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PEN/OutWrite | 22nd August 2018

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Freedom of things to be Expressed | Mehran Rezaei & Babak Salimizadeh

Freedom of things to be Expressed | Mehran Rezaei & Babak Salimizadeh

Illustration: Kajsa Nilsson

A phenomenological comment on Freedom of Expression, Case of Iranian ‘Queer’[1]
Mehran Rezaei & Babak Salimizadeh

“One of those professors went to the class and told her students that homosexuality is a good thing…She is a sociologist… what should I do with her… Qoran tells me [homosexuality] is a moral decay… is Satanism… Now, are you telling me that I should let this professor to stay on faculty? No way.. that’s not me…”[2]

This is the way that talking about homosexuality is being banned in Iran. It is as clear as Hojatol-Islam Dr. Shariati, the former President of Allameh Tabbatabi University, explains to Keyhan in an interview. In such cases the question of ‘freedom of expression’ seems, in the first place, something flat and simple; as if there is a bare fact to be ‘expressed’ that might be banned due to certain political reasons. Actually it is true in many cases like the above mentioned event. But even in this quotation there is something important that deserves more attention. What Shariati relies on, i.e. the Quranic quotation, is a naming gesture justifying his judgement. Sacking the professor, whatever the real motive(s) might be, is based on a special naming of a phenomenon: Homosexuality as Satanism. It is not new in the official sexual discourse to juxtapose homosexuality with Satanism[3]. If we search among news covered by media supporting the Islamic Republic’s (IR) sexual politics, we will find a common feature in covering homosexuality. Homosexuality is being represented as a horrific, ugly, dangerous thing for human beings and the necessity of reproduction; it is something which is associated with rape and ‘Loot (Sodom)’, and overall something that must be demonised or completely kept in silence. This representation can be considered as the core of the restriction on expression.

On the other hand, there is a neoliberal approach which promotes the value of freedom of expression. This policy, however, cannot change this abstract formula: any policy of expression is conditioned by the way that we represent human experiences. Regarding this formula, the neoliberal approach has recently received widespread criticism from scholars who blame the international campaign for gay rights with misrepresenting human experiences in Middle East. This is demonstrated  first by Joseph Massaad as he rebukes what he called “gay international”—organised activities which simplifies sexual relations in Middle East[4]; secondly by Jasbir Puar who blames the United States and Israel for advocating for gay rights in Middle East through a “homonationalism”[5]; and thirdly, in similar vein, by Sima Shakhsari who applied this insights to explain how UNHCR and gay organisations, called LGBT ‘entrepreneurs’, produce a new identity in the course of rescuing Iranian queer refugees[6].

In all of such criticisms, what is under focus is the matter of representation of human experiences and desire. The very phenomenon of representing here could be a controversial matter in need of more attention. If the manner of representation plays such a crucial role in making a policy of expression, whether for or against, how can we immunise this policy from violating a free relation to things provided in our recent approach based on other prejudices or ideologies? It is a phenomenological approach which concerns itself with ‘expression’ or, in more radical language, thinks about ‘things’ which are supposed to be expressed.

To justify this way of speaking about freedom of expression we revert to the meaning of ‘freedom’ in a Heideggerian analysis. Contrary to the negative meaning of freedom as freedom ‘from restriction’, freedom of expression could be given a positive meaning, as freedom ‘toward’ something which one is interested. Heidegger relates freedom in his methodology to ‘openness’ towards things[7]. Freedom as ‘letting beings be’ means to have an open relation to things beyond the representational concepts we impose on them[8]. Things have been represented differently in the history of Western ideas. Openness in Heidegger’s methodology means to revert to the thing itself and speak with less reductionism and prejudices our theories usually carry due to individual or social interests. It sounds like an idealistic view point which tries to regulate ‘expression’ in terms of a strict discipline. But in a weak interpretation of Heidegger’s meaning of freedom (without engagement to his phenomenology as such) we could refer to his Copernican revolution in talking about ‘freedom of expression’ in terms of non-heteronormative relations in Iran.

In this framework ‘Expression’ of queer desire has historically involved different social power-relations that used language as a weapon in a political scope. Social agents in the field of sexuality, whether in the side of established order (i.e. culture, religion, government etc) or among civil agents (i.e. women, sexual minorities, etc), deploy language and politically produce new forms of resistance. Therefore, the ‘self’ which is in question as the screen of social ‘representations’ has never been an unmasked persona even if we can step further and ask: Does s/he pre-exist the process of representation at all? It could be that a further question needs to be explained; one asking how the queer subject lives beyond this representational battle. But here we will review these historical representations in the Iranian context. We would like to explain briefly this history of linguistic antagonism in sexual language. This review could explain how ‘desire’ has been a matter of linguistic representations, irrespective of the unique and inaccessible individual experiences needed to be expressed.

