“I managed to get myself to the border… I will leave in an hour, I will cross to Turkey with smugglers, if I reach it. If I don’t reach Turkey, then you know what happens,” says Zahra Sedighi-Hamadani (known as Sareh), in the devastating last video message she sent out before being arrested in Iran, as she tried to cross the border into Turkey in December 2021.
“I want you to know how much pressure we LGBT people endure,” Sareh continues, in her eerily omniscient video message. “We risk our lives for our emotions, but we will find our true selves… I hope the day will come when we can all live in freedom in our country… I am journeying toward freedom now. I hope I’ll arrive safely. If I make it, I will continue to look after LGBT people. I will be standing behind them and raising my voice. If I don’t make it, I will have given my life for this cause.”
Sareh is a 31-year-old Kurdish LGBTQ+ activist who used to live and work as a restaurant owner in Erbil, Iraq, reports 6Rang (Iranian Lesbian and Transgender Network), in their Fact Sheet on Sareh’s case. A mother of two children (her daughter is 12, her son, 9), Sareh fell in love with a woman after getting a divorce from her first (forced) marriage. They moved in together and lived as an openly lesbian couple.
As well as visibly presenting as queer – a huge form of daily activism in itself – Sareh also founded an LGBTQI+ Telegram group (with over 1200 followers), and used Instagram as her main tool for normalizing, celebrating, and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.
“I knew Sareh before [she was detained], she was really active on her social media,” Shadi Amin, Director and Co-ordinator of 6Rang, the largest Iranian LGBTQ+ organization, tells GO over the phone. “For a lot of Iranian LGBTI youth, she was a role model because she showed her lifestyle and it’s exactly what the youth in Iran wish they could have sometime in their private life, too.”
Since she was caught close to the Turkish border back in December, Sareh has been living in the women’s ward of Orumiyeh Central Prison for almost a year. 6Rang have trusted contacts who are directly communicating with Sareh inside. “Sareh’s situation in the prison is really bad,” says Shadi. “Every prisoner who has close contact or close relation with Sareh is being punished, for example by losing their rights to have any visitors for weeks. They [the authorities] don’t want Sareh to have friendships… she’s in a women’s prison and they know she’s lesbian and so for them, any close friendship with other prisoners means a sexual relation.”
In early September 2022, Sareh was informed that she had been sentenced to death by the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Orumiyeh for “spreading corruption on earth” (fasad fil-arz) by allegedly “promoting homosexuality” and “forming corruption and prostitution gangs,” (the latter refers to smuggling/human trafficking of young girls, which the UN asserts is related to Sareh’s efforts to assist at-risk people fleeing Iranian territory to the relative safety of the neighboring Kurdistan region of Iraq).
Sareh’s charge and current predicament is a devastating blow for Iran’s queer community and our international community too; a beacon in this world is drowning in the desolate dark of a jail cell as we speak.
“Another important point is that the other women [in the prison], not all of them are lesbian-friendly and as they understand Sareh’s circumstances, they help to make the prison time really a crazy time for her,” says Shadi. “That’s why, after publishing the judgment, Sareh had a suicide attempt. She spent one day in hospital. Fortunately, they could save her life.”
The contentious ruling has sparked international outcry. Amnesty International writes that the ‘allegations of smuggling are spurious and baseless and stem from the women’s real or perceived sexual orientation and/or gender identity.’ While the UN expressed their concerns directly to the government of Iran, stating that Sareh has been ‘arbitrarily detained, ill-treated, and prosecuted on the discriminatory basis of sexual orientation,’ to date, the organization has received no response.
6Rang have pumped press releases, statements, fact-sheets, and interview after interview to draw the world’s eye to this case (they have received over 90,000 signatures on an online petition created with All Out). Notably, they have posted clips of Sareh on YouTube, giving the world a tangible connection to her. You really see her: her strength, her poetry, her dedication, her silent, defiant commitment to her cause, to freedom. Alongside the video message she sent to her friends before being arrested, they’ve also posted excerpts from an interview with BBC Persian in May 2021, where Sareh sits in her living room and speaks about her family; she’s quite literally relaxing in her armchair while spearheading the normalization of queer family life in her region.
