Interview with an Iranian Queer Activist

Hazhir is a young writer/poet/journalist/activist. Soon after the publication of this interview with Cheraq, the online journal of Iranian queers, he was forced into exile. Excerpts from the December 2007 interview follow.

Interview with an Iranian Queer Activist

Hazhir is a young writer/poet/journalist/activist. Soon after the publication of this interview with Cheraq, the online journal of Iranian queers, he was forced into exile. Excerpts from the December 2007 interview follow.

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Translated by Frieda Afary

Cheraq: When we spoke on the phone and you accepted my request for an interview, you responded to my question about the types of concerns which an interview about the rights of queers in Iran would create for you inside the country. You said, “I’m beyond that point.” Are political and human rights activities so needed that you have made a decision to accept all the dangers and fight for these demands?

Hazhir: The U.S. intellectual, Noam Chomsky, says: “Either we give in to global injustice and dictatorship, or we join the struggle for justice, democracy and freedom.” I believe there is no other way. I am not a hero or a vanguard. I do not wish to be martyred in order to awaken the “masses” with my blood. No! The age of this type of literature and fatalist outlook has passed. Like other human beings, I feel fear, cry, laugh, fall in love, experience cowardice, and also show a little courage. I am a human being with all the dimensions of a human being. But I believe that this squalor filled world is not a suitable place for human existence. If I didn’t have the hope that there could be a better world, I would certainly choose death at this moment and would be relieved. Of course it is not simply enough to have hope. History does not automatically lead us to emancipation from the shackles of oppression and exploitation. Hope compels me to actively intervene in my surroundings, in order to have not only a homeland but a world that is worthy of “human” existence.

Cheraq: What is your definition of human rights?

Hazhir: . . . As a socialist, I believe that human “respect and dignity” and “the free development of the human being’s character” are only preserved and guaranteed when she/he is freed from the domination of dictatorship as well as exploitation, patriarchy and racial/ethnic prejudice. As a socialist, I believe that in economic terms, this would mean the abolition of the right to private ownership of the means of production, in favor of public and not state ownership of the means of production. . . .

Cheraq: Do you think that queer rights are a part of human rights?

Hazhir: I consider queer rights to be part and parcel of human rights because Iranian queers are human beings. In human rights terms, when we speak of human beings, we mean human beings regardless of their race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, beliefs, class, sexuality or sexual preferences.

Cheraq: You are a member of the Student Committee of Human Rights Reporters. This Committee has on several occasions reported on the violation of the rights of queers. Please tell us more about this Committee and why it decided to defend the rights of queers as well.

Hazhir: I have been a member of this committee for the past few months. It started its activities in March 2005 and has already become a credible and effective organization thanks to the tireless and continuous efforts of its members. Naturally, this credibility was not easily gained. The members of the committee have been placed under pressure by judicial and security forces. For instance, Shiva Nazar Ahari was summoned to the information ministry. Another colleague, Sepideh Pour Aghai has been in detention for the past three months. [In January 2009, she was released after posting bail. tr.} The Student Committee of Human Rights Reporters defends the rights of queers and has reported the violation of their rights because all committee members, regardless of their different or sometimes contradictory beliefs, agree on the following: “When we speak of human beings, we mean human beings regardless of their race, religion, nationality, ethnicity, beliefs, class, sexuality or sexual preferences.” On this particular issue, we are clearly only starting to hew out a path. There are still many questions concerning the rights of queers, that have not been addressed. But we have to consider the fact that the committee is reporting on these violations under conditions in which speaking of the rights of queers is considered an obscenity in the eyes of the rulers. The prohibition on speaking of the rights of queers, does not only exist in the public sphere. Even many of our intellectuals and elite thinkers consider the discourse on the rights of queers to be obscene. We have a long road ahead of us and are not afraid of its difficulties.

