Queer Biopolitics in Authoritarian Iran

This piece was published in the Spring Issue Print Edition (Volume 11)

From “There Are No Homosexuals in Iran” by photographer Laurence Rasti, Swedish-born Persian LGBTQ+ Activist and Artist
From “There Are No Homosexuals in Iran” by photographer Laurence Rasti, Swedish-born Persian LGBTQ+ Activist and Artist  

As photographer Laurence Rasti depicts above, queer life in Iran is fraught with tension. Exemplified by the two figures holding hands, it is a life of beauty, joy, and connection. But the floral-covered faces illustrate the concomitant danger, invisibility, and fear. Theoretical analyses of these tensions have created new possibilities for gender subjects,[1]arguing that the queer subaltern scene in Iran vastly exceeds the analytical capacity of the Western theoretical imagination.[2] What these approaches have not attempted to do, however, is explore how the oppression of queer people constitutes a means, and not just an effect, of authoritarian governmentality. In this paper, I will argue that the application of queer biopolitics can act as a theoretical entryway into how the Islamic Republic of Iran’s (IRI) authoritarianism utilizes queer suffering and oppression as a cruel end in-of-itself and as a vehicle towards other oppressions levied upon its non-queer citizenry. First, I will use queer biopolitics to analyze the Islamic Republic’s repression of non-normative genders and sexualities. Next, I will examine particular sites of queer biopolitical control, dominance, and death in Iran. This paper will conclude with a brief analysis of Iran’s techniques of digital repression, HIV/AIDS, and drug addiction as case studies of queer biopolitics. Throughout, I strive to navigate the tension between robust theoretical analysis and the symbolic hegemony of the West within queer theory itself. 

What are queer biopolitics, and why does this mode of thought have a privileged perspective in analyzing Iranian authoritarianism? To begin with Michel Foucault’s traditional framework, biopolitics refers to the study of power over life itself. Previous examinations of biopolitics’ relationship to Iran have scrutinized Foucault’s own vested interest in the Islamic Revolution. Michiel Leezenberg, a scholar of Foucault, writes that

“[Foucault] was focused on the protests against a particular mode of government, rather than in the subsequent power struggle in the creation of a new political order. Foucault was both intrigued and horrified by the spectacle of an unarmed population defying, and eventually overthrowing, one of the strongest and most repressive states in the world, having not only a formidable army, police force, and intelligence service of its own, but also the backing of the United States. He found the clarity and simplicity of the calls for Islamic government “familiar, but hardly reassuring,” qualifying the voices of the mullahs calling for the Shah’s departure as “terrible,” etc.” [3]

Indeed, Foucault himself writes that “[the Islamic Revolution] embodies a revolt against politics rather than a concrete political program: it is the ‘most modern, and the maddest, revolt,’ against both liberalism and socialism.”[4] Foucault’s timely analysis of the Revolution situated his biopolitical framework as an alternative explanatory mechanism for what many considered to be an inexplicable event. That is, he posited his soon-to-come theory of governmentality in a postmodern polity as the driving force for the revolution rather than the prevailing Marxist conception of class warfare or today’s Western neoliberal conception of religious extremism. In an open letter he wrote to Mehdi Bazargan, Foucault even asked, “In the expression ‘Islamic government,’ why cast suspicion immediately on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ by itself is enough to awaken one’s vigilance.”[5] At these moments, Foucault seemed to embrace a post-structuralist analysis of power and resistance in Iran. Of course, many scholars have since critiqued Foucault for his over-emphasis on the supposed ubiquity and timelessness of Shi’ite Islam, and his orientalist leanings.[6]

Though traditional Foucauldian biopolitics may have already fulfilled their maximal potential, his framework presents a tantalizing opportunity to deploy queer theory alongside a biopolitical analytic.[7] Queer theory, which has consistently characterized itself as and performed the role of de-naturalizing and de-essentializing that which is assumed universal, has the potential for fulfilling Leezenberg’s call for a “bottom-up”[8] analysis of Iranian power and governmentality. As Lotta Kähkönen and Tiia Sudenkaarne write, “Queer biopolitical theories have interrogated the symbiotic relation of life and death by analyzing tensions between biopolitics and necropolitics—of death and different types of political violence.”[9] As such, queer biopolitics uniquely engages with the dense theoretical field of how states manage normativity and populations through a cross-sectional approach that draws upon both the cultural and body studies produced by queer theory, as well as the seminal “right over life and power over death” found in traditional Foucauldian biopolitics. Queer biopolitics also presents a bridge between analyses of authoritarian governmentality and the subjugation of queer people and populations—a crucial linkage for understanding how the Islamic Republic operationalizes its authoritarian schema. Most importantly, queer biopolitics systematically privileges the lived experiences of subjects under sovereignty rather than attempting to characterize populations and their states through universalized terms. The legacy of Iran’s relationship to queerness and non-normative bodies is long, spectacularly complex, and perhaps indecipherable to an outside theorist. Even capturing contemporary queer histories of post-revolutionary Iran is a task too large for anything less than several volumes. Rather, queer biopolitics is a project of ongoing interrogation which aims to leverage insights from queer theory to begin upending previously invisible structures, modalities, and paradigms of oppression. 

