Trans* realities in Iran

Afsaneh Najmabadi’s article Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith, deals with the realities of trans* people in Iran, namely that transsexual/gender identities are accepted by the government as long as a sex-change operation is had. She also makes a point of connecting medical and religious ideas of transexuality.

She begins her paper by saying, “For legal and medical authorities in Iran, sex-change is explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion it is proposed as a religio-legally sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desires and practices.” (3-4) However, she also warns against relying solely on this explanation of Iranian trans* identities. It is often said that transsexual/gender identities are legal because of the illegality of homosexuality, but this basic, governmental explanation ignores the work done by trans* activists in Iran.

Najmabadi also points out the linking in Iran of transsexuals and homosexuality, despite the belief that trans* identities were heteronormalizing: there was a “…disarticulation of transgender/sexuality from the intersex, and its re-articulation with homosexuality. Transgender/sexuality became re-conceived as a particularly extreme manifestation of homosexuality.” In Iran this is problematic because of the illegality of homosexual behavior. “…sexual deviance was diagnosed as potentially criminal…male homosexuality [was thought of] as almost always violent, akin to rape, prone to turn to murder, and almost always aimed at the ‘underaged.’” (6) In the US there was (and sometimes still is) a similar linking of homosexuality with pedophilia, but instead of violence, gay men were expected to be effeminate and weak. Najmabadi makes sure that we can see the difference between American and Iranian perceptions of homosexuality.

She challenges the American notion of trans* identities further by describing “woman-presenting-males” in a post-revolutionary Iranian Islamic state: these “woman-presenting-males” had become accepted in certain places/professions but then “transgressed the newly imposed regulations of gendered dressing in public.” (7) Their unacceptability came from an outright religious source, rather than the American notion of crossing social boundaries that are not necessarily informed by Christianity. The pre-revolutionary scientific community was not concerned with “Islamic rulings on medical matters” but post-revolution had to “present their reasoning about transgender/sexual matters in a different style…to be able to interact with legal authorities as needed.” (11)

Finally, Najmabadi explains that many medical definitions of transsexuality have come from the US, but because they are presented to non-Western cultures as “just science” they are “dis-located, as if with no history of origin.” (23) This is, of course, untrue – it is informed by American thinking and American culture. This final point by Najmabadi is very important to the conversation of trans* politics and identities: if Americans see everything as Eurocentric and disseminate information under this belief, then the American ideal becomes the norm and erases cultural identities as less legitimate.

-Catlyn Smallwood


Constructing Transsexuality and Homosexuality in Iran

Afsaneh Najmabadi’s article, “Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith: Transgender/Sexuality in Contemporary Iran,” looks at attitudes towards transsexuality and transgender people in Iran, especially in relation to homosexuality.  In Iran, same-sex desire is understood as shameful and unacceptable, and same-sex procedures are illegal.  Interestingly, while transsexuality is similarly considered shameful, transsexual practices are acceptable, legal, and even state-subsidized.  From a medical discourse, desire for sex changes becomes pathologized; medical authorities allow them to occur in order to cure abnormality and disease in a person.  From a religio-legal discourse, sex changes are sometimes authorized as a way to rid a person from their same-sex desire and need for same-sex practices, thus reinforcing heteronormativity.

Additionally, individuals in Iran, who believe they are transsexuals, are subjected to 4-6 months of “filtering,” which is a combination of hormonal and chromosomal tests and psychotherapy.  During this time, a board of “specialists” determines if a person is a real transsexual.  If yes, the person is given an official document stating their new status as a transsexual.  Not surprisingly, psychologists and psychiatrists in Iran often base their diagnosis and treatment plans for transsexuals on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) – III and IV and other U.S.-based methods.  The process in Iran is not an unusual one, rather it’s a familiar process often used in the U.S.  Ideas and solutions constructed by physicians or psychiatrists are similarly viewed here as having a higher level of authority compared to those outside the medical profession, allowing them the ability to own, define, and construct categories as deviant and pathologized.