Cheraq: Somewhere you say that “Understanding the Presence of the Other” which is the title of one of your blogs, constitutes another dimension of your being. It is a struggle for existence, for being different. This is a very profound statement and has preoccupied my thoughts for hours. If we could understand the presence of the other and accept her/him the way she/he is without imposing our standards on her/him, the majority of the problems of minorities in society would be solved. In your opinion, what is the role of minorities in Iranian society today, and how can they be defended?

Hazhir: Before answering your question, I would like to give a brief explanation of the name of my weblog ( I borrowed this name from Mohammad Mokhtari [Iranian writer who was abducted and murdered in the December 1998. After a great public outcry, the Iranian government admitted that the intelligence ministry was involved in his murder. tr.] Although I am not a fan of citing verses from others, or in more political language, citing “facts,” occasionally, one comes across a statement that is exactly what one wanted to say. However, either one’s language is inadequate or at the very least, the person who uttered the statement has been far in advance and has arrived at that statement earlier. In the introduction to his work, The Human Being in Contemporary Poetry, Mokhtari writes: “A human being is precious and respectable in all her/his faces, conditions and differences. Understanding the presence of the other does not mean understanding a specific or stellar part of the presence of the other. No human being is pure angel or pure devil. The angel-like and the devilish persons are both products of our imagination. We are different people with different ranks and different cultural circumstances, weak and strong, cultured and uncultured, small and large. We are all organs of one body. . . Understanding the presence of the other is a collective understanding of the presence of the human being, until the conditions are created for all to develop their characters and not have to remain the way they are.” For me, starting that weblog was a way to test this principle in order to understand the other dimensions of my own presence. I believe that given the unquestioning and dictatorial culture in which Iranians are rooted, the various dimensions of the human soul are suppressed by the self in favor of a higher and more evolved dimension. For the past few years however, I have been trying to let the different dimensions of my being do whatever they want, and I have established a peaceful co-existence among them.

Going back to your question . . . In Iran, there is a violation of the rights of the majority. Within this absolute majority, there are different collective identities which can be called “minorities” such as queers or the followers of religions other than Shia Islam. But our strong point is that we are part of the majority. All of us have been denied our most basic rights in one way or another. To answer the question about defending the rights of the minorities in Iran, I have to say that it can be done when all of us struggle for emancipation and justice alongside that absolute majority, the dispossessed and the suppressed, not apart from them. This is a difficult path that demands participation from all of us. Whether we are women who constitute half the society, or workers who constitute a large part of society, or slum-dwellers or rural folks, whether we are non-Persian speaking ethnicities or queers, we can only achieve emancipation and justice when these goals become a collective ideal and when we discern the universality of our ideal.

Cheraq: Many prominent political, human rights and women’s rights activists etc. who have endured prison and torture in order to defend human rights, do not believe in the rights of queers. In other words, they are not willing to defend those rights openly. In your opinion, why have Iranian activists not paid attention to the rights of queers as a serious human rights issue up to now?

Hazhir: Two important points have to be considered to respond to this question. First, all of us have been raised in an environment in which dictatorship and exploitation and patriarchy have old roots. According to Reza Baraheni [ exiled Iranian novelist, poet and political activist who teaches literature at the University of Toronto. tr.] we live in “masculine history.” If we agree that human behavior and beliefs are the products of the social environment in which humans grow, we have to accept that none of us has been left unscathed by the effects of these conditions. That is why traces of dictatorial, exploitative and patriarchal behavior can be discerned in our daily lives. Even our daily language is not free from traces of this scourge. Nevertheless, the fact that we have been raised in this social milieu should not free us from the responsibility to fight its effects. If one considers opposition to queers to be part of the awe of patriarchal domination, which I do, then one can consider the lack of attention to the issues of queers to be the product of living and growing up in patriarchal history. . . Because that general belief is intertwined with a religious belief, a serious determination to combat it is still not evident among those of us who are a product of this society. Even the most secular among us still live with the doctrines that have been fed us as children, in the family, in school and on the streets. And of course after the revolution and the coming to power of the newcomers, [these doctrines tr.] have been fed us in the form of official propaganda and the so-called national media. That is why I think we have a long road ahead of us in order to break with these taboos.