Queer theorists of Iran have already described how deviant genders and sexualities have been managed by the Iranian state. This previous work has overwhelmingly focused on the Iranian male homosexual. As Donna Azoulay writes, in Iranian cultural history scholars identify a “third gender, the ‘passive male homosexual.’ This distinction in passivity can be seen in the historical labeling of the ‘ma’bun’ […].”[10] The ma’bun, described by Janet Afary as “somewhere in the middle”[11] between dominant patricentric men and subordinate women, was a symbolic figure which emerged early in medieval Iranian society, signified by the performance of patriarchal family-rearing alongside the adoption of feminine aesthetics, non-normative sexual significations, and discreet engagement with “passive” sexual roles in male-to-male relationships.[12] Azoulay and Afary both note that in this schema of politicized desire, it was not the sexual act that was considered abhorrent, but instead the desiring of another man. Azoulay capitalizes on this finding to argue that, today, the IRI strategically “filters” between ‘trans-sexuals’[13] and homosexuals. For the IRI, gender dysphoria is a condition that can be pathologized by state biopower as a curable syndrome. However, the homosexual male performs a symbolic transgression of normative gender strata; his desiring of other men violates biopolitical demands on gender-as-performance rather than simply gender as cis-identificationAs Raha Bahreini argues, these normative demands arise from the precedence of gender roles and performance above “purely” cisgender identity.[14] In other words, the IRI’s “tragic commitment”[15] to gender is a commitment to masculinity more thanmaleness.

As the authoritarian state exerts biopolitical control over the performance and construction of sex/gender systems, it deploys biomedicine and healthcare as its tools of choice.  Medical conceptions of “health” exclude various forms of embodied possibilities from social positions of acceptance, visibility, and legibility. The body emerges from birth and is thrown against a wall of expectation—of internal and external genitalia, normal chromosomal adherence, bones and muscles that portend futures of capitalist productivity. Examination of queer bodies holds particular significance, for, as Judith Butler describes, the queer body automatically commits several acts of treason against these systems of oppression.[16] Its sexual attraction refuses heteronormative sense-making, in return upending oppositional relations of gender binaries; its existence generates fields and potentialities of antisocial performance; and its gender performances are iteratively resistant to compulsory norms. Luce Irigary summarizes this eloquently by stating that queer sexual acts upend oppositional relations in which the man is and the woman is not[17]—they transgress the sexed gender possibilities of performance and subjectivation. In this sense, what is at stake for queer biopolitics is the regulation of all citizens’ gender performances. For authoritarianism, queerness makes no sense whatsoever because it disassembles grounding norms of how bodies are made culturally and socially intelligible to a coercive regime. Let us understand this at its absolute maximum: the queer body’s non-normative acts are politically treasonous specifically because they upend authoritarian biopolitical normativity that becomes “real” through medical discourse.

A great deal of international activism and queer transnationalism has also focused on the circumstances surrounding trans* people in Iran. In these predictable media tropes, the gender affirmation/reassignment surgery is a procedure forced upon homosexuals and other queer people, which if undertaken, guarantees political rights. Bahreini concludes that, in Iran, 

“the transperson “chooses” to conform, psychologically, hormonally and even surgically, to the prevailing dichotomous sex/gender scheme because that allows him/her to escape his/her stigmatized status and achieve “normalcy.”[18]

Bahreini’s overview of trans* peoples’ situations in Iran concentrates on how state-biopolitical demands of gender conformity frame the issue through medicalization, and thus as conditions of “health” to be expediently addressed within medical teleology, generally argue that the discourse and practice of state-sanctioned gender-related surgery is a means of legitimizing oppressive, hateful, and carceral paradigms towards trans* and gender non-conforming people rather than subsidizing or sanctioning them. In this frontispiece, state surgery is brought into sharp relief as a classic instance of how Foucauldian biopolitics condemn medical authority as a self-naturalizing lever of asymmetric relationships of power between state/ruler and citizen/subject. However, Zara Saeidzadeh argues that this is not the full picture. Spanning a huge range of primary interviews with LGBTQ+ Iranians and gender-surgery medical providers, Saeidzadeh explores how intercity differences illustrate how these media tropes gloss over the complexities and disputes surrounding gender affirmation/reassignment surgery,[19] and even disproving the idyllic narrative of the IRI universally sponsoring gender-related surgery. For instance, in the city of Kermanshah, this process must be initiated by the public and revolutionary court (dadsaray-e-omumi va enghlab), whereas in Shiraz and Mashdad, it begins at the family court with psychiatric evaluation. Indeed, Saeidzadeh controversially argues that “sex-change surgery is not legislated by [the Iranian] state, nor it is deemed obligatory under Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa.”[20]