“This is the first time, at least in the world’s existing memory – certainly since we have protection laws in a lot of countries for LGBTI people – that two women face the death penalty for actual or perceived sexual orientation,” Shadi tells GO. “We have the cases of killing the lesbian and trans people on the street, but to kill them officially with such judgment, I don’t know of a case like this. It has sparked global outrage, a global movement for the lesbian community. And importantly, it has also sparked outrage in the Iranian community,” says Shadi. “These videos have been necessary for the people to empathize with her.”
Consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults is criminalized in Iran’s penal code with corporal punishments like flogging and the death penalty. In early September, the BBC reports that Ebrahim Raissi, the hardline president of the country, described homosexuality as “dirty behaviour” and “modern barbarism.” While in March, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described homosexuality as part of the “moral depravation” widespread in the West.
“We have had a lot of support in Iran,” says Shadi. “We started spreading the word about the case exactly before Mahsa’s murder,” she says, referring to the highly suspicious death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody on September 16, 2022. “So a lot of magazines and newspapers wrote about our judicial system and wrote about the situation of LGBTI+ people, and then Mahsa’s case and then these protests started in Iran.”
BBC had declared that “the prospects of overturning the sentence are slim. The court has a reputation for approving the harshest sentences when it comes to charges which are considered as anti-Sharia law.” But Shadi reminds us, it’s important to not lose hope, and that we, our international community, can do something about this devastating predicament.
“I think they [the Iranian authorities] have to understand that if they do this execution now, after killing Mahsa, it can be another reason for a big protest in Iran… it means we have more chance… maybe if we really do a lot of campaigning with the international community, now that the UN’s Special Rapporteurs have issued a joint statement against this execution judgement, I hope that it helps, that they repeal the death penalty.”
Sareh was not sentenced alone; her friend and fellow lesbian activist, 24-year-old Elham Choubdar was also charged with “corruption of earth,” and also sentenced to death. “Two young women will be killed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, in 2022,” says Shadi, in incredulity.
Elham owned a fashion clothing store in Urumieh. She was another guiding star for the young queer community – with an extremely popular TikTok (millions of views) and Instagram (since closed down by the Iranian government). Crucially, for this case, she would fearlessly appear on Sareh’s Instragram Lives, discussing love and relationships. Elham was arrested on her shop floor, four weeks after Sareh.
“The authorities promised Elham if she speaks out against Sareh, she will be freed. She accepted this and made a false interview,” says Shadi, before stating that Elham mustn’t have considered the history of the government who have played this same trick on countless student movement and labor activists over the years. “So as usual,” Shadi continues, “they used her words against Sareh and Elham,” and handed the same ‘corruption on earth’ charge to both women.
On account of her more feminine presentation, Elham isn’t receiving the same treatment from guards and fellow inmates as Sareh, Shadi points out. That said, Sareh has the support of her family; Elham’s family are more conservative and do not support her or advocate for her. “It makes a big difference,” says Shadi, “how to cope with the prison time, how to accept yourself, how to deal with this situation without your family’s love and support?” Due to her family’s silence, little else is publicly known about Elham; a chillingly hollow prisoner profile from the Iran Prison Atlas gives not even a glimmer of the beauty, power, and playfulness of Elham in some of her videos – in which she dances, pouts, bats her impossibly long eyelashes – salvaged from her TikToks before the state took them down. “Even if Elhan was not so involved in the same direct activism as Sareh,” says Shadi, “both of them played a role in breaking the taboos in Iranian culture and Iranian society for the youth.”
The current “Women, Life, Freedom” uprisings in Iran make this a particularly potent moment in the nation’s history, as women and students and men from across the country take to the streets to protest the compulsory hijab laws. “The figure of this revolution is the body of these women, these unveiled women who are walking in the streets without harming anyone,” Iranian scholar Fatemeh Shams tells the New Yorker. “Without even chanting “death to the dictator” or saying anything harmful against anyone. Their bodies have become the revolutionary figure of this movement. And this is unprecedented.”