 2) Linguistic Forms of Ex/inclusion

We can consider four epochs in explaining the process of ex/inclusion in contemporary sexual history.

1) Shahid/Obni

Before raising the heterosexual family in Qajar period (late nineteen century), we could find a social tolerance for same-sex relationships in Iran. Literature from this period illustrates this tolerance[9]. This tolerance has been considered as a paradoxical phenomenon in a society in which same-sex intercourse is severely punished. It was not possible unless by a ‘will NOT to know’[10], or a ‘covered homosexuality’ which has not come out of closed explicitly[11] or what is sometimes called ‘don’t ask don’t tell policy’[12]. But it was not the only technique in making the impossible possible. Creativity in sexual language has always been a remedy. Differentiating between decent and indecent desire, usually embedded in linguistic distinction between ‘Shahid’, who is the proper object of love, and ‘Amrad’, or more derogatorily ‘obne’, who is the unsuitable object of sexual desire, had a special function in creating this paradox. Additionally, there are more distinctions based on such differentiations like ‘Shahid-i Bazari’ / ‘Shahid-i Ghodsi’ which echo the same meaning. While the first person is a matter of love and takes a superior status, the second is an indecent person who occupies an inferior rank in sexual language. It does not mean that the second one is not a matter of desire. In the official and ethical language, Shahid is still exulted but in bawdy literature the second one kept his position as a subject of illegal desire. In a general scale, it is a distinction between love and desire in Persian which, contrary to contemporary European language, exercises a traditional technique to survive in a paradoxical situation. Through this distinction it is possible to keep loving boys without feeling shame and sin. But around Qajar period, the context of sexual language has remarkably changed. Intellectuals like Akhondzadeh, Mirza Agha Khan, Kasravi who criticised Iranian boy-loving, the travelogues which celebrated Western heterosexual love and family, and finally new sexual policy in Pahlavi period (mid-twenty century) inspired by Qajar intellectuals, altogether constituted a new discourse in which the previous linguistic technique was useless. Now, thanks to modernisation of the society a new ‘proper’ object of love and desire emerged; woman[13].

2) Dojins-eh/ Hamjensbaz

After establishing the new sexual politics and especially due to advancement of modern sexual sciences an old odd phenomenon, intersexuality, became a new thing to be covered in the media. Sex change operations since 1930s to 1960s were considered as necessary interventions in nature by science. Intersexual body, called ‘dojenseh’, was a ‘wondrous’ phenomenon (not in a negative connotation) indicative of God’s power and the instrumentality of modern science to repair it (Najmabadi, Professing Selves, 2014, p. 40). Intersexuality became a matter of science that is not still distinct from transsexuality which emerged later. In this epoch, sex-change should be medically necessary in terms of sex ambiguity. But ‘arbitrary’ sex change without physiological necessity became a matter of ethical and medical controversies among MCI’s (Medical Council of Iran) members. These controversies which distinguish between the deviant/diagnostic person, who wants to change her/his sex without necessity, and the dojenseh (intersex) ended in an official ban of sex changes for the first group (Najmabadi, p.152). This social dialogue around intersex distinguished the acceptable dojenseh from a deviant person who is called hamjensbaz (same-sex player). Hamjensbaz was a combined category which indicated what we have named today as transsexual, transgender and homosexual simultaneously. This category later split into two distinct types.