Additionally, in the “Transgender Youth in Iran, “ video, Iranians discuss the tension between viewing homosexuals as deviant and transsexuals as acceptable.  The video describes how part of this tension may be due to the Koran.  Homosexuality is considered a sin to Islam, because the Koran defines it as a repugnant act.  However, transsexuality is not discussed in the religious doctrine, thus it is not considered a sin that needs to be banned in Iranian society.  An article I found on BBC also describes some Iranian attitudes towards homosexuality.  To some, it is viewed as “unnatural and against religion.”  Furthermore, same-sex desire is seen as something that disturbs the natural social order.

In addition, the “Transgender Youth in Iran” video discusses how transsexuality may be legal in Iran, but transgender people still face a negative stigma in the country as a whole. The BBC article expands upon this idea, stating that individuals who have tendencies for the opposite sex are viewed as dirty and wrong.  For example, Anahita describes how before her sex change, the Iranian police often harassed or threatened her for her female clothing or constructed female appearance.  However, once she became labeled as a transsexual and underwent surgery, she was seen as having a medical condition, allowing her to avoid feelings of shame and sin.  Fortunately for Anahita, her family accepts her more now that she has had a sex change.  For other transsexuals, like Ali Askar, having a sex-change can end up straining family relations further – her family prays and hopes she dies soon.  Thus, is transsexuality really accepted in Iran?   Perhaps Ali’s family reaction is in the margins rather than the center?

Here’s the link to the article:

-Anna Sekine

Framing Transsexuality in Iran

I was really taken aback from the videos presented on Transsexuals in Iran as well as Afsaneh Najmabadi’s “Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith: Transgender/Sexuality in Contemporary Iran.” What struck me most was the way in which people in Iran choose to undergo the surgery. So far, our focus has been on transsexuals in the U.S. In the U.S., people choose to undergo surgery for a variety of reasons. Also, not all people who consider themselves transgender choose to have surgery, take hormones, or they may have only some work done. Furthermore, changing one’s sex does not necessarily mean they will also choose to be heterosexual. 

In Iran, however, things are much different when it comes to transsexuality. There are laws put into place forbidding any kind of homosexuality because of their religion. The government has gone so far as killing anyone who is homosexual. They do, however, allow people to be transsexual. They claim it is a “mental illness,” and their religion does not discuss it. Due to these laws put in place, many people living in Iran undergo surgery only so they can live as someone who is heterosexual. As Najmabadi explains, “For legal and medical authorities in Iran, sex-change is explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion it is proposed as a religio-legally sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desire and practices,” (4).  It is used as a way of getting around the system in order to not only survive in Iran, but to live the way they want to live. This of course, creates a load of problems for those who don’t actually want to change their sex, but do so anyway.

My main concern for all of the surgeries occurring in Iran (Iran having the second most surgeries in the world), is the fact that the way Westerners look at the issue. Unless people learn about transsexuals in Iran, they are going to frame it in a positive way, instead of understanding that most of these people don’t actual desire to have these surgeries. One article I found discusses Iran allowing its first transsexual marriage: 

This article tells the story of a woman who desired to marry a transman.  Her father was against the marriage because of how he used to be a woman. However, the court allowed the marriage because he was not legally a man, making the marriage legal. The way this article is written, it is as if Iran is developing into a more accepting “westernized” country. This reminded me of what we discussed in class last week in terms of how we tend to frame other countries based on Western ideas. This article reinforces the idea that non-Western countries are “behind” the West and it ignores the underlying problems that are occurring for transsexuals in Iran. By only focusing on these positive ideas of transsexual surgery being available and the legalization of transsexuals to marry, it pushes aside the hatred that is happening for homosexuals in Iran, which is the real problem.

– Miranda Fencl

Transexuality in Iran: Accepted?

The video play list was very interesting to me in many different respects.  First of all, I found it intriguing how transexuality is more accepted than homosexuality when in the United States it is almost the opposite.  Here, it seems that transgenderism is seen as less acceptable than homosexuality.  We were just talking in class last week how trans issues and rights are one step lower than gay rights as if it is only important after gay rights is “accomplished.”  However, in Iran it seems that as long as you are transsexual, society can account for your behavior because you are now deemed “mentally ill;” however, homosexuality is still so taboo that it can be punishable by death.  What is even more interesting is that religion is used to justify this.  Religion playing a role in government is nothing new especially when it comes to homosexuality.  However, because transpeople are not specifically written about in the Quran, it is not deemed as “sinful” as being gay.  This reminds me of the arguments against trans people in the United States.  The argument, in religious terms, is that God does not make mistakes (assuming the gender dichotomy is even the Truth with a capital T).  It just shows how different cultures can have very different viewpoints on some of the same issues using the same basis for their reasoning. 