At the same time, state-sanctioned procedures are separate from individually held beliefs about gender affirmation and transition (though they, of course, influence each other). Individuals face transphobia from communities and other non-state actors, no matter their gender transition experience. In a truly Foucauldian fashion, power over compulsory normativity is dispersed amongst the population and state—between the subjugated and the dominant, and within the modalities of class, race, and urban-rural citizenship. This is how Saeidzadeh points the way to the radical possibilities for developing resistance within these structures of queer oppression. As she writes, “those who undergo sex-change surgery are not passive victims of patriarchy being forced to normalize their bodies within a heterosexual matrix; rather, they reconstruct their own subjectivity through the process of transsexual embodiment.”[21] In this sense, opting for surgical procedures constitutes an act of self-recognition that emerges into a scene of sociopolitical visibility: a uniquely queer mode of interacting with dispersed power relationships. Further, the subject-as-subjected comes into question; Saiedzadeh’s analysis, like Bahreini’s, seems to argue that trans* people are non-autonomous subjects or victims to the authoritarian state bulldozes over the various ways in which gender transgression can exceed the bounds of authoritarianism. What the authors do not consider is that an Iranian queer citizen’s engagement in gender-related surgery, and thus with the authoritarian regime, can become an utterly unique form of symbolic queer life, death, and rebirth in its agentic self-direction. It bursts open conventional notions of either the queer as universally radical, or even Jasbir Puar’s concept of the “homonational” as a fixture of repressive Western governance.[22] Instead, the queer Iranian is engaging in praxis which moves beyond this binary dialectic, illustrating a form of political survival which has yet to be described.

We have examined an extremely wide range of scholarship on gender and sexuality, as well as the state policing of both. What do we make of these scattered, disparate issues of resistance to power and authoritarian governmentality? As Maurice Godelier so acutely summarizes, “society haunts the body’s sexuality.”[23] That is, compulsory sexual normativity places ongoing demand onto queer peoples’ bodies and desires, politicizing biology. Monique Wittig asserts that “the category of ‘sex’ is itself a gendered category, fully politically invested, naturalized but not natural.”[24] The queer and gender atypical body in Iran experiences this post-structural praxis of domination through the application of biopolitical management. Perhaps the most appropriate theorist is the psychoanalyst Thomas Laqueur, who writes that 

“almost everything one wants to say about sex – however sex is understood – already has in it a claim about gender. Sex, in both the one-sex and the two-sex worlds, is situational; it is explicable only within the context of battles over gender.”[25]

Through this non-dimorphic classification of gender and sexuality, queer theory elucidates how and why the IRI’s demands for bodily normativity and policing of desire is so reluctant to accept the homosexual man while simultaneously presenting gender affirmation/reassignment surgery as a “cure” for the “maligned” trans* person. Performance of sexual desire either constitutes or transgresses gender idealizations, making one’s gender identity legible in social reality. Simultaneously, gender informs what archetypes of sexual action and desire are considered “healthy” and sanctionable. In a world of social embodiment, this means that the boundaries between gender and sexual embodiment are far less clear. Each act of desire and gender configuration is constituted of the other, such that the selfhood of either is inherently denied. For my analysis, this means that the conditions of Iranian trans* and gay people are inextricable from each other another, and are mutually embossed in a system of domination and in the potential for liberation. 

 The tension between Saiedzadeh and Bahreini is a fruitful locus for grappling with this vis-a-vis queer biopolitics. The two depictions of the surgical choice at-large are somewhat incompatible. On one hand, the IRI demands gender-reassignment surgery as part of a logic of domination which consumes the wider field of possibility of gender and sexual forms, but on the other hand, the surgical option is considered as of self-actualizing trans* subjectivity in spite of totalizing sociopolitical oppression and phobia. I venture that these perspectives are actually non-mutually exclusive when understood from the vantage of queer biopolitics. As Foucault writes, “at the junction of the ‘body’ and the ‘population,’ sex became a crucial target of a power organized around the management of life rather than the menace of death.”[26] A biopolitically authoritarian state thus manages their populace as both individual bodies and as members of a unique population—as self-possessed agents of transgression and as non-specific “faceless” phenomena. Of course, the non-voluntary election of surgery is a conscription into gender normativity placed onto trans* populations: a bio-policy levied in order to manage the deviant lives of an entire populace through orchestrating the symbolic death of their own discursive gender identities. But the individual body can “reconstruct [its] own subjectivity”[27] within this matrix of power through divesting from what Neel Ahuja calls the “spectacular temporalities of crisis and transcendence,”[28] which is a regressive framing of queer life as a process of rebirth (biopolitics) and death (necropolitics) into a more true, essential, or perfect queer form. Rather, as Ahuja and Saiedzadeh argue, gender configurations are specific to both time and space, and in turn actively bring social reality into spatiotemporal existence. There is no quintessential or a priori queer or trans* person—instead, each body is postured and articulated in a fluid, post-modern environment. This process, which Connell calls social embodiment,[29]moves beyond theoretical arguments about queer survival under oppression, which tend to valorize micro-political acts at the cost of reckoning with ongoing sociopolitical domination. Rather, social embodiment explains how, within queer biopolitics, a body and a subject can be locked into an asymmetric relationship of domination at the same time as engaging in self-fashioning and reconfiguration. This self-fashioning does not necessarily constitute meaningful acts of political resistance. Instead, theorizing social embodiment constitutes a post-structural acknowledgement of the queer subject under biopower. The queer subject, among other things, is constituted by both a particularly situated body and membership to a deviant population. These two separate forces operate at tension, and it is precisely this tension which generates a heretofore unconsidered mode of life under authoritarian control.