The above does not apply to a small minority. On many occasions, when I have spoken at various meetings about the rights of queers, I have been told the following: “How much of a priority is this issue?” or “Isn’t it only a small percentage of the population that has this problem?” In truth, I do not accept this sense of priorities. In fact I strongly believe that those who think this way are also opportunists in other areas. Their struggle is an opportunistic struggle for power. I doubt them when they also speak of women’s rights or workers’ rights. I believe that those who dismiss the struggle for queer rights in the above manner, only speak of women’s rights or workers’ rights because they know that women and workers constitute a larger portion of the population. The higher numbers of women and workers make them more suitable instruments for gaining power. In my opinion, even if the above mentioned individuals speak of human rights with a revolutionary tone, their words are nothing more than dirty election promises. But there are also those who defend the rights of workers, women, queers, religious minorities, non-Persian ethnicities, and all the dispossessed and oppressed and the poor. They do so not because of a passion for power. Their humane ideals compel them to stand with those at the bottom during the struggle. I try to be one of them.

Cheraq: Do you think Iran’s academics think like the majority? In other words, how do academics in Iran view Iranian queers?

Hazhir: I cannot comment on the views of the entire society of academics but only on the sector of academics i.e. students with whom I am in touch. . . Something specific has happened to the youth of Iran. Something which has been outside the realm of control of the rulers. Although young people like others are influenced by the ideological doctrines of the rulers, the introduction of the internet in Iran, and the youth’s embrace of this vast virtual space has led to the weakening of some of these religious doctrines. This has compelled some youth to try to view their surrounding world in a new way. I am a prominent example of such a transformed human being. I am ashamed to say that up until the near distant past, that is two years ago, I considered queers to be at best mentally disturbed individuals who needed treatment. Becoming acquainted with the ongoing debates in the virtual world and establishing virtual friendships with several queer activists or queer advocates, and long discussions, led me to accept the human identity of queers. . .

Cheraq: As you mentioned, the bulk of our problems are rooted in a masculine history. In your view, how can the student movement and the women’s movement work in concert with the queer movement to fight against patriarchy? There isn’t much communication between them, and there is a tangible need for enlightenment for the members of these movements.

Hazhir: I think that your question partially contains the answer. You say that there is a tangible need for enlightenment for social movement activists. This is very true. Consider the fact that most of us queers only have two images in mind. The first is the image of the “sinner” which has been created for us by official sources of education. The second is the image of “promiscuity” which we have seen in pornographic movies. Showing a third image can be part of this enlightenment. Allow me to issue a minor critique of the journal Cheraq from this angle. Sometimes Cheraq publishes stories which can not be considered erotic by any standard. These same exact stories can be found in sites that publish stories about mostly heterosexual sex. Such stories can evoke those aforementioned images. If the editors of your journal have a reason for publishing these stories, that has to be explained. Please note that I am not referring to the use of so-called “obscene” words. A non-aesthetic depiction of sex, regardless of its form, is offensive.

On the other hand, I think that paying attention to the events taking place inside Iranian society — a society that Saqi Qahreman, the author of your editorial in issue # 31 calls the mother society– and responding appropriately to events inside Iran can have a positive effect on the minds of social movement activists. Up to now, Iranian queers have issued statements in response to events such as the banning of the Tehran Bus Workers Union on Jan. 28, 2005, International Women’s Day and the beating of women participants in Student Park, May Day 2006, the call to protest of the Iranian Writers’ Society, and the defense of the rights of Baha’is. These statements have made a positive impact on social movement activists or at least the sectors of social movement activists with whom I am in touch. These beginnings can show us the pathway forward.

December 2007

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