How Lesbians Live in Iran


A controversial new movie explores the lives of lesbians forced to live in the shadows. Omid Memarian talks to women in Iran who say the movie doesn’t do their predicament justice.


A still from the film, 'Circumstance', courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Four years after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared there are no gays in Iran during a speech at Columbia University, an Iranian-American filmmaker courageously portrays an unusual story of two Iranian lesbians who struggle under religious and cultural repression to explore their sexuality.


Iranians are, in general, culturally hesitant to publicly talk about their private lives and sexuality, so the sex scenes between two schoolgirls Atefeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemi) in Circumstance,  take the viewer to the most extreme parts of Iranian underground lifestyle.

While Maryam Keshavarz’s portrayal is bold, and addresses a major taboo in Iran, many lesbians who actively live and love in the shadows there say the movie is not necessarily a true portrayal.

The young Iranian-American director, who grew up in the United States, filmed the movie in Lebanon, away from the eyes of Iranian authorities. But even in Lebanon it was a daring project to tackle as the film’s subject was unbeknownst to Lebanese authorities. Still, it seems that security concerns may have limited her in creating an Iran that feels real—especially for those who know the country and the culture. Choices of locations, set designs, clothing, dialogues, and even makeup often appeared unrealistic and artificial. The actresses, Atefeh and Shireen, clearly grew up in the West, with strong accents, and although they try to talk like Tehrani girls, they remain hard to believe. 

“The scene where the woman she loves [Atefeh] marries her brother, and she suffers for this is very real for me, as I experienced it in my own life,” Maryam, a lesbian told me from Iran under condition of anonymity. “But, overall, an Iranian lesbian would not enjoy watching this film, or find herself in it, though other viewers might find it interesting.  As a lesbian who is quite familiar with the lesbian lifestyle, I can say that instead of showing the hidden sides of the lesbian romance, this film is closer to a porn film, as it lacks depth and mostly shows the physical aspects of the relationship. Even the love-making scenes between the two girls seem to be more for making the film sexy than to discuss a social taboo.” she said.

Still, Circumstance is a very smart movie that is able to create a conversation about homosexuality and Iran’s underground lifestyle—something that Iranian activists welcome. Some say the Islamic Republic’s strict policies on gender segregation—from separate schools to men and women sections on the bus has created a lot of sexual confusion in girls. What can a girl do when she spends all her time with girls, and is not allowed to interact with boys without raising eyebrows?


“I saw for myself, in high school, that girls got close to each other for friendship, but at some point, some of these relationships could go beyond friendship,” Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian journalist told the Daily Beast adding that, “You could even see among students from the more traditional families that some of them had feelings for each other, but they didn’t know exactly what these feelings were.”

Other Iranians feminists aren’t so nuanced about the topic, or the movie.

“The relationships appear exaggerated and this confused storytelling makes the film unbelievable to the point where it seems that squeezing sex and the government’s suppressive violence and similar subjects is intended to make the film more exciting, as opposed to trying to approach a serious subject in Iran,” said Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, an Iranian feminist and rights activist told the Daily Beast.

“If John Smith of Montana made this film, it would never get noticed.”

“A number of Iranian feminists and women activists who saw this film were angry about it.  They said that they really need films to be made about the marginalized lifestyles of lesbian women, but these films should show the reality of these relationships,” Abbasgholizadeh said. “I know that finding two young girls inside Iran who are either lesbians or who would not mind playing the roles of lesbians may have been impossible, but this limitation has seriously damaged the film, at least for those who have traveled to Iran or who know Farsi well.”

But in a society where homosexuality is punishable by death, the movie is thought-provoking.

A young woman from Tehran told the Daily Beast that she is impatiently waiting to find an underground copy of Circumstance in Tehran. “Right now, there are a lot more people who are confused about their sexuality, asking themselves what their orientation is and the film will encourage them to follow their curiosity” she said. “In some big cities and in more modern households, in order to make sure of their sexuality, a lot of these girls have tried having relations with same-sex partners at least once in their lives,” she added
Click to see the full article at The Daily Beast


Open Democracy : “Frisk the 5-year-old: the UK Government’s new compassionate approach to child detention” – 06/07/11


Open Democracy

By Clare Sambrook of Medical Justice, 6 July 2011

Frisk the 5-year-old: the UK Government’s new compassionate approach to child detention

“You’re a big boy now so I have to search you,” said the G4S custody officer to the five-year-old, donning latex gloves and patting him down at a Heathrow Airport detention facility run by outsourcing giant G4S.