Katarzyn Korycki and Nasirzadeh Abouzar draw upon historical analysis to analyze how the othering of male homosexuals and official recognition of trans* people are in parity.[30] Their analysis also reveals how Western conceptualizations of queerness provide “ready-made positive markers of identity”[31] to be re-inscribed onto non-normative Iranian desires and bodies. But these Western concepts do little to counter the unique sociopolitical and historical formation of the gay/trans* parity while also playing into a neocolonial fetish for “liberating” queer subaltern subjects through paradoxically reproducing colonial paradigms of “civilized” status. In place of this, Korycki evaluates how “new Persian words” have been created by queer Iranian activists, such as hamjins-gara’i (same-sex love, same-sex desire, same-sex orientation), as symbolic moves away from the dichotomy of authoritarianism and neocolonialism.[32] These new terms and concepts are not merely descriptive, but also are radically prescriptive in their inception. They signal a novel form of critique that rests in the actually socially embodied lives of queer Iranians. F. Rouhani writes that this profoundly Iranian queer lexicon “is being mobilized by gay and lesbian activists and subjects inside Iran to disrupt the grid of intelligibility for constituting and othering sexual minorities as non-authentic Iranians.”[33]In the matrix of biopower and control, the subjective power of reclaiming a name stands concomitant with an embodied resistance to state control over life and death. As evidenced by this generation of new terms of positive ubiquity, the Iranian iteration of this is rooted in alliance-building as a means of upending repression-by-parity.

The temporal differences of Bahreini and Saiedzadeh must also be examined. Bahreini writes during the midst of the Ahmadinejad presidency in 2008. Bahreini’s writing also takes place proximal to the highly publicized 2005 hanging of two boys in Mashhad for reported “homosexual activities.”[34] Ahmadinejad’s presidency was marked by a revival of particularly repressive policies on LGBT people, with some data suggesting that 2007 was the highest rate of gender-related surgery in Iran.[35] And, of course, Ahmadinejad’s notorious claim that “there are no homosexuals in Iran”[36] characterizes his paradigm of queer annihilation. But Saiedzadeh is writing deep into the Rouhani presidency and within the midst of the 2019-2020 Iranian protests calling for the overthrow of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rouhani has advanced some hesitant attempts at defending queer Iranians. However, F. Rouhani writes that though “[President] Rouhani has tried to ‘reign in’ the morality police by bringing its operations under the jurisdiction of his own interior ministry, this move has been defeated by powerful conservative forces in the establishment.”[37] Farhang Rouhani then returns to the Khatami presidency in the late 1990s, when internationalization of human rights discourse had a profound impact on President Khatami’s reactivity to queer citizens and subjects, though hardline conservatives largely blocked his interventions.[38] In short, the symbolic and ideological fluctuations of presidencies in the IRI present a critical source of critique against queer biopolitics themselves. They not only illustrate the heterogeneity of the IRI, but also reframe accounts of queer biopolitics away from the invocation of a liberal secular imaginary. As we move deeper into this paper’s critique, a new problem is emerging about the stability of our conceptualization of biopower and biopolitics itself. Indeed, state biopolitics of queer desire, death, and survival in postrevolutionary Iran seem to have constantly shifting antecedents and conditions of emergence. 

 And yet the question remains: what is the utility of suppressing deviant gender and sexuality to such an extent for the IRI’s authoritarian governmentality? To tackle this crucial issue, we must turn to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. His analysis of “bare life,” or the reduction and exclusion of certain people outside of judiciary, legal, and political legibility, explains what authoritarian governmentality has to gain from marginalizing queerness. The subject of bare life, which he names homo sacer from the archaic Roman tradition, “is one who has been excluded from normal human law and as such is placed in a ‘limit condition’ between this world and the next, between properly-qualified human life and death.”[39] To Agamben, the limit condition is a hallmark of modern sovereignty: “The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide and without celebrating a sacrifice, and sacred life—that is, life that may be killed but not sacrificed—is the life that has been captured in this sphere.”[40]Rendering life bare via exclusion could be described as a tension-holding process in which social marginalization does not necessarily manifest as mass imprisonment or elimination (as Foucault would put it, “making death”) but where the imagined demarcation of liberties and rights itself is evidence of the inescapable sway of modern sovereign power. And the queer body serves as territory for the sovereign to claim. Through the inescapable links of embodied autonomy, we have already discussed, this act has ramifications for the whole population.

Further, the limit condition, which Agamben describes as the “hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity,”[41] unmasks a potential mechanism behind the Islamic Republic’s sponsorship of gender-related surgery. The process of social embodiment for queer people in Iran, which is already outside of social and cultural legibility, is made bare by the authoritarian regime. The sovereign dialectic creates a condition of inescapability precisely through using the coerced surgical option to make the pre-surgical body sociopolitically illegible. At the level of the population, the dialectic produces a gendered and sexed state of exception, in which the ideal cisheteronormative social body is continually presented as under assault. Through perpetuating a state of bodily precarity, the need for extraordinary measures becomes politically possible and tolerable. Thus, surgical sponsorship not only pathologized deviant genders and sexualities, but rendered those bodies as bare. But at the same time as the surgical “option” operationalizes the limit condition for queer Iranians, Saiedzadeh’s account of the many trans* Iranians who used the “option” to find great personal fulfillment complicates this argument’s narrative. Queer Iranian life beyond discourse around surgery also presents a challenge to an asymmetric view of biopolitical power.

