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Progress for Transgender People in Iran

September 14, 2009

Iran is notorious for its destructive treatment of gays and lesbians. The country is less known, however, for its somewhat progressive attitudes toward transgender people. Since 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa authorizing sex-reassignment surgery for “diagnosed transsexuals,” more sex-reassignment surgeries have occurred in Iran than nearly anywhere else in the world (save for Thailand).

Salon explains this phenomenon in more detail:

In contrast to almost everywhere else in the Muslim world, sex change operations are legal in Iran for anyone who can afford the minimum $3,500 cost and satisfy interviewers that he or she meets necessary psychological criteria. As a result, women who endured agonizing childhood and adolescent experiences as boys, and — albeit in fewer numbers — young men who reached sexual maturity as girls, are easy to find in Tehran. Iran has even become a magnet for patients from eastern European and Arab countries seeking to change their gender.

Now, the Guardian reports that Iran has approved the country’s first marriage in which one of the partners is a transgender man.

From the Guardian:

The woman, named only as Shaghayegh, told Tehran’s family court that she wanted to wed her best friend from school, who had recently undergone a sex-change operation to become a man, but was unable to obtain her father’s blessing, as legally required.

Now her father has agreed to permit the union on condition that the male partner, Ardashir, who was previously a woman called Negar, undergoes a medical examination intended to prove it would be a proper male-female relationship.

The proposed medical-examination-to-determine-one’s-sex-and-or-gender, as inherently flawed as it may be, is not a new concept. On the contrary, GAB has recently covered similar incidents, including Kate Lynn Blatt’s employment discrimination case and the scrutiny directed toward Caster Semenya. Such examinations are unnecessarily invasive of the private lives of the individuals in question, and it’s terrible that a medical examination will be required for Shaghayegh and Ardashir to marry. However, I think it’s worth commending Iran that this marriage is being allowed at all. Considering Iran’s horrifying treatment of its homosexual citizens, the fact that transgender people (or, at least, the transgender people who choose to undergo sex-reassignment surgery) are legally recognized and respected in Iran is a good step in the right direction. Social progress — particularly where issues of gender and sexuality are concerned — can be slow, but this is an indication that such change is definitely possible for Iran.

The Guardian does bring up one more interesting point:

Critics have suggested that some of those changing sex are not true transsexuals but gays or lesbians who feel forced into the operation by social pressure.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it possible that some people who undergo sex-reassignment surgery in Iran are really LGB folks who are looking for socially-accepted relationships with their partners, or is that just transphobic thinking in an attempt to undermine the reality of transgender life in Iran? Or could it be a little of both?

  1. andrea permalink
    September 19, 2009 9:46 am

    The BBC aired a documentary on this issue around a year ago. It appeared to be the case that, rather than a progressive government initiative, this was indeed – in the main – an attempt to obliterate alternative sexualities. Lesbians and gay men are seen as unacceptable and have to transition to fit into societal ‘norms’.
    Unfortunately those transitioning were still subject to prejudice and discrimination and were often cast out from their families. Facing poverty, many were sexually exploited and abused and turned to prostitution.


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