Islamic Republic of Iran: The unlikely sex change capital

Jamal Herdzik13. augusta 2021297

Slovak version

Second only to Thailand, the Islamic Republic of Iran leads the list of nations performing the most state sponsored gender reassignment operations, with 270 successful surgeries annually. Coined an ‘Unlikely Sex Change Capital’ by Professor of Religion, Elizabeth Bucar, the question of how it can be possible that this theocratic system not only permits but actively assists access to sex-change surgery is a valid one.

The apparent paradox of institutionalized sex-changes is not something that appeared out of thin air. And under close scrutiny it turns out not to be a contradiction at all. This policy is informed by certain Islamic logic which came to be through Islamization of the state and its institutions in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979. This essay will try to unravel the ideas within this logic and the medical institutionalized correlation in order to disprove the apparent paradox of a theocratic regime that allows sexual practices that must instead be considered as liberal allowing transsexual individuals to live according to their physical requirements.

In order to reach a viable approach to transsexuality in the Iranian context it may be useful to first clarify the meanings of a number of expressions.1 I want to point out that this essay focusses on theological-theoretical ideas that have a significant influence on trans lives in Iran. Yet those ideas are not the be-all and end-all of lived experiences and realities. Far from being ultimately determined by state structured definitions trans people in Iran have found their way into everyday life and arts, fully prepared to take up the task of defining what it means to be trans within this culture.

The word sex will thus be used to denote the visible physical appearance of an individual, i.e. the physical genital attributes that define the person as either a man or a woman. Gender, on the other hand, is used to describe the presence of certain modes of social interaction or behavior that – depending on the relevant culture – define a person as behaving as a man or a woman should behave. The third important term is sexuality the conjunction of the two afore-mentioned terms and describes conscious sexual desire and the experiences of sexual pleasure or the lack thereof. The affinity towards enjoying sexual relations either with a person of the same or of the opposite sex is what is defined as sexual orientation. This expression, though, can also describe a multitude of nuances of sexual desire – including, ultimately, its complete absence.

The understanding of the philosophy behind the religious sanctioning and therefore legitimation of transsexuality can be approached with the help of this trias sex, gender and sexuality. The assumption is that the image of the human body within Islamic ethics in the Iranian variation is a decisive factor in the positive attitude the state takes towards the individuals concerned in actively enabling sex-changes„in order to guarantee the individual is abiding by the correct set of gendered moral duties.“ as Bucar notions. The status and significance of transsexuality in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a direct result of the close interaction between cultural principles and the legal instructions given by the clerics. Within the hegemony of the idea of an ideal Islamic society the Islamic Republic has attempted to arrive at clear rulings on these matters based on Islamic scripture, guiding the approved way of living a morally blameless life. And sexual ethics can be identified as the arena in which normative Islamic Texts and philosophy have been, and continue to be, most influential. Alongside the theological concepts that explains the relationship between God and humanity, however, transsexuality is also eminently an explicitly social matter. It follows that all interaction between humans are also subject to theological scrutiny. Seen from this point of view, transsexuality can be fitted into the understanding of the religious field of mankind and God, merely needing an institutionalized worldly counterpart, identified as the medical field in the heteronormative Islamic Republic of Iran.

In Iran a number of the marja-e taqlid2 In the hierarchy of Shiite theology this high status (literally meaning “fountain of emulation” ) is accrued to a cleric who, within the denomination of the Shiah, is recognized as such a fountain. are in favor of the practice of sex-change surgery while others argue against it. Yet it is the fatwa of the political and religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his even posthumous unassailable authority that sets the tone of the discussion. Based on two fatwas published by him in 1967 and 1983, the theological background of the Iranian debate surrounding transsexuality is significantly influenced by his own underlying heteronormative understanding of a gender binary.

The apparent ruling is that the surgical operation is not a legal obligation… If knowledge proves, before the operation, that inside he is the opposite sex, and therefore the operation does not change one sex for the other, but rather uncovers what is hidden, then there is no doubt concerning the necessity of putting into proper order the true sex and getting rid of the traces of the visual sex. So if he knows that he is a man, then his legal duties are a man´s duties, and what is prohibited for man is also prohibited for him, and vice versa for women.

This fatwa encompasses the essential factors upon which the religious thinking concerning sex, gender and sexuality is based. Theologically speaking, whilst God is non-binary, man was – by the will of God – created as a binary being thus consolidating the disparity between God and man, with God clearly above mankind, divinely separated from His creation. God as a divine being is free of the constrictions and limitations of gender and duality which are in turn essential to human existence and his relationship with God. Transsexuality remains, on a theoretical level, a binary construct, hence not posing a threat to the theological conception of unity between God and the gender binary essence of man. As Bucar 2010 contends: „[Transsexuality does] not challenge gender dualism, but rather depends on a radical conception of gender essentialism: The ‚trans’ in transsexual is a change in sexual appearance, not a change in gender in sexual normative categories.“

The cited fatwa explains transsexuality as a physical problem of the sex that can be treated with the remedy of approaching the body as modifiable. By modifying and changing the body, one does not create a new gender but instead reveals the ‘true’ gender according to the binary idea buried within the body. This has been made medically quantifiable. Trans persons wishing for a reassignment surgery have first to be diagnosed as suffering from Gender Identity Disorder, the diagnosis based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM-5). The Tehran Institute of Psychiatry (TIP) obliges the patients to participate in psychotherapeutic sessions in order to determine whether they are eligible to be operated on at the Legal Medicine Organization (LMO), under the authority of the Ministry of Justice. The state’s objectives that are intended to be reached by combining the religious claim on the ‚right gender‘ with medical feasibility here find their institutional expression.