 The analysis so far has been largely theoretical, and to draw this into the material, let us now turn to the IRI’s burgeoning digital surveillance and repression as a case study of queer biopolitics. After online and digital mediums of organizing resistance played a key role in the 2009 protest movements, the IRI began a campaign of repression enhancement. Since then, digital repression has evolved in tandem with techniques of resistance, including deep packet inspection, targeted individual monitoring, and challenging hacking techniques. Marcus Michaelsen writes that,

“While their actual technical capabilities remain obscure, security agencies rely on the chilling effect of mediatized surveillance operations. Now and then, state television airs forced confessions of arrested social media users to highlight the regime’s skills in cyber-policing. In addition to internet activists and journalists, these campaigns also target other online communities who are considered to transgress official norms.”[42]

Alongside its campaign of mass censorship and internet restriction, the IRI has also created a national “intranet” to prevent external access and influence. By 2013, the regime had designed its own alternatives to Gmail, YouTube, and Yahoo. Access to this intranet requires Iranian citizens to use national ID numbers and other centrally located identifying information. As Ilan Berman writes, 

“Iran’s campaign of digital repression is part of a larger regime effort to prevent the intrusion of Western values and cultural influence into the country. Iranian authorities see such penetration – which they view as a “soft war”being waged against them by the West – as an existential threat to their rule. In 2009, Khamenei identified this fight as the government’s “main priority.”[43]

It is through these complex forms of online repression and surveillance that the regime is able to modulate civil society with unprecedented access. State ownership of telecommunications firms enables constant citizen tracking, which is of particular interest to the regime during times of protest and unrest. Communications with members of the Iranian diaspora or other non-citizen rabble-rousers is regularly monitored. Crucially, Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz write that the Chinese Communist Party has been sharing digital repression techniques, infrastructure, and software with the Iranian government at an all-time high.[44] A hallmark of the Chinese method of repression is the centralization of citizen data (demographics, face, voice, digital profile, social media, etc.) under a single alphanumeric sign.[45] In Iran’s case, this is becoming the national ID number, under which an amassed group of correlated surveillance data is beginning to be merged.[46]

 These burgeoning techniques of digital repression disproportionately affect queer communities. As David Faris and Babak Rahimi write, “the Internet has been an invaluable tool in facilitating gay Iranians to get connected.”[47]Not only are the internet and social media spaces for finding community, partnership, intimacy, and sex, but they also act as sources of subversive information for queer Iranians on topics like conscription, HIV/AIDS, and immigration.[48] Queer activist networks share information and mobilize communities through publishing e-zines like Neda, which are distributed through private channels. These communication channels harbor incredible strands and pushes towards resistance. As one Neda article asks, “Will there be a day that Iranian queer people be fully accepted in the Iranian culture? Is Molana not enough reason for them?”[49] It is on these digital platforms that even more radical terms like degarbashan jensi (queer) have emerged, coalescing a colloquial language of underground activism. Most notably, some queer Iranians use the internet as a means to virtually “come out”—a flagrant rejection of Ahmadinejad’s denial of queer Iranian people and a bold activist tactic. Wayne Martino and Jón Kjaran describes these digital spaces as “virtual heterotopias”[50] that complement physical spaces of queer gathering to create private spaces of queer comfort and intelligibility which are constantly unfolding and unstable. As the authors continue, 

“It is in this sense that such heterotopic spaces for gathering need to be understood in their temporality as the fleeting materialization of disorienting forms of queer social investment taking shape and set against the limits of a bodily horizon[51] of state enforced compulsory heterosexuality.”[52]

As such, the virtual and the physical spaces combine times and spaces for the queer body to leave the scene of state-mediated, biopolitical oppression. Not only does this create conditions of safety, but also enables the act of imagining future resistance. What it conversely reveals is the socially-mediated nature of queer oppression as a non-essential feature of Iran —that it is possible to undo what has been done.

Yet upon extending these findings, we discover both the disproportionate harm which censorship and repression have on queer communities, as well as the precariousness faced inherently by queer Iranians who expose themselves on online forums. According to Human Rights Watch, Iranian surveillance operatives are known to impersonate queer people within online forums to gather information, hack profiles, and leverage network information into tangible threats.[53] And this comes as no surprise. As Kathryn Conrad argues, hypermodern surveillance techniques in the ‘information age’ have created new ontologies of embodiment.[54] Drawing on Irma van der Ploeg’s work on the virtual ‘body-as-information,’[55] she continues that inherent to mass surveillance is an “innately conservative epistemology” which aims to put disproportionate and overwhelming “normative pressure on non-normative bodies and practices.”[56] The Iranian regime has institutionalized this normative pressure through mass surveillance which forms a new mode of citizen control through creating new virtual ontologies, or bodies-as-information. And this is not the first time that new ontologies of embodiment have emerged. Donna Haraway’s analysis of biology describes a new meaning-production system of “recognition and misrecognition, […] the body’s reading practices, and billion-dollar projects to sequence the human genome [in a] genetic ‘library’.” She further argues that the biomedical-biotechnical body is “a semiotic system, a complex meaning production field.”[57] Combined with centralized DNA, facial, and voice profiling databases, the national ID code can become the alphanumeric sign under which citizens’ behaviors and acts reside, replacing their biological and social bodies in both significance and utility (just as exhibited in China). Indeed, the stored information which constitutes this sign is inseparable from what the state does to a citizen’s physical body and even more important than what their body is “actually doing.” The CCTV camera and its underlying algorithms reign supreme. I propose the concept of the virtual-biopolitical body as a novel semiotic locus, a site in which a citizen’s embodiment is reconfigured into a yet-undescribed mode which is owned and controlled by the authoritarian state’s databases. 