The next thing that I found interesting is that the only way to be homosexual and not punished is through being “diagnosed” as trans and undergo sex reassignment surgery.  What I am wondering is how this is affecting the actual mental health of the homosexual population in Iran.  Is this not causing more psychological harm by forcing someone to change their gender?  In my mind, it is the same as not allowing a trans person to change their body to match themselves.  Living in a culture where sex reassignment has so much taboo, it is weird for me to see a culture where SRS is preferred over homosexuality.  Also, in the videos I felt as though they were trying to show how much freedom that trans people had in Iran because they were at the very least legal and could receive a sex change.  I think this is ridiculous.  Trans people do not have any more rights in Iran than they do here.  In the first and second video, the interviewees recited the same story that is required to jump through that medical hoop in America.  The normative trans person still had to feel that way from birth and have contemplated suicide.  It does not allow for any more fluidity in gender transition than we do here in America.  In fact, they seem to have even more hoops to jump through since it was stated that they have to also get a signed waiver from their religious leader.  I do not agree with how Iran is painted as a more tolerant place for transgendered people.  If anything, they are only more tolerant in relation to their very extreme policies for homosexuality.

Nicole Amodeo

First Comes Cultural Context…

The essay “Transgender Theory and Embodiment” by Katrina Roen takes a look at the “Risk of Racial Marginalization” facing trans* people transnationally. Specifically, Roen chooses to discuss trans* people of different races and cultural identities who live in New Zealand.

In the case of Don, a 45-year-old Samoan fa’afafine, culture precedes sexuality. By positioning his Samoan identity before his sexuality, Don point out the importance of cultural context and its effects on subject hood. Approaching identity and subject hood this way, scholars, academics and anyone studying trans* individuals can avoid the western/nonwestern binaristic thinking that does not necessarily or accurately asses one’s subjectivity. 

The summer after my freshman year I lived in New Zealand and can say from experience that these same sentiments are shared by many of the people who live there. Upon a trip to parliament, I realized how freeing it must be to live in a country where your cultural identity surpasses the other aspects of identity, created a shared sense of unity.  This is not to say that the intricacies and differences that create subjectivity are over looked. Oppositionally, they are simply not treated as a determining factor in one’s ability to live, work, and run the country of New Zealand. Members of parliament include gay men and women, trans* individuals as well as individuals with religious and spiritual beliefs that could be considered on the fringe, including a Rastafarian member of parliament. Just as well, a certain number of office and parliament positions are reserved for Maoris.

It is the cultural familiarity of the members of New Zealand’s parliament that allow them to negate discriminatory office policies, just as Don’s hopeful narrative insists. In attempting to remove one’s own cultural bias (which, essentially can never fully be eradicated), and position oneself at a cross sectioning of relative culture, gender, sex, and sexuality, one might be able to address theories pertaining to transnational, trans* embodied folks with less western/nonwestern undertones.

-Sally Stempler

Identity Hierarchies

A few questions posed in Katrina Rosen’s Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalization are “How might queer be theorized to better take into account Don’s perspective of putting culture first and gender/sexuality second?” and “Must there be such a prioritizing for issues of racism, homophobia, and transphobia to be effectively combated?” These questions are really striking to me in that they deal with making a sort of hierarchy of self-identification. While these questions are very specific to trans* theory, they could easily be expanded to a greater understanding of intersectional identities in a more generalized sense.

A 45-year-old Samoan fa’afafine named Don is one of the examples that Rosen uses in her essay. It is Don that causes Rosen to ask the questions previously stated. This is because he wants people to view him as Samoan before they view him as anything else, including fa’afafine. His prioritization of his identity in such a manner is interesting because people often ignore issues of race or ethnicity when talking about sexuality, making the assumption that one’s sexuality is of greater personal importance and effectively ranking another person’s identity without knowing much about them at all. This could work in the opposition as well, where one would assume that race informs a person’s identity more than their sexuality when the person in question feels the opposite. However, it’s more interesting to think of how sexuality overshadows race because race is a more easily identifiable trait visually than sexuality.

