Is Sending a Romantic Text a Crime in Iran?
- Iranians found guilty of “sex crimes” including homosexuality can face execution in some cases.
- Other punishments include stoning and flogging, and there are harsh sentences for committing a sinful act in public.
- Kissing between two people who are not married to each other is classified as illicit sexual activity. Texting, walking together in a park, or speaking on the phone can also be considered a crime.
In Iran, extra-marital sex is illegal. But how serious are “crimes against chastity and public morality” and so-called “sex crimes”? How much trouble can two consenting adults get into by sending each other texts of a sexual nature, walking in a park together, or even drinking coffee in a cafe?
According to the Islamic Penal Code of Iran, “sex crimes” include intercourse between adults that are not married to one another (in Persian, zena) and lavat and mosahegheh (homosexuality for men and women, respectively).
“Crimes against chastity and public morality” include illicit sexual relationships, and acts against public morality that do not fall under the definition of zena, committing a sinful act in public, women appearing in public places without an Islamic hijab, establishing or managing a “center for corruption or promiscuity,” or facilitating or encouraging people to engage in corruption or promiscuity.
Depending on the nature of the offence and the status of the offender, authorities can order the following punishments for people found guilty of the crime of zena: death by stoning, execution (death by hanging), or floggings.
When is zena punishable by death?
Under Iran’s Penal Code, zena is defined as sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who are not married to each other. The punishment for zena is stoning if it can be established that the man or the woman are medically sane and able to engage in sexual intercourse with their legal spouses but have had extramarital sex.
The punishment for zena can be execution in the following circumstances:
- If a couple engages in zena with a blood relative who they are prohibited from marrying, both people will be condemned to execution.
- If a man sleeps with his step-mother,
he will face execution; [and since the step-mother is married, she will
be condemned to stoning].
- If a non-Muslim man has intercourse with a Muslim woman, the man will be punished by execution.
It is also worth mentioning that the punishment for rape — which also falls under the definition of zena — is execution. So in Iran, a person found guilty of consensual extra-marital sex can be handed down the same sentence as a rapist. Although execution is not always the punishment for other types of zena — depending on the case, punishment could result in the guilty party receiving lashes — it is perhaps surprising that such a scenario exists under Iranian law.
However, when the person guilty of zena is not married and has sex outside of marriage, the punishment is one hundred lashes.
Illicit sexual relations and acts against chastity other than zena
According to Article 637, if a man and a woman who are not married to each other become engaged in an illicit sexual relation other than sexual intercourse — such as kissing — or are found guilty of acts against chastity, they will be sentenced to punishment of up to 99 lashes.
But what is the difference between “illicit sexual relations” and “acts against chastity”? Mousa Barzin Khalifeloo, a jurist based in Turkey, says illicit sexual relations refer to a “prohibited relations under sharia,” but not intercourse. However, he says, acts against chastity are not necessarily prohibited under sharia. Instead, they are acts that go against customs or mores in society. For example, if a married couple performs a sexual act in a public place, since they are married to each other, their act does not go against sharia, but it is not acceptable behavior because of Iran’s social customs. Barzin provides another example: “Under sharia, there is no rule about men’s clothing, but if a man appears without a shirt on the street, it would be against the custom of the society of Iran.”
When asked what kinds of relations are prohibited under sharia, Barzin says there is no consensus amongst judges in Iran on the matter. “Some judges argue that physical contact is required for a relation to be considered as an illicit sexual relation, but other judges argue that although the article specifically refers to kissing, this is just one example, and that the definition of illicit sexual relations should not be limited to physical contact between opposite sexes.” Barzin also says judges who view the law in this way tend to have a very broad interpretation of the term “illicit sexual relations.” In fact, many of them apply the term to anything they view to be in violation of sharia — “such as unmarried men and women walking together in a park, drinking coffee in a café or even speaking on the phone.” Barzin says he represented a female client who was charged with engaging in illicit sexual relations for sending romantic text messages.
