Whether it is extrajudicial executions, targeted journalists or volleyball fans jailed for wanting to watch a match, human rights violations in Iran are often in the news. Recent comments made by the head of Iran’s Human Rights Council, Mohammad Javad Larijani, about the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) demonstrate once again Iran’s unwillingness to uphold its commitments to international human rights treaties, including the UN’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

“Twenty years ago,” Larijani said, “homosexuality was conceived as a disease or crime in the West,” responding to calls from 11 countries for Iran to uphold the rights of LGBT people following Iran’s 31 October Universal Periodic Review (the UPR). “Homosexuals in Los Angeles had to undergo hormone therapy. Now, all of a sudden, homosexuality has become fashionable in the West.”  Larijani said the right to choose one's sexual orientation is a relatively recent Western construct, a lifestyle “choice” promoted by the West and with very little to do with an Islamic way of life. What’s worse, he said, the West is determined to make sure that everyone follows in its footsteps, using international human rights standards as an excuse. “You cannot attack the lifestyles of other countries by resorting to the universal applicability of human rights.”

Larijani’s statements are not entirely without merit: during the last decades of the past century, homosexuality had been viewed as either a disease and treated as a crime in various parts of the world, including in the West (England and Wales only decriminalized consensual sex between homosexual men in 1967, and only allowed for same-sex marriages in 2013; In Italy, gay marriage is still illegal, and although some Italian mayors have recognized same-sex couples that have married outside of the country, it continues to cause huge rifts within society: recently, the country’s interior minister called for officials to stop recognizing marriages, while some surveys reveal strong public support for civil marriages between same-sex partners. For years, homosexuality was absent from both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. In 2008, the UN passed the Declaration for the Global Decriminalization of LGBT Activity. And it was only in December 2010 that the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, in a landmark speech on LGBT equality in New York, called for all countries to abolish discriminatory laws against homosexuals.

Finally, on July 17, 2011, after many debates, the UNHRC adopted its first resolution on homosexuals’ rights entitled “Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity”. The resolution was approved with 23 votes in favor, 19 against — including votes from Russia, Kenya and Indonesia. In this way, the taboo was broken and today homosexuals are considered a minority under human rights instruments.

Though many Islamic-majority countries discriminate against LGBT people, some Islamic religious reformers believe that homosexuality is not forbidden in Islam. For example, Professor Arash Naraghi, an Iranian scholar of religion and philosophy, has argued that there is no specific prohibition against homosexuality in Iran, though it is still very much a taboo subject and is not discussed widely among Iranian or Islamic scholars. Naraghi argues that what is actually prohibited in the Koran is “the wrong act”, which was committed by the tribe of Lut; however, there is considerable doubt among scholars that this particular act has anything to do with homosexuality. Naraghi argues that in order to understand what the “heinous” and “wrong” act to which the Koran refers, one should look at all passages pertaining to Lut, which reveal that  it was a combination of acts that brought misery to the Lut tribe, including banditry.

According to the Koran, Lut had two guests, two angels who appeared in the form of young boys. When the people of his tribe found out about Lut’s guests, they attacked his house and threatened to rape his guests. So it could be observed that the “wrong act” here refers to two things: One, sex without consent (rape); Two, having sexual relations with a minor. Having a coerced sexual relationship with a minor was an act condemned by the Koran, regardless of the sex of the minor. Naraghi argues that many narratives — including Allameh Tabatabyi’s Tafsir al-Mizan, one of the most important tracts of modern Shia thinking — also interpret Lavat as pedophilia. Pedophilia was condemned by the people of the Lut Tribe, not homosexuality — and according to Naraghi, homosexuality should not be confused or conflated with the act of Lavat (pedophilia), which is condemned in the Koran.  Unlike Lavat, homosexuality is a way of life with all the complexities of a human life. In this life there exists love, devotion, sacrifices, jealousy, and so on. However, under Iran's penal code, homosexuality is regarded as the same as Lavat.

According to Iran's penal code, not only is homosexuality penalized, but the punishment for the “insertive” (fael) and the “receptive” (mafool) differs. While the punishment assigned for the receptive is execution, the punishment given to the insertive is lashes (unless there is an element of coercion, in which case the punishment is also execution). This shows the patriarchal thinking behind the law, which assigns for the man who allegedly looses his masculinity a more severe penalty.

In recent years, Human Rights Council head Larijani has issued a range of attacks on the validity of LGBT rights: last year, he referred to homosexuality as an “illness and a malady”. His response to international demands for Iran to grant LGBT people the rights that exist in other countries is not out of character, and serves to remind the world that the regime will continue to defend its stance when it comes to human rights. It uses the Koran and Islamic tenets to justify its beliefs. But if it can dismiss any of these rights on the grounds of hypocrisy, or cast them off as a fad vulnerable to passing whims, that makes things easier. As news emerges that Iran has agreed to country visits from UN human rights monitors, it remains to be seen how Larijani will approach fresh challenges from the international community regarding Iran’s refusal to accept the full range of rights afforded by the UNDHR and other international treaties.

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