Don believes that “cultural identity precedes gender/sexuality identity in political importance,” but it also important to note that he acknowledges that the two are linked and inform one another in relation to his identity (Roen 660). Rosen notes that Don’s reclaiming of fa’afaine as an identity that does not need to be medicalized is similar to “queer and transgendered critiques of psycho-medical discourses on transsexuality.”

This video is titled “What is a Fa’afafine” and in this video a fa’fafine named Phylesha discusses how they interpret their identity in relation to how other view them. Phylesha says, “I don’t identify as a man. I don’t identify as a woman. I identify as who I am, who I know to be and that is a human being.” When asked if there is a space between a man and a woman, Phylesha says, “That’s up for you to decide.” It is that line that really spoke to me and that I think really relates back to Don’s prioritization of his identity. Don has actively formed a hierarchy of identity, where he is Samoan and then fa’afine. Phylesha has formed a hierarchy as well, where they are first and for most a human being and a fa’afine second. Both are similar approaches to taking control of one’s self-identification, but how they would interact with the world on a social and political level would be very different.


– Kris Krumb

Trying to understand the concept of a third gender in a society where the concept doesn’t exist.

“Anthropologists make an important contribution to contemporary discussions of gender by pointing out that the two-gender system is neither innate nor universal.” This is a quote from Evan B. Towle and Lynn M. Morgan’s “Romancing the Transgender Native” that stuck with me.  This is something that obviously, many of those who have taken some sort of gender studies course should know, but I don’t think it’s something that most people really think about.  Our society is surrounded by binaries, to the point where a non binary system seems way too out of reach for us to even think about accomplishing. 

Maybe this is why people seem to blur these third genders altogether in the same category.

This article talks about the travestis of Brazil. What struck me while reading this article is how difficult it is to compare this idea of the third gender because we have no basis for it here (or in the UK which is where this article was written.) The article is really long, but it deals with something that I wouldn’t have even have thought about before reading it- the addiction to silicon injections in order to gain an idealized body form. Now I’ve seen the episode of “My Strange Addiction” where the woman is addicted to silicon injections, but I’d never thought that this could affect a whole group of people.

This article obviously is focusing on the phenomenon of silicon injections and the dangers that these people put themselves through in order to gain this idealized body, but the idea shouldn’t be ignored. The third gender concept is difficult to grasp because it’s such a different idea than what we have in the States. 

“ THERE IS no word for travesti in Britain; over here; there is no need for one. But in Brazil, medical science has empowered the travesti to define her its own identity, and the travesti has, in turn, evolved into a species: a manufactured hermaphrodite of sorts, an aching parody of a woman with a masculine core. ‘I was born to be a travesti, I wasn’t born a boy or a girl,’ says Luciana, who started taking hormones at the age of nine. ‘A travesti is neither a man or a woman. Everyone knows what we are.’ “

This quote describes a lot of what I’m trying to say. A similar situation is that hijras of India. The hijra is also the only third gender of different cultures that I had been exposed to before this class. And I’m not sure I would call that a complete success because I don’t remember the professor being able to explain the hijra culture successfully. My point is- how are we supposed to be able to understand a concept that most people are never exposed to? As a society we understand things in reference to things we already know, so the idea of the third gender might be a difficult concept to grasp, but it’s important to remember that the rest of the world isn’t defined by what we know from our location and that each culture is unique and should be observed as such. 

