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'I want to see the rainbow flag raised in Iran'

By Amanda Caroline  •  September 11, 2022  •  23

For the first time, two women known to have been lesbian have been sentenced to death in Iran. It marks a new stage in the Islamic republic's persecution of LGBT people.

"My biggest hope in life is to raise the rainbow flag in Iran and shout this fact that we exist."

So said Zahra Sadiqi Hamedani, also known as Sareh, talking to BBC Persian in May 2021.

Five months later she was arrested by Iran's revolutionary guard. Now she has been tried and sentenced to death, at the age of 31, along with another woman, Elham Choubdar, 24.

The two women were friends and had a business relationship, as both sold beauty products.

Originally from the small city of Naqadeh, in north-western Iran, Sareh married young and had two children, a boy and a girl, before divorcing her husband and leaving Iran to live in Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to some reports, Elham Choubdar travelled regularly between the two countries.

Image caption,
Elham Choubdar is reported to have owned a women's clothes boutique in Urmia, in north-western Iran

Sareh was not a well-known LGBT activist but had an Instagram account that was popular among Iran's Azeri and Kurdish minorities. She also talked occasionally to foreign TV crews about the situation of LGBT communities in both Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan.



"Why am I talking in public? Because I don't want other LGBT friends to go through what I went through. I don't want other women like me to go through forced marriage," she told the BBC.

"We are not corrupt; we are like you, like anyone else. I am trying to raise awareness, so others, including my children, know what freedom means. I want to empower others to have the choice [to come out]."

According to the Iranian authorities, Sareh was arrested near the border of Iran and Turkey, where she was planning on seeking asylum.

It is certainly possible that Sareh was planning on moving to Turkey, which has a large community of Iranian LGBT exiles. But if so, she could have travelled directly from Iraqi Kurdistan - there was no need to enter Iran - so it is unclear whether she went there voluntarily.

A friend of Sareh's in the city of Urmia, also in north-western Iran, suggests that she could have gone to Iran to see her children.

"She kept talking about her kids. She missed her family, especially her brother. Maybe she wanted to meet them and then take the kids?" she told the BBC, admitting that this was a guess.

Sareh told the BBC in 2021 that her children were her "biggest concern".

"I have gone through many terrible, torturous experiences in my life. I don't want them to happen to my son or daughter. I'd do whatever it takes to protect my children, even if I had to sacrifice my life."

The trial against the two women is said to have begun earlier this year. News of their conviction and sentencing first appeared on Sunday, and was confirmed on Monday.

A selfie from Sareh's social media accountsIMAGE SOURCE,ZAHRA SADIQI HAMEDANI
Image caption,
Sareh's Instagram account was popular among Iran's Azeri and Kurdish minorities

The Mizan News agency, linked to Iran's judiciary, said they had been found guilty of human trafficking and "corruption on Earth" - a sharia-law term that refers to anti-Islamic behaviour.

The trafficking accusation was first made on Iranian state television in November. A news report said that Sareh had been promoting offering young Iranian women higher education, jobs and better lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, but had instead sold them into slavery. It also said that she had been promoting illegal gambling and throwing LGBT parties.

No evidence was given for these accusations, however, and the human rights group Amnesty International has rejected them.