Forced Gender Reassignment on LGBTQIA Community in Iran: Interview with Fariba Sahraei
Interview by Natalie Alleyne
Feminism still needs to be decolonised. In order to be worthy allies and to offer valuable support, we need to learn how to receive our Muslim sisters, middle eastern sisters and queer, trans, intersex people of colour (QTIPOC) with their experiences and needs centralised. And yet, with the fragility of international affairs between Iran and the West, it can be difficult to know how to navigate standing for certain changes in Iran, while strictly keeping our voices separate from becoming lost in the jumble of war mongering and Islamophobia that no doubt exists.
In 1987, Iran became the only nation on the Persian Gulf coast to permit the legal recognition of the gender identity of its transgender citizens. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of eight Islamic countries that share the gulf region, the other seven are Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In comparison to its neighbouring regions, Iran not only permits gender confirmation surgery, but subsidises it. On the surface, in ‘putting their money where their mouth is,’ Iran’s support and advocacy for the fair treatment of its transgendered citizens appears to be a gleaming gold star for human rights, however, examined in full context, we quickly learn this is, regrettably, not the case.
NA: Who are the morality police and what do they do?
FS: The morality police force was established in Tehran in 1979, and one of its first acts was to demolish the old red-light district of Tehran, subsequently removing 2,700 prostitutes. In the months that followed, thousands of people were arrested for “moral crimes” including extra-marital sexual relationships, alcohol consumption and gambling, with hundreds of people being executed. In 1982, the first Islamic penal law was ratified by Parliament, and this law codified the prohibition of “non-Islamic” dress for women, and Article 102 declaring that women dressed “improperly” in public would receive up to 74 lashes. This penalty only softened in 1996, when it was changed to jail time or a fine. Even today, Iran International TV hears from civilians in Iran about how the morality police arrest and intimidate young women and men for their dress and conduct, confiscate satellite dishes and punish shopkeepers who sell “inappropriate” items of clothing.
NA: We still have a long way to go in decolonising feminism. Mainstream feminism has not always recognised the existence and experiences of all women worldwide. For example, there are schools of feminism that believe the hijab is a form of oppression even if a woman herself wishes to wear one. In some places in Europe women are banned from wearing it, which seems to be rooted in Islamophobia rather than social justice? And yet in 2016 Masih Alinejad, the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom movement, urged western tourists to violate Iran’s hijab law in a collective fight against oppression. What do you feel westerners/feminism needs to understand in order to be allied with Iranian women?
FS: Although a basic religious motive for covering the head and the face is tied in with sexuality and unwanted encounters between the sexes, the current debates in Western countries do not focus much on this dimension. Many people apply other meanings to the hijab, particularly in relation to it being framed as a marker of women’s oppression. Those with Eurocentric ideals believe that Islam supposedly defines women’s sexuality as ‘problematic’ and in need of confinement. Therefore, the imperialist feminist assumption is that Islam denies women’s independence and rights to their bodies and cannot be reconciled with modern western gender equality, and this is symbolised through the hijab. I feel that these arguments usually contain a more general disapproval of Islam as a whole, usually with Islamophobic undertones reminiscent of texts such as The Clash of Civilisations by Huntington, rather than having a genuine concern for Muslim women and their freedom. I would also like to point out that although Islam comes in many shapes and sizes, opponents tend to generalise it, unjustly, into a single form, all whilst ignoring the rights of women in Islam.
A woman wearing hijab by choice is different to forced hijab in places such as Iran, where the hijab is mandatory by law and used as a source of repression. However, Iranian women are also reclaiming this, using the hijab as a symbol of revolution and political metaphor of resistance against the government.
Western feminism must understand that in most countries wearing the hijab is a personal choice for the majority of women who wear it, reflective of their own agency, and is not the ultimate symbol of oppression and a sexist global culture. In essence, it all really comes down to that: agency. Giving women the freedom to decide for themselves, which should be respected and accepted.
“Iran is one of a handful of countries where homosexual acts are punishable by death, however clerics do accept the idea that a person may be trapped in a body of the wrong sex. So, members of the LGBTQ community are sometimes pushed into having gender reassignment surgery.”
NA: Coming from mentioning the hijab, a piece of clothing, I’d like to ask: how is cross-dressing seen in Iran?
FS: Being trans in Iran presents many challenges for the trans person, their family, the government, and society-at-large. In particular, trans identity questions the strict gender binary prescribed by Iranian society. As a result, even the legitimacy provided by the bureaucracy and Khomeini’s fatwa cannot shield Iranian trans people from the scorn of hetero-enforcing citizens and law enforcement, who police gender performance. Thus, the biggest challenge to overcome is the stigmatisation of trans people in Iranian communities.