I note that this virtual embodiment and its machinations are distinctly not the same liberatory mode as, say, Haraway’s Cyborg. Instead, the Iranian virtual body is a disturbing amalgam of panoptic fear and State desire, the manifestation of Khameinei’s internalized and corrosive gaze. Unlike virtual bodies of individual production, virtual bodies of authoritarian state production enable enhancement of state surveillance on a logarithmic scale and alter the culture of authoritarianism itself. Not only does Iranian surveillance and its accompanying databases eliminate any spatiotemporal limitations to surveillance, but Michalis Lianos and Mary Douglas also explain that the incorporation of predictive algorithms into CCTV networks alters the logic of negotiation which underpinned ‘old’ surveillance. They write that “[predictive algorithms] radically transform the cultural register of the societies in which they operate by introducing non-negotiable contexts of interaction.”[58] The algorithm is ironclad in the sense that it suffers from none of the folly of human emotion and pliability due to its profound reductivism, using no other logic than what is programmed. At this point, the authoritarian state no longer has no reason to engage in dialectical production and destruction of values with its citizenry. As Lianos and Douglas continue, in an algorithmic society 

“there are no good and bad, honest and dishonest – or for that matter, poor or less poor – individuals. There are simply holders or nonholders of valid tokens for each predetermined level of access.”[59]

In Iran’s case this totalizing binary of permission or exclusion (desirable or undesirable) makes civil discourse and individual identity production entirely irrelevant for the sovereign power.

The problem of organizing resistance must also be considered. How can you outrun the queer basher when he lives in every camera, of which there are countless on every street and corner? In a world where machine learning has mastered the facial recognition of sexual orientation,[60] deviant bodies and sexualities can be tracked and profiled alongside their social credit and punished as such. It becomes terrifying to imagine an Iran without any underground spaces of liberated desire, sexual and gender expression, and without a visible queer population altogether. Forget planning protests, sex work, public sex or cruising; entering a home with a member of the same sex with a suspicious look on your face has become criminal activity—and even this may disappear because criminality need not exist amongst virtual bodies. Just as files are wiped, undesirable virtual bodies can be deleted through physical disappearance. It is the first totalizing time where the matter of surveillance and punishment is not one of if (probability and risk) but when and where (a given outcome). For Khameinei, he may not even need to continue disappearing queer people and activists as the internalization of his omnipresent gaze is sufficient to eliminate, through sheer and unabated terror, queer resistance and organizing altogether. Thus emerges an Iranian state panopticism, which heralds a new age of queer biopolitical control. 

HIV/AIDS survival is a sphere in which biopower manifests most obviously, particularly in Iran’s case. The prevalence and novel infection rate of HIV/AIDS, which is falling dramatically around the world due to breakthroughs in treatment and prevention techniques, has continued rising in Iran.[61] Though most countries report that their new cases are primarily due to unprotected sexual activity, it is estimated that the majority of Iran’s 20,000 HIV-positive people were infected by sharing contaminated needles. Comprehensive reviews of Iran’s triangular clinics (which treat HIV infection, drug addiction, and mental health) have found that extreme social stigma presents a nearly insurmountable barrier to treatment and prevention for many Iranians living with HIV.[62] In particular, Mohammad Karamouzian concludes that a lack of effective medical education to doctors and other healthcare providers on HIV leads to provision of suboptimal care.[63] Further, the extreme ostracization—such as family rejection, loss of employment, and violence—experienced by those whose HIV status was made public leads patients to refuse treatment and deny their medical situation. Amongst countless other cultural and social modes of stigma and rejection, the situation for HIV-positive Iranians is clearly dire. They face a dearth of medical treatment and an excess of shame and stigma. 

A conventional approach might be to argue that these forms of marginalization are rooted in elements of deeply-held Iranian culture, and consequently are just as ineffable as they are quintessential. But this is a dangerous precedent to set; it not only reinforces racist, colonial notions of Iran as needing Western “enlightenment”; but it also under-articulates the crucial mechanisms of biopolitics. Kjaran writes that HIV-positive bodies in Iran “live outside of what can be considered culturally intelligible in terms of seropositivity, sexuality, and gender.””[64] As my previous analysis has demonstrated, queer Iranians violate normative expectations of gender and sexuality, and thus exist at a state-mediated limit condition. But the HIV-positive Iranian—a category which commonly overlaps with queer identity—experiences bodily abjection. As Robert Phillips writes, “[Abjection] refers to the process by which identificatory regimes exclude subjects that they render unintelligible or beyond classification.”[65] The abject, or the “in-between, the ambiguous, the composite,” is literally “cast out” and occupies a “borderline uncertainty” which is perceived by the Other as “ambiguous, horrifying, and polluting.” Kristeva is careful to note that abjection is not “an absence of health or cleanliness […] but that which perturbs an identity, a system, an order.”[66] But above all, the central characteristic of the abject is that it is perceived with horror which manifests as disproportionate and embodied disgust. It is an emotive, affective marker which is bound up in sociopolitical meaning. In Iran, the abjection experienced by HIV-positive people is inseparable from the perception of injecting/intravenous-drug use (IDU) as abjection. As Margrit Shildrick writes, 

“[T]he most visible boundary of all, the skin, is both the limit of the embodied self and the site of potentially transgressive psychic investments. In consequence, any compromise of the organic unity and self-completion of the skin may signal monstrosity.”[67]

Abjection and embodied transgression present a bridge between authoritarian control of affect and authoritarian control of biopolitics. Through infusing the visceral emotions of monstrosity with political designations of health and humanity, the previously-discussed processes of identity control and limit conditioning are charged with an electric sensorium of horror and disgust. 