3) Transsexual/Hamjensbaz

Before the 1979 revolution, same-sex relations were still understood exclusively in the binary conceptions of gender. Man who loves men, therefore, must be feminized through dress codes and conducts. So it was hard to find any distinction between being homosexual, transgender or transsexual. Gender/sexuality indistinction is one of the common features of sexual politics in Iran [14], especially before constructing ‘transsexuality’ in medical discourse. But after the Revolution, sex-change operations and necessity of distinguishing (tashkhis) ‘true’ transsexuals from homosexuals required a new deployment of sexual sciences. Answering a question of a transsexual who asked for a license for a sex change, Ayatollah Khomeini gave a new fatwa (religious command) to allow sex-change for non-intersexual. This fatwa prepared a juridical recognition of transsexuality. This fatwa enabled non-heteronormative people to change their sex lawfully to become what s/he ‘is’. But it did not intend to open a region to every non-heteronormative identity. It is science’s assignment to distinguish (tashkhis) the ‘true transsexuals’. Khomeini’s fatwa gave a lawful feature to what was controversial before. It produces, however, new ex/inclusion in desire. But naming this new identity necessitated the production of a non-being creature as a surplus, excluding a residual whose nature was not determinable: Hamjensbaz (same-sex player). Following the religious-legal discourse which allowed exceptions in the case of natural restriction, transsexual discourse usually defined itself based on some natural requirements referring to body. But how does homosexuality, which seems unnatural, fit within this perspective? That is why, as Najmabadi alludes, it “has opened up a conversation among gays and lesbians about whether perhaps they too need to embrace the dominant narrative of transsexuality as a “born”—“not acquired”— condition for themselves”.[15]

4) Hamjensbaz/Hamjensgera

A more precise research on the construction of sexual identities in modern Iran would probably show that the process of ex/inclusion was the main strategy of the production of sexualities in this history. Until twenty years ago, the so-called hamjensbaz were expulsed from the production of transsexual and remained unnamed in the dark areas of the society as ‘covered homosexuality’[16]. Actually in some instances homosexuals avail of disguising through the mask of transsexuality, or even integrating into it. Nonetheless eventually it indicates a prototypical measure to define as legal a non-heteronormative way of life. Legally, it was/is a crime which meets punishment or even execution. Religiously, it was/is an act against God’s rules. Clinically it was/is a deviation from nature, and socio-economically it had/has no usage-benefit in terms of reproduction.

Ontologically, the residue of this historical process is somebody called hamjensbaz; a subject required to be excluded. Hamjensbaz is the last nonbeing that must be divided. Irrespective of the official sexual regulations, about twenty years ago we witnessed that the strategy of ex/inclusion among civil agents helped to distinguish hamjensbaz from a new representative of non-heteronormative desire; i.e. hamjensgera (homosexual), the person who was supposed to be as sexual as emotional in relation to his/her same-sex partner(s). The main question of this epoch was whether the same-sex desire, which flows and breaks the interdictions, constituted an identity as an emotional and natural desire, or it was a result of an ambiguous unstable provisional lust and accordingly, s/he merely liked to “play”(bazi) with his/her same-sex partner(s). Through a media campaign around this question, new identities came to represent same-sex desire: hamjensgera (homosexual) was used positively by modernist civil agents, and hamjensbaz (same-sex player) indicated an offensive meaning, and is now used by ‘homophobes’. This language-based struggle first occurred in Hoomaan magazine. The term “hamjensgera”(homosexual) was presented as a pro-homosexual term[17]. It was believed that we could reject homophobic speech by producing pro-homosexual language.

The politics of ex/inclusion of words could be considered as one of the most significant achievements of the queer movement in Iran. Despite covering the politics of Islamic Republic of Iran, recently, due to the hegemonic status of this literature in Persian, they come to name ‘homosexuality’ (hamjensgerai) as a category in sexual discourse. For example a new revision of the penal code introduces ‘hamjensgerai-ye ensani mozakkar‘ (Male homosexuality) as a new criminal term along with ‘Livat’ (sodomy)[18]. It does not have the same connotation wished by civil society but it is a gesture towards criminalising ‘hamjensgerai’ which is not merely sodomy but includes making love (kissing and caressing) as well (penal code, article 237). Pragmatically, using this language signifies that the dominant sexual language, which tends to shed light on desire, is being transmitted to the official discourse as well. But at the same time, it shows how the linguistic battle might be complicated. Including hamjensgerai in penal codes indicates that the legal system is fighting back the civil society strategy in renaming homosexuality as same-sex desire. While the ex/inclusion strategy tends to exclude one imaginary identity to legalize the other, the legal system sophisticatedly put both of them in a unified criminal language and does not respect the requested exclusion. It shows that the resistance of civil society and the productivity of the government is carrying on in linguistic context.

3) Bipolar Identity Machine and the process of Ex/Inclusion

The story of naming same-sex desire is not restricted to the above explained fight between traditional/official forces and modern civil society in Iran. Iranian body is a battle ground for a global fighting in naming desire.

