Over the last few years there’s been some intermittent mainstream interest in transsexuality both in the West and in the Middle East. Although the topic was somewhat taboo in the West until relatively recently, it has been discussed quite openly in Iran for the last 25 years. The relative openess surrounding this topic in the Islamic Republic has aroused the curiosity of the Western media, and reports on transsexuality in Iran such as this article often try to come to terms with the fact gender reassignment surgery is religiously sanctioned (even encouraged) in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Is the 25 year old fatwa allowing ‘diagnosed’ transsexuals to undergo surgery a sophisticated and modern approach to a serious issue that is often not dealt with satisfactorily in even in the West, or is it simply the outcome of an inability to accept homosexuality?
Feminist and queer theorists addressing the issue are often torn between acknowledging the reality of Iran’s stance on homosexuality and the importance of the fatwa for transsexual rights. Although the religious argument in support of gender reassignment surgery is often quite sophisticated, with many clerics well versed in the idea that gender is shifting and consists of more than simply ‘male’ and ‘female’, there is clearly a push for those attracted to people of the same sex to ‘legitimise’ their sexuality through surgery that allows them to conform to the ideals of sexuality that are acceptable in Iran. Transsexuality is given legitimacy as it is regarded as ‘real’ (rather than written off as confusion or a mental imbalance) and dealt with head on rather than swept under the rug. Indeed, many Iranian clerics couch the ability to be able to choose one’s gender in the langauge of human rights, arguing in support of both the surgery and the updating of all legal documents to reflect a post-operative transsexual’s new sex and the rights associated with it (often a very contentious issue in many Western countries). However, at the same time, the procedure that secures the transsexual’s true identity is referred to as ‘corrective’ surgery – implying that the practice is given approval as a way to combat homosexuality, perceived to be an unnatural sexual practice.
A recent film, Tanaz Eshaghian’s Be Like Others (2008), also explores transexuality and gender reassignment surgery in Iran through the eyes of young men who elect to undergo this surgery to forge an identity that is legal, religiously sanctioned, and accomodates their attraction to members of the same sex without the social stigma and threat of death that would otherwise be likely. The film has won numerous awards and is well worth seeing for an indepth look at the reality of transsexualism in the Iranian context, but is also valuable for its consideration of basic issues about gender and identity that affect all those who don’t conform to socially acceptable notions of gender and sexuality.