The prowess of abjection is in understanding the stigma faced by drug users and HIV-positive people as a “biopolitically performative process,” instead of as a stable feature of a cultural frontispiece. The subject of abjection, Butler argues, is excluded not as a matter of destruction but of constitution. The non-abject is made known through the abject, and this project of abjection has biopolitical ends. Through framing addiction with embodied horror and “transgressive psychic investments,” sovereign power is able to inscribe the politics of choice onto its abjected bodies. As Suzanne Fraser expounds, 

From this point of view, addiction should not be reified as a fixed attribute that attracts stigma, one that, as Nora Volkow has argued, can be destigmatised if only we see that it is a sickness of the brain characterised by a ‘diseased’ ‘free will’, or even as essentially a problem ruthlessly mobilised in the ‘service of power’. Instead it is a biopolitical designation at the centre of a profound process in which a constitutive outside of irrationality and dependence emerges to consolidate the modernist centre of rationality and autonomy. In practical terms, that is, addiction is a means by which contemporary liberal subjects are schooled and disciplined in the forms of conduct and dispositions required to belong, and to count as fully human.[68]

It is through the joint abjection of addiction and infection that IRI biopower is able to marginalize its undesirables not only through coercively managing their genders and sexualities, or rendering them legally bare, but through provoking a damaged image of a flawed capacity for will (as it exists in the modern imaginary) and subsequent sub-humanity. This conjoined style of oppression exemplifies how the authoritarian Iranian regime utilizes biopolitical means to generate conditions of death at the same time it engages in life-giving and management (through the surgical option, surveillance, etc.). 

Ultimately, queer biopolitics as an analytical methodology has been applied as a kind of productive hermeneutics for this paper—both of the lived conditions of queer Iranian people and bodies, and a wider set of sociopolitical situations. Through analyzing the intertwined struggles of gay and trans* Iranians and the regime’s usage of the “surgical option” and other medical authorities as a means of pathologizing deviant genders and sexualities, I came to understand how queer Iranians are bursting open conventional notions of resistance through a novel form of praxis which has yet to be described. From there, I examined the shifting conditions of queer oppression across presidential regimes, which allowed me to use Agamben’s theory of limit conditions to understand what the regime has to gain from said oppression. In order to draw these theorizations into material reality, I evaluated Iranian digital repression and surveillance and its disproportionate impact on queer bodies (whether physical or virtual). Finally, we examined HIV/AIDS and injected drug use to explore abjection and its capacity to explain how stigma itself is a performative biopolitical process. These theoretical findings are the result of using queer biopolitics to illustrate how Iranian authoritarian biopower capitalizes on the control of queer life and death, both as an end in-of-itself, as a a means towards other forms of oppression and control on its non-queer citizenry. And these findings only beg more questions: what role does the queer Iranian diaspora play into authoritarian biopolitics? How do queer Iranian refugees experience these sociopolitical levers of control? Finally, what is the role of transnational queer alliances and networks, if any, in helping Iranian queer citizens to overcome these forms of oppression? My hope is that applying queer biopolitics has revealed the crucial insights available when we dare to interrogate the spaces between systems of oppression. 


[1] Azoulay, D. D. (2011). The biopolitics of gender in Iran: How a “third gender” has formed. Juridikum Queering Family Law2, 261-269.

[2] Zara Saeidzadeh; Understanding Socio-Legal Complexities of Sex Change in Postrevolutionary Iran. TSQ 1 February 2019; 6 (1): 80–102. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/23289252-7253510

[3] Leezenberg, M. (2018). Foucault and Iran Reconsidered: Revolt, Religion, and Neoliberalism. Īrān-nāmag3(2), IV-XXVIII.

[4] Ghamari-Tabrizi, B. (2016). Foucault in Iran: Islamic revolution after the enlightenment. U of Minnesota Press.

[5] Foucault, Essential Writings 3: 44; Dits et écrits, III: 781.

[6] Ghamari-Tabrizi, B. 

[7] In the context of critical theory, the term analytic is typically used independently of analysis, to describe a ex-ante method rather than an ex-post set of analytical conclusions.

[8] Leezenberg, M. Page 25

[9]  Kähkönen, L., & Sudenkaarne, T. (2018). Queer, Biopolitics and Bioethics. SQS–Suomen Queer-tutkimuksen Seuran lehti12(1-2), XI-XIX.

[10] Azoulay, D. D. (2011). The biopolitics of gender in Iran: How a “third gender” has formed. Juridikum Queering Family Law2, 261-269.

[11] Afary, J. (2009). Sexual politics in modern Iran. Cambridge University Press.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Please note that this is the term used by Azoulay, and not the appropriate term suggested by the author to described trans* or non-binary people in Iran.

[14] Bahreini, R. (2008). From perversion to pathology: discourses and practices of gender policing in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Muslim World Journal of Human Rights5(1).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Butler, J. (2011). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, 89-90.

[17] Butler, 60

[18] Bahreini, R. 60-62.