The child had been booked into Terminal 4’s “short term holding facility” as a “visitor” which meant that his detention would have gone unrecorded but for a surprise visit by two of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Prisons on 3rd March this year.

The boy, an EU national, had been returning home to Britain with his father, a non-EU national, after a family visit to the father’s country of origin. The Inspectors noted that the child was detained “without the necessary authority”.

Their “Report on an unannounced inspection of the short-term holding facility at Heathrow Airport Terminal 4”, published today, found that in three months to February 2011 the lock-up had held 78 children, including eight unaccompanied minors. Their average stay was 9.9 hours, twelve children were held for more than 18 hours — the longest detention being 23.9 hours. Not all staff were CRB checked.

This, more than a year after the Coalition Government pledged to end the detention of children for immigration purposes, and six months after deputy prime minister Nick Clegg claimed it had been accomplished.

The five-year-old subjected to the latex “rub-down search” then witnessed his father’s humiliation. The father’s phone was confiscated, but, say the Inspectors, he was not offered the free telephone call to which he was entitled.

Instead of being taken to the family room, which had children’s toys, books and posters (but no natural light nor access to fresh air), the father and child were held in the adult room.

“The father had not been formally interviewed by an immigration officer and was very distressed at the prospect of being refused entry and separated from his son,” said the Inspectors. “When we spoke with him he did not understand what was going to happen to him next. He broke down in tears in front of his child and the other detainees, which was humiliating for him and distressing for the child. After we advised the detainee that he was entitled to make a telephone call, he spoke to G4S who granted his request. The detainee’s distress could have been alleviated had he been able to make the telephone call earlier.”

That these things happened directly under the gaze of HM Prison Inspectors suggests this might be UKBA and G4S on their very best behaviour.

Staff admitted to the Inspectors, “that they had not received refresher training in suicide and self-harm prevention” and “did not carry anti-ligature knives but a knife was attached to the first aid box in their office.” The Inspectors noted: “This could cause unnecessary delay in an emergency.”

The Inspectorate also reported today on Heathrow Terminal 3’s lockup where, over three months to February 2011, 98 children had been held including eight unaccompanied minors. A child’s average stay was 8.3 hours, with twelve children held for more than 18 hours – and one held for 30 hours.

Despite the long periods of incarceration, neither facility had beds. Adults or children could lie across chairs if they wanted to. “And even this did not give room for all to sleep,” said the Inspectors.

Although one third of the detainees at Terminal 3 and a quarter at Terminal 4 were women, there was not always a woman on the staff. “Rub-down searches” took place in an open office, “which was especially inappropriate in the case of female detainees”.

When detainees requested to shower, and if staffing levels permitted, they were put in an escort van and driven to another facility.

One member of staff at Terminal 3 told the Inspectors “of an incident many months previously when a detainee had been banging his head on the table and said: ‘Luckily we were able to put him on the floor and stop him doing it.’”

The Inspectors noted: “The use of three staff to pin the detainee to the floor to prevent possible self-harm seemed an over-reaction.”

Despite the large numbers of children being held, the Inspectors noted that staff had “inadequate knowledge” of the referral system “for identifying victims of human trafficking”.

Although there were some valid legal advice telephone numbers in the holding rooms, the Inspectors found “access to legal advice for non-English speakers was poor. Immigration officers did not always use professional interpreters when necessary, and did not always complete legally required documents correctly. Detainees could not fax a legal adviser freely.” Nor were they routinely offered the free phone call to which they were entitled.

So much for the “big culture shift within our immigration system” and the “new compassionate approach to family returns” prematurely celebrated in December by Nick Clegg.

Today’s reports provoke discomfiting questions, such as:
How many trafficked children miss their one chance of rescue because staff lack proper training?

How many children are detained “without the necessary authority”, misleadingly listed as “visitors”, patted down and patronised by people who may or may not be CRB-checked?