Gay rights have become a global agenda since two decades ago. NGOs and recently governments deploy a new language in addressing same-sex desire in the Middle East. NGOs contribute to teach homosexuals that they are not anti-social criminals, and their desire should be considered as a natural orientation. They teach families that there is nothing embarrassing, odd or unusual about their homosexual children. Meanwhile, developed countries use the rights of the LGBT persons as leverage to put pressure on some countries as a political agenda[19]. This politicisation of homosexuality has some specific consequences in expressing same-sex desire: a desire that is rescued from fears and darkness through entering into a discourse of law and human rights; a transition from criminals and prisoners of Jean Genet and the homosexuals of Pasolini and Hocquenghem to homosexual bankers, computer engineers, or successful politicians, who are supposed to make their own enterprise in a neoliberal world. Hidden sexuality assumed just as an ambiguous identity in the middle of the way to ‘come out’. Coming out patterns show a determined linear history of queers that might be realised by them or it is being forced to be remained as a potentiality waiting to be actualised [20].

Here we see a bipolar machine which creates sexual identities in modern Iran. On the one hand, there is an ex/inclusion machine which renames the desiring subjects, through demonisation, an imaginary being to legalise an eligible subject. Since Shaid/obne to Hamjensbaz/hamjensgera dichotomy, we could find different ways of such demonisation. On the other hand, we have got “gay international” and “homonationalism” in representing the desiring subject as actualised or potential ‘homosexuals’ waiting to come out. While demonization is embedded in the history of naming same-sex desire inside of Iran, victimisation is an alternative strategy held by international agents in the diaspora[21]. Iranian ‘homosexuals’ are being considered by ‘gay international’ and ‘homonationalism’ as vulnerable beings, to some extent disabled people, paralysed under oppressive circumstances. Although nobody can deny the existence of draconian laws and the brutal treatment of non-heteronormative groups in Iran, in the last analysis, this strategy consists of a specific speech act to rename same-sex desire through victimisation.

4) Conclusion

As we suggested at the beginning, ‘expression’ of queer desire is involved historically with different social power-relations which used language as a weapon in a political scope. It seems clear that language is not merely a field of communication and information, but the field of effectuates, orders, and commands, as Deleuze and Guattari suggest.[22] In the field of linguistic forces every agent tries to influence the other through a special way of representing desire. But bodies themselves seem silent and waiting to be represented. It is really hard to believe we could imagine bodies outside of their representation or at least such outside theory could be controversial. But in any given approach in freedom of expression, it will be pivotal to look at the history of representation of bodies that is based on the political positions the historical agents have taken.

In the battle between demonisation and victimisation of bodies, perhaps we should go beyond the ‘homosexual’ individual (as one who seeks his/her right and stimulated to speak) and listen to the flows of non-heteronormative speeches itself beyond the representations we imposed on them as ‘gay’‘lesbian’‘transsexual’‘hamjensgera’‘hamjensbaz’ etc. We would like to emphasise that freedom of expression of non-heteronormative people needs the openness toward things (bodies) to be expressed. In this case, bodies which are at stake, desire which are represented, are rather the objects of political conflict. Non-heteronormative speeches has been reproduced or oppressed as an exotic other, whether as vulnerable or demon. Scholars like Najmabadi have mentioned the importance of thinking about ‘another language’ in talking about bodies in Iran[23]. It seems too romantic now to figure out this riddle. But desire probably flows irrespective of this identity politics, beyond the victim and Satan. We would like to draw your attention to the importance of linguistic strategies in constructing sexual identities. These kinds of strategies, which seem to be inevitable in sexual discourses, are the first obstacle to talk about freedom of expression for so called ‘LGBTs’.

[1] . The article is based on our research project in ISSG (Iranian Sexuality Studies Group), “An investigation into the history of sexual identity in contemporary Iran.”

[2] . It has been cited in a report from IGLHRC. See here:

[3] . For example see how the official media covered arresting a gay party in Kermanshah in 2013 here: and here:

[4] . Masaad, J. (2007). Desiring Arab. Chicago: University of Chicago

[5] . Puar, J. K. (2007). Terrorist Assemblage: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham and London: Duke University Press

[6] . Shakhsari, S. (2014). Killing Me Softly with your Rights: Queer Death and the Politics of Rightful Killing. In J. Haritaworn, A. Kuntsman, & S. Posocco, Queer Necropolitics (pp. 93-110). New Yourk: Routledge.

[7] . Craig M. Nichols. Primordial Freedom: The Authentic Truth of Dasein in Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’. In: Thinking Fundamentals, IWM Junior Visiting Fellows Conferences, Vol. 9: Vienna 2000, p.2.

[8] . For his idea of freedom see: Heidegger, M. “On the Essence of Truth”. Translated by John Salis. Originally published in 1943. Retrived from in 26/04/2015 in: This translations is based on forth edition of the essay in 1961, Pp.6-7.