Hujjat al-Islam Mohammad Mehdi Kariminia, as a highly respected scholar in Iran has been researching trans matters for 18 years. According to him, trans individuals have healthy bodies but suffer from the afore-mentioned gender identity disorder Kariminia reasons that in philosophical and religious understanding the soul – the source of individuality and the sense of social and moral responsibility –  resides within the body. As opposed to the latter the former is unchangeable and eternal. This is summed up vividly by Professor of South Asian and Islamic Studies, Scott Kugle: “The soul is an awareness more than a substance. It is a consciousness rather than a thing. It is the identity of the person who is animated by the spirit of God’s merciful breath of creation.” The interplay between the material body and the spirituality of the soul of a person determines that person’s gender identity and obligatory social behavior. In consequence any therapy for a diagnosed gender identity disorder must eventually be applied to the body. As said by the researcher at Örebro University, Sweden, Zara Saidzadeh: “The discourse of the ‘wrong body’ permeates the medicalization of transsexuality in Iran, which holds that transsexual embodiment is a natural error […]”In Islamic philosophy the value ascribed to the sex – this is to say the human body – is entirely different from that attributed to the soul. The latter is the home of the gender and in consequence accompanying identity, therefore being the main criterion for deciding a person’s socially legitimate status. It is the body then that has to follow suit to fully determine a blameless expression of sexuality.

The 1967 fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini quoted from earlier contains a further interesting point: “And if a woman feels she is masculine or if a person feels they have desires of the opposite sex, and can change their sex, but are biologically man or woman, it is not obligatory for them to change and become the opposite sex.” This is where the correlation of sex, gender and sexuality reaches its peak.

For Iranian clerics the balance between body and soul leads to the question of distinction between the material and spiritual aspects of human nature. It follows that clerics in Iran assume that there is a true gender being the significant factor regarding the body and thus is relevant for the observance of rights as well as duties according to Islamic values.These moral duties and rights are tightly interwoven with sexuality. The female body (sex) contains a woman (gender) with feminine desire (sexuality). The male body is that of a man with male desire. And it is only a woman´s privilege to desire a man and be desired by one. The same goes the other way around. The religiously justified non-obligation for modification of the sex implies that a person may live in that body as long as no immoral actions are performed, i.e. homosexual intercourse. As a result, a trans person who still is of the ‚wrong‘ gender continues to be subjected to the moral duties of the body, even if his or her understanding of his or her own gender identity differs from their physical sex. The limitation of sexuality, or rather the possibility of living the ‚proper‘ sexual orientation, is therefore an essential point in the Iranian debate surrounding transsexuality. Heteronormative conceptions demand for trans people to live the ‚proper‘ sexuality, according to the sex. If they wish to perform religiously sanctioned sexual intercourse reassignment surgery would become obligatory.

Yet Iranian professionals go as far as denying trans people both pre- and post-operation the chance of a ‚normal‘ sexual life. They believe that sex-change surgery is often accompanied by a loss of libido as well as the capacity of giving sexual satisfaction to a partner. This in turn can lead to a feeling of degradation in transsexual individuals as it appears to them that their value as a human being depends on their sexuality alone. To counteract this sense of degradation, trans people developed their own understanding of sexuality: ’[T]hey understand their sexuality as involving not only sex, but also their social practices, forces and struggles that challenge unjust institutionalized discourses about them and their status” to make use of Saidzadeh´s words. This begs the question which of these two levels is the most significant for the individual. It seems that for Iranian transsexuals gender identification is ontologically more essential than sex. It may be true that the classification of transsexuality as a pathological disorder is the channel via which the medical system managed to incorporate trans people into the discourse between medical sciences and religion. Yet many Iranian trans people reject the idea that they are suffering from a disorder. However, participating in the institutionalized process enables them to achieve at least partial recognition and acknowledgement from state, society and their own family. Religious and medical endorsement of surgical gender reassignment is often the deciding argument to have both family and friends to agree to the surgery. After the operation, the trans person is able to apply for documents with their new name and gender at the family court, thereby gaining access to certain rights that are assumed to be guaranteed by the state. In practice however, deviant interpretations of the analyzed fatwa are quite common. Sex-change surgery is far easier to obtain in the capital, Tehran, than in other regions and cities of the country where they are sometimes prohibited and the official administration may refuse to register sex-changes. Therefore, a continuing lack of clarification on questions of material law, including trans-rights of succession, custody and procreation leads to difficulties in guaranteeing essential legal protection. Yet, the combination of theological points of view with medical and transgender/-sexual conceptions of sexuality in Iran opens up a space of discussion, where different voices have to dispute, influence each other and take a position on the matter.

In this vein open transsexuality, generally seen as a phenomenon made possible by western liberalism, is not at all something associated in a positive manner with a state that has a constitution based on a certain interpretation of Islam and whose gender policy is widely regarded as repressive. Yet I hope to have shown the very much likely logics behind the reality in this country, enabling and disabling in some ways a genuine expression of self and choice of life. Something that in its positivity and negativity is relatable to other culture spaces and national policies.

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