[19] Zara Saeidzadeh; Understanding Socio-Legal Complexities of Sex Change in Postrevolutionary Iran. TSQ 1 February 2019; 6 (1): 80–102. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/23289252-7253510

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Puar, J. K. (2018). Terrorist assemblages: Homonationalism in queer times. Duke University Press.

[23] Godelier, M. (1981). The origins of male domination. New Left Review.

[24] Butler, J. 153

[25] Foss, S. K., Domenico, M. E., & Foss, K. A. (2012). Gender stories: Negotiating identity in a binary world. Waveland Press.

[26] Foucault, M. (1984). The foucault reader. Pantheon. Page 120-123.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ahuja, N. (2015). Intimate atmospheres: Queer theory in a time of extinctions. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies21(2-3), 365-385.

[29] Connell, R. (2011). Gender and social justice: Southern perspectives. South African Review of Sociology42(3), 103-115.

[30] Katarzyn Korycki and Nasirzadeh Abouzar, “ Desire Recast: The Production of Gay Identity in Iran,” Journal of Gender Studies 25 (2014): 50–65 10.1080/09589236.2014.889599

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Rouhani, F. (2016). Queering the “Iranian” and the “Diaspora” of the Iranian Diaspora. In Gender and Sexuality in Muslim Cultures (pp. 371-386). Routledge.

[34] Rao, R. (2015). Echoes of imperialism in LGBT activism. Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies, 355-372.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Hassan, H. D. (2007, April). Iran: Profile and Statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Congressional Research Service. 

[37] Rouhani, F. (2016). Queering the “Iranian” and the “Diaspora” of the Iranian Diaspora. In Gender and Sexuality in Muslim Cultures (pp. 371-386). Routledge.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Neal, A. (2007, September). Giorgio Agamben and the politics of the exception. In Conference Paper, Sixth Pan-European International Relations Conference of the 2016 ECPR General Conference Standing Group on International Relations in Turin (pp. 12-15).

[40] Agamben, G., & Hiepko, A. (2002). Homo sacer (p. 174). Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. Page 123.

[41] Ibid. Page 125

[42] Michaelsen, M. (2017). Far Away, So Close: Transnational Activism, Digital Surveillance and Authoritarian Control in Iran. Surveillance & Society15(3/4), 465-470.

[43] Berman, I. (2015). Iranian devolution: Tehran fights the digital future. World Affairs, 51-57.

[44] Kendall-Taylor, A., Frantz, E., & Wright, J. (2020). “The Digital Dictators: How Technology Strengthens Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs99(2), 103-115.

[45] Zheng, M. (2019) Queer Biopolitics in Authoritarian China. Virginia Journal of Gender Studies. Forthcoming.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Nasirzadeh, A. (2015). The Role of Social Media in the Lives of Gay Iranians. Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society after 2009, 57-75.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Kjaran, J. I., & Martino, W. (2019). In search of queer spaces in Tehran: Heterotopias, power geometries and bodily orientations in queer Iranian men’s lives. Sexualities22(4), 587-604.

[51] Ibid. ‘The bodily horizon shows the ‘‘line’’ that bodies can reach toward, what is reachable, by also marking what they cannot reach’.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Jafari, F. (2014). Transsexuality under Surveillance in Iran: Clerical Control of Khomeini’s Fatwas. Journal of Middle East Womens Studies10(2), 31-51.

[54] Conrad, K. (2009). Surveillance, gender, and the virtual body in the information age. Surveillance & Society6(4), 380-387.

[55] Van der Ploeg, I. (2003). Biometrics and the body as information. Surveillance as social sorting: Privacy, risk and digital discrimination, 57-73.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Haraway, D.J. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association Books.

[58] Lianos, M. and Douglas, M. (2000) “Dangerization and the End of Deviance: The Institutional Environment,” in R. Sparks and D. Garland (eds) Criminology and Social Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press

[59] Ibid.

[60] Wang, Y., & Kosinski, M. (2018, October 23). Deep neural networks are more accurate than humans at detecting sexual orientation from facial images. Retrieved from osf.io/zn79k

[61] Heidary, M., & Nasiri, M. J. (2016). Why has HIV/AIDS prevalence increased in Iran?. Clinical Infectious Diseases63(6), 846.

[62] Karamouzian, M., Akbari, M., Haghdoost, A. A., Setayesh, H., & Zolala, F. (2015). “I am dead to them”: HIV-related stigma experienced by people living with HIV in Kerman, Iran. Journal of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care26(1), 46-56.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Kjaran, J. I. (2019). The “Sick Gay”: Being HIV-positive in Iran. In Gay Life Stories (pp. 151-180). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

[65] Phillips, R. (2014). Abjection. Transgender Studies Quarterly1(1-2), 19-21.

[66] Kristeva, J. (1982). Approaching abjection. Oxford Literary Review5(1-2), 125-149.

[67] Shildrick, M. (1999) ‘This Body which is Not One: Dealing with Differences’, Body & Society 5(2–3): 77–92

[68]  Fraser, S., Pienaar, K., Dilkes-Frayne, E., Moore, D., Kokanovic, R., Treloar, C., & Dunlop, A. (2017). Addiction stigma and the biopolitics of liberal modernity: A qualitative analysis. International Journal of Drug Policy44, 192-201.

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Matthew Haide Zheng