When I first reached out to Shadi, she couldn’t talk as she was at a demonstration for Mahsa Amini in London’s Trafalgar Square. Born and raised in Iran, Shadi was exiled for her political activism (as a high school student), and currently resides nomadically between London and Frankfurt.
“We take rainbow flags to the demonstrations,” she says, mentioning that two other protesters bore rainbow flags, too. “We also take posters that show Sareh, Elham and Mahsa in one picture. Through this we say Mahsa is gone, but two others are on death row. We try not to hijack the amazing demonstrations and raising the women’s issue and women’s voice in Iran now for our campaign, but for us, Mahsa’s issue is our issue. We tried to make a bridge between both of them, to show that this is not the first time, and it will not be the last time if we don’t stop it fundamentally.”
With the conviction of a life-long grassroots activist, Shadi believes that the current uprisings in Iran can create “a really bigger change, that the case of Sareh and Elham might not end up in the department of the executor. That this department in [our judicial system], soon won’t exist anymore, which is possible. Which is possible. For the first time I have the hope that we will see a big change.”
Invigorated by the activation of the international community – squared, it must be mentioned, in 6Rang’s tireless fact-finding and reportage – Shadi states that she’s met with the UN, the EU’s Ambassador for Human Rights, the EU’s Equalities and Gender Rights, “all of these international mechanisms made for protecting LGBTI people worldwide and they are involved now, in this situation.” Of particular note for Shadi is the French Foreign Ministry’s public condemnation of the verdict and clear statement to the Iranian Government to stop the execution. “We need more Foreign Ministries to make statements like this, directly to the Iranian Government,” she says, “because this human rights violation is so big, this [Iranian] government has no right to decide about the life of persons like Sareh and Elham.”
Shadi, like any successful activist, has an awareness of the bigger picture, the geopolitical stance, as well as the grassroots, the people on the ground, for which the continued media coverage of this case is crucial (especially as the ruling goes through the higher court and may take some time). With hundreds of international outlets reporting on the case, “it means all the world will think about discrimination because of someone’s sexual orientation. I think it can really change the views of ordinary people, everywhere… people are going to think about their hate speeches, how they treat their close friends or family who are different, and I think this is a moment from which we can change the homophobic culture and specifically lesbiaphobic culture in our societies.”
It’s only fitting to conclude this piece with the words of Sareh, in her BBC Persian interview, so we can once again connect with the light still shining in the abysmal dark of the Orumiyeh Central Prison.
“People believe we can look at this as something sexual only, but out of the 12 hours we spend together, it’s just two in the bedroom. For the other 10 hours we live together, we give each other love, we laugh, we play, we quarrel. We try to have a life. We are just like other people, we are no different,” says Sareh in one extract.
“Me, you, us. We all live on this planet, earth. We all come from the same place and will all go to the same place.”
WHAT CAN WE DO…
The official All-Out Petition here.
Write to the Iranian Embassy in Brussels… template from Amnesty International here.
Write to your local MPs, local councillors, members of congress – with a particular focus on the activation of the Foreign Ministry.
Twitter Instagram TikTok Facebook
Hashtags: #FreeSareh #FreeElham #stopexecutions #iranianlgbtq
To 6Rang, the cornerstone of LGBTQ+ existence in Iran. This is coming from me personally, as the writer of this article. 6Rang are the beating heart of the queer community in Iran – they are pumping invaluable resources and information into the world everyday, they are working tirelessly and closely to free Sareh and Elham. We can and must vitally support their work at this crucial time. More on donations here.
Bring Sareh and Elham up at dinner, to friends, to family, at the queer bar. Use your voice.
ORGANIZE – PROTEST – DEMONSTRATE
Find activist organizations in your area, head to the Iranian Embassy, take a queer flag, stand in solidarity with minorities in Iran