Committing a sinful act in public places and roads
According to Article 638 of the Penal Code, individuals found guilty of committing a sinful act (harām) in public places or roads will face punishment for the crime, plus 10 days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes. In addition to this, an addendum to the article stipulates that women who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab should be sentenced to between 10 days and two months’ imprisonment or a fine of between 50,000 and 500,000 rials (between 1.23 $ - $12.26). But the article stops short of providing any definition for what a “sinful act” might be. This ambiguity makes it possible for the Basij, Iran’s paramilitary volunteer militia, and the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (NAJA) to make broad interpretations when assessing what constitutes illicit behavior under sharia law — and both regularly respond accordingly, arresting women they deem to be violating Islamic dress codes or going against Iran’s public morality codes.
Naghi Mahmoudi, a jurist based in Germany, says one of his clients was charged with committing a sinful act for drinking coffee. “In 2009, a young woman came to my office and asked me to take her case. She said that a few days before, she and her (female) cousin had gone out together to drink coffee and have a chat at a local café. They were arrested in the midst of their conversation by members of the Basij and were brought to the Center for Fighting Against Social Corruption in Tabriz city. They were both released on bail. When I studied her case, I realized that my client and her cousin were charged with committing sinful acts by drinking coffee in a provocative way and also with not observing the rules on wearing Islamic hijab. Fortunately, I managed to obtain an acquittal verdict for my client.”
Establishments that Promote Promiscuity and Corruption
Under Article 639 of the penal code, setting up or running a center that promotes corruption or promiscuity, or facilitating or encouraging people to do so, is punishable by a prison sentence of between one to 10 years. However, the article does not provide any definition of corruption or promiscuity — and, like other vaguely-defined crimes in Iran, this makes it possible for the judiciary to hand down this charge regularly, and use it as a means to silence dissent or punish civil society.
Naghi Mahmoud gives the example of another of his clients, a man who had set up a cultural institution in East Azerbaijan, a province in northwestern Iran. Despite the fact that he secured official permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance of Eastern Azerbaijan for his activities, he was charged with establishing and directing a center used for corruption and promiscuity purposes. “The institution’s activities include teaching the Azeri Turkish language, researching the oral literature of Azerbaijan, and organizing a workshop to teach Azerbaijan’s myths and literature. One day, some plainclothes agents entered the institution and told my client that they had an order to seal the premises and arrest him. They confiscated and took all the books and CDs in the institution. When I read his case, I realized that authorities had pressed many charges against my client — but what struck me the most was the charge of ‘establishing a corruption and promiscuity center through teaching Azeri dance’. The charge was based on a CD about teaching Azeri dance, which the agents had found in my client’s office.”
Mahmoudi described his defense in court. “I argued to the court that ‘corruption’ is a vague charge that can be attributed to any illegal act. Promiscuity refers to zena and sodomy, or acts similar to zena and sodomy. Now, if a person establishes and runs a center in which corruption and promiscuity are committed and spread, he can be charged with this crime. But my client established this institution with official permission from the Ministry of Cultural and Islamic Guidance for cultural and artistic activities.” Mahmoudi finally managed to obtain an acquittal verdict for his client.
The punishment for homosexuality for women is 100 lashes for both women involved. But when it comes to men, it is a different matter. A differentiation is drawn between the “passive” party and the “active” party, with different punishments for each. The punishment for the passive individual is execution, but the punishment for the active individual is 100 lashes (unless he is married, or it can be proven that he raped the passive individual, in which case the punishment is execution). The differentiation between the two types of punishments probably stems from Iran’s patriarchal culture, which allows for more severe punishment for the person who has been seen to not have maintained his so-called masculinity and conformed to a submissive role.
Iran has signed up to a range of human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As part of this, Article 17 stipulates that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation.” Iran’s practice of punishing consenting adults for sexual activity is a clear breach of its obligations and commitments to these rights. The international community must challenge the government on the matter on international platforms, and continue to place pressure on Iran to honor its citizens’ rights to privacy and a private life without interference.