July 11, 2011
The Islamic Republic of Iran is in the midst of a leadership crisis unlike anything it has experienced since its founding 32 years ago. For the past four months, a war has been raging–-not between conservatives and reformists, but among conservatives themselves. Considering its possible importance, can this power struggle radically change the balance of power in Iran?
Recently, former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, called for a national reconciliation, a sign that reformists hope to come out of the shadows. In the meantime, several conservative figures have deemed it necessary to bring reformists back onto the political scene. After the defeat of the Green Movement following current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested June 2009 election, reformists were sidelined. If this internal struggle lasts, it could prove costly for the conservative leadership.
Conflicts between the supreme leader and the president have always existed. In 1981, Ayatollah Khomeini dismissed the first post-revolutionary president, Abdulhassan Bani Sadr. When Ali Khamenei replaced Khomeini, who died in 1989, there were underlying tensions with Ali Akbar Hachemi Rafsandjani, president between 1989 and 1997. The animosities, however, remained hidden. In the same way, Mohammad Khatami and the supreme leader also had a tense relationship, although their disagreements were more visible.
The relationship between Mahmud Ahmadinejad, an anti-cleric who wants women to be allowed to attend football games, and Ali Khamenei started off well. During his first term as president, Ahmadinejad was all the more unassuming considering he had no real support.
"Ahmadinejad gained confidence after he was elected for the second time," says Fereydoun Khavand, professor of International Economic Relations at the University René Descartes in Paris. "He developed his networks. He also understood that people were tired of hearing about religion. Nevertheless, the clash between him and the supreme leader will not lead to Khamenei's dismissal. Ali Khamenei will try to considerably weaken the president. He will only attack if Mahmud Ahmadinejad decides to go further."
There are many disagreements between the two, and Ahmadinejad has shown unlimited boldness. "The president tried to enter areas that are controlled by the supreme leader," says Clément Therne, who wrote an essay on the relationship between Russia and Iran at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. "He wanted to fire Heydar Moslehi, Iran's intelligence and national security minister, and he dismissed Foreign Affairs Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who is close to Khamenei."
Above all, he refused to dismiss Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie after the supreme leader asked him to. Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford University, has two hypotheses on the subject. According to him, either Ahmadinejad wants to change the Constitution so he can run for a third term as president, or he wants to do what Vladimir Putin did with Dimitri Medvedev: encourage Mashaie to run for president in 2013 so he can stay close to the center of political power.
The Army of the Guardians of the Revolution on the watch
So what might happen? Medhi Khalaji, a research worker from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, considers the Iranian regime highly unstable because of its overreliance on the figure of the supreme leader. Unlike Ayatollah Khomeini, who was powerful because he was charismatic, Ali Khamenei has no real political or religious credibility. Yet he continues to exert tremendous influence, having placed himself at the center of a 1,000-person network that links into the country's principal spheres of influence.
"The growing power of Khamenei is the main obstacle preventing the constitution of a real state," says Khalaji. If the Supreme Leader dies, according to the analyst, those who really hold power, the revolutionary guards or Pasdaran, will undoubtedly keep it. For now, no one seems able to succeed Ali Khamenei.
"The Revolutionary Guards are the ones with the real power," adds Abbas Milani. "They control security, the oil and gas industry and the building industry. A few days ago, their chief, General Jafari, was explaining the political and economic orientation Iran should follow. Under Khomeini's regime, revolutionary guards had no right to interfere with politics. Today, the supreme leader can rely only on the Pasdarans and on the paramilitary Basij militia, having lost most of his popular support following the events of 2009."
Ali Khamenei's successor is thus essential. The revolutionary guards could support one of their own to replace the supreme leader, even if Abbas Milani claims that the power of the theologian jurist (velayat-e-faqih) disappeared in 2009 when Iranians from the Green Movement were chanting "down with dictatorship." Their other option is to form a temporary committee with the president, something that is allowed by the Constitution, and thus lead a regime that will be mainly military.
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Photo - Daniella Zalcman
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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.
October 19, 2021
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
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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