NA: And yet in 1987, Iran became the only nation sharing the Persian Gulf coast to permit the legal recognition of the gender identity of its transgender citizens. In fact, the government subsidies gender-confirming surgery. Is this correct? How did this come about, who is Maryam Khatoon Molkara?
FS: Yes, that is correct, and one of the most notable moments in post-revolutionary Islamic writing on gender occurred in 1984 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa to a trans woman, Maryam Khatoon Molkara. Molkara was a trans activist, and in 1974 she met with the then-Queen of Iran, Farah Pahlavi, to obtain her support for trans causes. However, in 1976, the Medical Association of Iran (MAI), a state-affiliated organisation of physicians declared that sex-change operations were ethically unacceptable except in the case of intersex persons. After years of unsuccessfully petitioning the Iranian government so that she could legally change her sex, Molkara decided to take a bold approach. One account states that Molkara went to Khomeini’s compound wearing a man’s suit and a beard, carrying a copy of the Qur’an. Although media accounts of Molkara’s encounter with Khomeini paint Khomeini’s fatwa as a sudden and emotionally charged issuance, Khomeini had issued a similar fatwa almost two decades prior, as early as 1963 or 1967.
NA: Now I am not implying that all people who cross-dress are trans and all trans people typically present as their reassigned gender, but could you explain to us why in theory the government will not legally recognise a trans person who solely wishes to express their gender identity through clothing?
FS: As discussed above, trans persons were first associated with intersex persons and with the creation of God. Later, however, they were connected with homosexuality and criminality. This connection is a dangerous one for trans people, and, in the Iranian context, the state and society largely view and treat gender, sexuality, and sex as inextricably tied such that they are largely indistinguishable. Any performance that is non-normative on one of these three axes implicates the other axes, and therefore the government will not legally recognise a trans person who solely wishes to express their gender identity through clothing.
NA: In light of this, how are consensual non-hetero relationships punished in Iran?
FS: A new penal code was introduced in Iran in 2013, which includes significant revisions to sections on same-sex sexual acts. Although on the surface and overall, sanctions have become more lenient, changes were made in the wording and categorisation of sexual acts, which have significant symbolic and actual consequences for the control of sexuality. In particular, article 234 of the new penal code makes a significant distinction between two parties in male same-sex intercourse: the one who penetrates and the one who is penetrated. The latter is always condemned to death while the former can now escape this penalty under certain circumstances. This has pressured many people as male-male or female-female partners to change their sex to salvage a threatened relationship.
NA: So ultimately gay people are forced to choose between corporal punishment and gender reassignment?
FS: Iran is one of a handful of countries where homosexual acts are punishable by death, however clerics do accept the idea that a person may be trapped in a body of the wrong sex. So, members of the LGBTQ community are sometimes pushed into having gender reassignment surgery. However, my team at Iran International often speak to Iranians who have fled the country to avoid undergoing gender reassignment at fear of the death penalty. In Iran, there is the distinction between the ‘acceptable’ trans person and the ‘deviant’ homosexual, which has been influenced by biomedical, psychological, legal, and jurisprudential discourses that emerged between the 40’s and 70’s. Consequently, Iranian society does indeed pressure gay people to often choose between corporal punishment and gender reassignment.
NA: It is argued that often western nations intervene in other nations’ politics with devastating consequences. With this in mind, what is the rest of the world’s responsibility advocating for human rights in Iran, how do we navigate assisting?
FS: Iran’s human rights record continues to receive broad international criticism, particular for recent increases in the pace of executions. International criticism of Iran’s human rights practices predates the crackdown against the 2009 uprising. Reports from U.N. Special Rapporteur, Ahmad Shaheed, cited Iran for a wide range of abuses aside from its suppression of political opposition, including: escalating use of capital punishment; executions of minors; denial of fair public trial; harsh and life-threatening conditions in prison; and unlawful detention and torture. The rest of the world cannot sit back and allow human rights violations in Iran to continue, but must remember that military action in Iran does not just affect the regime but the millions of innocent civilians in Iran also. Continued pressure, petitions and campaigns are an effective way to raise awareness of the abuses taking place in Iran to influence key stakeholders that may have an impact.
Pictures credit: Alireza Shojaian, IG: @alireza.shojaian, www.alirezashojaian.com
Alireza Shojaian is a Paris-based painter and visual activist from Tehran, Iran. His art confronts social bias’ championing of the normative heteromasuline identity by representing queerness through his own experiences and as framed in the Middle East – past and present.