement and expression, and the strictly patriarchal structure allows male kin to assert direct control over women.

Many LGBT+ girls are desperately fighting to escape forced marriage. Under Iranian law, girls, sometimes as young as nine, can legally be married. These girls generally never find a chance to discover their true sexual orientation.

Under Iran’s civil code, a wife must submit to the will of her husband (tamkeen), which includes always being sexually available to her husband. Resistance by women to these power dynamics may be met by abuse and violence, which can be perpetrated with impunity. Often, women are unable to escape these dire conditions, as many are economically dependent on their husbands or other male guardians. The crime of marital rape does not exist under Iran’s penal code because the woman is not allowed to say no.

In addition to forced marriage and legal marital rape, lesbians face arbitrary arrest and detention, and they suffer further human rights violations at the hand of police while in detention, ranging from homophobic assaults to physical torture.

But even though mosaheqeh (the lesbian sexual practice of rubbing female genitalia between two or more women) is punishable under Iranian law by flogging of 100 lashes and can lead to imprisonment, abuse and even torture, the lesbian women I’ve met in Iran shared with me that they are more afraid of their families than the government. This is also reflected in the report of OutRight International, an LGBTIQ human rights non-governmental organization that addresses human rights violations and abuses against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, intersex people, and transgender people.

LGBT+ women told OutRight International that parental domestic violence was a frequent occurrence in their lives. The violence usually resulted when parents accidentally discovered their sexual orientation. The constant fear of being disowned, rejected and/or assaulted by their families often leads to depression, drug abuse and suicide attempts.

“During the three days that I was forced to attend the ‘sexual reorientation course,’ I was tortured. Before the course started, my father made me take a virginity test and filed the results of the tests with the authorities. The interrogation happened in a separate room…the interrogators tortured me by pouring boiling water on my skin and beating me, especially on the head.” © Marinka Masséus

Traditionally, Iranian society regards problems and violence within families as a private matter. Safeguarding or restoring familial honor and washing away shame are seen as social obligations. Therefore, many abused LGBT+ girls have nowhere to turn.

On the other hand, since gender segregation is common in Iranian society, the subsequent close female friendships can function as a cover. Strict gender segregation can challenge adult heterosexual relationships, which can then become strained and full of misunderstandings. This leads many bisexual individuals to seek solace with same sex partners. With the regime’s insistence that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Islamic Iran, this paradox is one of the many contradictory twists of Iranian life under its current, draconian government.

But the fact that many Iranian lesbians “go underground” and lead secret lives out of fear has given rise to a common misperception that Iranian lesbians are few in number, or they are not discriminated against and do not face serious challenges and risks, including to their health and well-being. Because of these misconceptions, lesbian women in Iran are not receiving the (international) support their situation deserves.

—Marinka Masséus

If you’d like to see more of Masséus’ work, we previously published her series My Stealthy Freedom, a portrait project that allows Iranian women to speak freely about the growing resistance in the country.