And, if this is how immigration detention works when HM Inspectorate of Prisons is in the house, how do things go when nobody important is watching?”

Visit the Open Democracy website to read more about this and other articles.

Cuts in aid for migrants and asylum seekers may inflict hardship on 100,000 children born in the UK

SAVAGE cuts to legal aid for migrants and asylum seekers will inflict extreme hardship on their 100,000 ­children, experts warn.

Though most were born in the UK to foreign parents, they will be left in limbo after legal help for them to become British citizens was axed.

The children are termed ­“undocumented” – meaning they have no residency status or passport, says a study by Oxford University, due to be published in October.

Author Dr Nando Sigona said: “Some of these children are completely invisible. They speak perfect English, attend school and have a GP.

They only find out their legal status when they near 18 and try to enrol at university or travel abroad, and find it is not possible.”

The research calls for the reinstatement of the seven-year concession, which was stopped in 2008.

It gives people who enter the UK as children the right to stay after seven years.

Read more here in the Daily Mirror report of 23rd August 2011:

Methods for Assessing the Age of Migrant Children must be Improved

Age can determine the future for a migrant. If recognised as a child, he or she might be granted the right to stay. If considered an adult, the migrant could quickly end up in detention and be deported. The crucial dividing line is at 18 years of age.

There are certainly strong reasons for the special care of children in migration policy. This is also established in international children’s rights standards and accepted by most governments. However, this has raised a particular issue: how should authorities assess whether a migrant is below or above 18?

Many young migrants arrive without passports, personal identity papers or birth certificates. There is a suspicion among migration authorities that some of them may present themselves as younger than they actually are in order to benefit from treatment in accordance with children’s rights. Authorities in some countries have therefore sought to find scientific means of establishing the precise age of young persons arriving from other countries. It is time to discuss these methods more critically.

Several European states – including Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany – have used X-ray tests to determine if a person is a minor or not. X-ray pictures are taken of the hand, wrist or teeth and these are then compared with standardised tables to determine the “bone age” of an individual.

This method has been presented as swift and relatively easy to use. However, more and more medical specialists are contesting this approach. It is not sufficiently precise for age assessment and it subjects the individuals to unnecessary radiation.

X-rays can never determine exact age

Bone development varies drastically from one adolescent to another. Physical development nowadays depends on numerous factors including ethnic and geographical descent, nutrition and socio-economic situation, and previous and current illnesses.

Associations of paediatricians across Europe including in the United Kingdom state clearly that dental and skeleton maturity cannot be used in assessing the exact age of a child – all that can be achieved is an estimate with a margin of 2-3 years. The European Migration Network study on unaccompanied minors highlighted that the interpretation of data may also vary from country to country. It may even vary from one specialist to another.

The X-ray method also raises serious questions regarding medical ethics. In 1996, the Royal College of Radiologists in London stated that it is “unjustified” to undertake a radiograph examination for age estimation purposes. It is not acceptable to expose children to ionizing radiation for an examination which has no therapeutic benefit and is purely for administrative purposes.

Multidisciplinary assessments necessary

Ombudsmen for children at European level have adopted a joint position on the treatment of unaccompanied children. They make clear that any additional review of the age of the young migrant should only take place in cases of serious doubt – if, for example, the documents provided or statements are clearly unreliable. Quasi-automatic or routine medical screening of migrant children should therefore not be used.

Techniques for age assessment should respect the child’s culture, dignity and physical integrity. The concluding age evaluation should be done by a multidisciplinary panel. Composed of independent experts, the panel should combine physical, social and psychological maturity assessments. The members should take into account that some physical assessments might be particularly stressful or traumatic for children who may have suffered physical or sexual abuse before. The possibility of appealing against the decision of the panel or seeking a revision of the assessment should be provided.

Children should be respected and trusted

The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has stated that “if there is a possibility that the individual is a child, she or he should be treated as such”. If there is no serious doubt, authorities should trust the documents provided or the statement made by the child.

Incorrect age assessments may result in dramatic consequences including the wrongful detention of a separated or unaccompanied child. Governments have the responsibility to develop child-sensitive methods. As a basic rule, migrant children should be received with respect and empathy, instead of mistrust and unnecessary examinations.

Thomas Hammarberg