[9] . See Shamisa,S (2002) Shahid Bazi Dar Adabiati Farsi (Shaid Playing in Persian Literature). Tehran: Ferdows Publishing.

[10] . Murray, S. O., & Roscoh, W. (1997). The Will NOT to Know; Islamic Accomodation of Male Homosexuality. In S. O. Murray, & W. Roscoe, Islamic Homosexualities (pp. 14-54). New York and London: New York University Press.

[11] . Afary, J. (2008). Sexual Politics in Contemporary Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

[12] . Ali, K. (2006). Sexual Ethics and Islam. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

[13] . Afnsaneh Najmabadi explains this process in detail in Najmabadi, A. (2005). Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity. London: University of California. This process usually highlited the role of male homosexuality.

[14] . Indistinction between gender, sex and sexuality in Iran is one of the most important characteristic in Afsaneh Najmabadi’s work. This indistinction, “had shaped” Najmabadi’s thought “over three decades” before the “professing Selves” (Najmabadi, 2014, p. 7). She insists that this indistinction is still dominated approach in sexual discourse in Iran even after sex-change permission for transsexuals. This indistinction is very explicative to understand many complexities in this regard. Nonetheless we think that the process of constructing new distinction and identities should be considered as well. It is not just the government (which apparently belongs to the same indistinction discourse) produces new sexual language. But also civil society in its own ‘stealthy’ spaces exercise a remarkable influence in creating sexual language.

[15] – Najmabadi, A. (2014). Professing Selves: Transexuality and sam-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 250

[16] . Afary, J. (2008). Sexual Politics in Contemporary Iran. Cambridge: Cambridge University. Pp. 86&263&284&289&290.

[17] .Avaz (1994) “What is difference between Hamjensgera and Hamjensbaz and Bachebaz (pedophile)”. retreived from Iranian Women’s Network Association. In 05/05/2013 in . Hamjensgera had been used in the same meaning before. But using this dichotomy in this magazine is politically important. It is a moment which this dichotomy come to influence language discourse.

[18] . Penal code mentions female homosexuality as the same case under this article.

[19] . It has been explained in Puar, J. K. (2007). Terrorist Assemblage: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[20] . We can’t help remembering the metaphysical connotation of this assumption, echoed in the current coming out patterns, back to Aristotle’s metaphysics about motion as ” actuality (entelecheia) of a potentiality as such “. See Physics 201a10-11, 201a27-29, 201b4-5. Metaphysics Book VII. For studying coming out theories see: Cass, C. V. (1979). Homosexuality Identity Formation. Journal of Homosexuality , 219-235. Gagne, P., Tewksbury, R., & McGaughe, D. (1997). Coming out and Crossing over: Identity Formation and Proclamation in a Transgender Community. Gender and Society, 11 (4), 478-508. Troiden, R. R. (1979). Becoming a Homosexua: A Model of Gay Identity Aquisition. Psychiatry, 42, 362-373.

[21] . Victimisation of social agenets has been critised by Iranian feminist scholar since 1990s in Iran. See an explicative works in this regard here: Poya, M. (2000). Women, Work and Islamism: Ideology & Resistance in Iran. London: Zed Books.P.4.

[22] – Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. Brian Massumi). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. 77

[23] . Afsaneh Najmabadi (2012).” Is Another Language Possible?” History of the Present Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall), pp. 169-183


Mehran Rezaei (1977) is an activist and researcher based in London. His Ph.D was in Philosophy at Shahid Beheshti University in Iran. Rezaei’s research studies focused more on Intellectual studies in field of Iran. He was involved in sexuality rights movement in Iran since 2006. His articles in Persian has been released in Radio Zamaneh website and Iranian Sexuality Studies Group website which he has contributed to found it since 2011. Rezaei has awarded IIE (International Institute for Education) in 2013. Since April 2014 he is working on a project for Politics of Sexuality in Post-Revolutionary Iran as a visiting researcher in SOAS since 2014.

Babak Salimizadeh (1984) is a writer and poet, the chief editor ofMindmotor Magazine since 2007 and a member of the editorial board ofIranian Sexuality Studies Group (ISSG). He has written for many underground Magazines in Iran like Artcult and Zoghal. He has done some performances experiences in the field of poetry and art. Salimizadeh has also wrote and translated books and articles in the field of queer theory, literature and aesthetics. He is now the guest writer at Pen International, Norrköping-Sweden since January 2015.