IRAN FILES: Bugged Phones, Nuclear Nuance, Stray Dogs

Dial with care
Dial with care
Ahmad Shayegan

Listen closely
An Iranian parliamentarian reminded his colleagues — if they needed reminding — that all their mobile telephones were very likely bugged, Radio Free Europe's Radio Farda website reported, citing several Iranian newspapers. Tehran Member of Parliament Ali Mottahari told a Dec. 9 student gathering in Tehran that his own office was bugged, with listening devices having been found inside the air conditioning. He speculated that the move may have been for the meetings he had held there with relatives of dissidents or liberal activists. He did not specify who had bugged his office. The newspaper Arman said that Mottahari had crossed a "red line" by revealing that legislators were being spied on.

Holy death penalty?
Iran’s Judicial Chief defended the death penalty in Tehran, saying it was not a violation of human rights as Western states allege, but sanctioned by religion, the daily Shargh reported. Top judge Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli-Larijani told a public gathering that it was "really, very strange that certain countries that have exploited other nations for centuries and looted their resources" now spoke of rights violations. Opposing the death penalty he said, was “really opposition to religious commandments," observing that the Koran sanctioned the law of talion, or retaliatory execution. He vowed Iran's judiciary would do its work, regardless of "irrational words and lies" uttered against it.

Subtle shifts on nuclear weapons
Iran Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has offered new insight on how the current administration views the nuclear issue. "We know that given the region's strategic conditions, nuclear weapons do not create security for us," he said at a conference Wednesday on international relations at Tehran University.

Zarif said "certain people" were concerned that once Iran assures the world it is not after nuclear weapons the "international fear mongering" toward Iran would cease to be effective.

Iran Foreign Affairs Minister Zarif — Photo: Max Talbot-Minkin

Any deal with Iran would have to include the viewspoints of both sides, he said later, adding that the U.S. and Israel were not the decisive powers in the world — but that "God is the only thing that is the absolute power in the world."

Zarif's words come days after he used all his charm and media savvy on a visit of four of the six Gulf States, trying to cement links between the countries and alleviate the concerns voiced by Iran’s Arab neighbors over the nuclear deal. Learn more about Zarif's trust-building tour on this Süddeutsche Zeitung/Worldcrunch article.

Parental pardon
While murderers can expect to be executed in Iran, a victim's family may pardon a killer and settle for compensation and a prison term, as recently happened in Tehran. A 25-year-old woman's parents-in-law agreed to wave her execution, after she was convicted of stabbing to death their son — her allegedly abusive husband — in a marital fight in late March 2013, Shargh reported on Dec. 12.

Women and drugs
Drug abuse is a growing concern in Iran, and recently women addicts have been garnering particular attention. The head of the nation's Anti-Narcotics Agency told a Tehran seminar on Dec. 11 that there were some 1.3 million addicts in Iran. Nearly 90% of addicts were men, he said, while the 10% female addicts had apparently turned to drugs in response to marital problems. Four days later, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli reported that the "number of female addicts has doubled" and that addiction was "widespread" in Iran in spite of police efforts to curb the flow of drugs, the daily Arman reported. The Interior Minister said that female addiction should raise "all the alarms" as women were at the "core of family education and preservation."

In Darvazeh Ghar, one of Tehran's most deprived neighborhoods, Doctors Without Borders teams work with city hospitals and local organizations to assist women struggling with drug addiction and infectious diseases such as HIV.

The head of Iran’s social workers association, Hasan Musavi-Chalak, told ISNA news agency that the number of Iranians infected with HIV had increased from 3,400 in 2000 to currently about 27,000. He was presumably referring to diagnosed cases. Speaking on Dec. 16, Musavi said that since 1986, authorities attributed some 70% of HIV infections to drug use and infected needles, and 12.5% to unprotected sex. Iran recently announced it would open 15 HIV testing laboratories in universities.

Turn down the heat
Officials recently chided Iranians for wasting gas when heating homes and shops, and warned “wasteful” homes could have their gas cut off. The head of the National Iranian Gas Company Hamidreza Araqi said on Dec. 15 that domestic gas consumption reached a "new record" of 432 million cubic meters in the previous 48 hours, following the arrival of a cold front into a large part of the country. Araqi said gas supplies to industry were restricted in recent days and gas imported from Turkmenistan did not cover demand, Arman reported.

Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri issued a directive “asking” all ministries and state bodies to turn down the heating on their premises. Offices, he wrote, should be kept at 18-21 °C (64-70 °F) and corridors at 18 °C.

Meanwhile, there are also related health and safety issues, as Mehr news agency reported another “record” of 132 people taken to Tehran hospitals on Dec. 13, for "suffocation, poisoning" and gas-related incidents.

Staving off droughts
Deputy Chief of Iran's Environmental Protection Organization Ahmad Ali Keykha warned that 40 of Iran’s 250 registered areas of natural marshland, or about one million hectares of marshland, were drying up or had already dried, Arman reported. Keykha warned that environmental changes meant Iran was moving toward endemic drought, while Iranians were extracting 110 times more underground water than 40 years ago.

Putting down dogs
Some 9,000 stray dogs have been rounded up from the capital’s streets over the past year — about 750 or month — to be put down, Shargh reported on Dec. 12.

Rahmatollah Fazeli, a Tehran city councilman, said they were put down under the supervision of the state environmental agency, using "defined, standard methods" he did not specify, but were not shot.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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