-Jalyn Phifer

Fitting in Race and Ethnicity to Gender Theorizing

When examining transgender theory, Katrina Roen challenges her audience to view certain theories in a more critical view. Roen writes about the lack of focus on race and ethnicity when it comes to theorizing transgender. By interviewing three different gender liminal people, Roen writes about their beliefs and thoughts the three have on politics and their own identities as transgender (or third gender) people. (Excuse me if I misuse the term third gender with transgender, I am still a bit unclear on the differences between the two.) By purposefully choosing participates with diverse cultural backgrounds, her participants Don, Tania, and Pat all give varying opinions on transgender theories. As said in the text, “Don provides an example of reclaiming a traditional sexuality/gender specific position which is very distinct from, but in some respects resembles, transgenderism” (659). I really enjoyed reading what he had to say about the difference between being identified as fa’afafine compared to other Palagi (English) terms like gay and queer. “[Those terms] actually tell you how that society views that person. My culture just views it ‘like a woman’” (660). His cultural identity is what he wants others to view him first as, which is Samoan. But yet, the two do not relate without the other.

Moving on to Tania, her interview is focused on her critical views of western conceptions of the medicalization of transsexuality. When we discover that she is opting for sex reassignment surgery, her reasoning is “partly to the current legal situation of non-operative transpeople in Aotearoa/New Zealand” (662). But again, her race (Maaori) is brought into view and the importance it holds over her identity. She does not wish to lose her transsexual identity, for doing so would “denigrate her entire ancestral line” (662). The last interviewee, Pat thinks uncritically of the medical discourses on transsexuality. But Pat also found a way to maintain his Maaori and transgender identity through the kapa haka group he belongs to. Here, both identities are respected and acknowledged. I was moved by this group that he spoke of. When speaking about his transgender identity, Roen said that Pat talked about it “as something to be held in high esteem when he talked about it in conjunction with his Maaori identity in the context of the kapa haka group” (663). In conclusion to her writing, Roen focuses on this very thing. She suggests that it “provides an illustration of how transgender and racial politics do not need to be approached in an either/or fashion, but can be worked together” (664). I also liked that she ended her writing with a numerous amount of questions, showing that she herself still does not have the answer to correct views on transgender people and gender liminal ways of being.

After reading Roen, I decided to look into people who identify as fa’afafine. I found this video on Youtube (!) where a fa’afafine woman from New Zealand tells the interviewer how she identifies herself and how others view her. I was very happy to see that a support group called I.N.E was developed for all fa’afafine girls to find there voice and support each other.


– Colleen Griffin

Appropriation of the Transgender Native

Towle and Morgan’s piece, “Romancing the Transgender Native…” is an ambitious argument to first emphasize the importance of cultural contextualization, and  secondly disrupt certain anthropological arguments which employ conceptual imperialism, whether consciously or not, in their study of trans* subjects outside of the Western world.

As the writers very importantly signify, “Anthropologists are not immune from the temptation to use the word transgender as a shorthand gloss” (Towel& Morgan 668). For those of us in Gender 215 this is an ironic understatement in regards to question 5 of our midterm exam, where we were asked (in a class on global understanding of gender from their cultural contexts) to compare the identity category of Indian hijras to the “all too specific” identity of “Western Transsexual.” Indeed it seems very obvious that in our research of other cultures we (western academics) almost seamlessly impose our conceptual understandings onto non-western bodies, reading them through our narrow lens while attempting to use them as discursive subjects to unveil the troubling nature of our gendered system. I am not attempting here to critique entirely the impetus behind our research of gender out-side our system as a means of widening the discourse circulating within our own; this as Towle & Morgan point out is as its beginning a valiant attempt (670). These studies at their heart are trying to uncover cultural evidence of other gender practices as a means of denaturalizing homophobia, transphobia, and other western racial/sexist ideologies, however if not carefully approached more often than not these “third gender categories” are still contextualized from a western lens, one that understands these persons as enacting gender other than or outside of our two-gender, two-sexed system.

I have included a link above to a very helpful youtube video which gives voice specifically to the two-spirit belief system in certain native-American tribes. This video of personal accounts and researched understandings of the two-spirit cultural phenomenon give voice to the importance of cultural context in the discourse of “alternative means of ‘doing gender.” Many different subjects in this piece talk of two-spirit people as having a greater breadth of sight, holding a unique place in their culture between the material world and the spiritual world. This contextualization is absolutely necessary in understanding those peoples operating within a different socio- cultural framework. For most native  tribes two-spirit people are identified by the women in their family as a result of the performance of gender and their active involvement in women’s roles and activities, not their sexuality (youtube ~ 8min). To align or parallel homosexuality with the two-spirit person is not only a discursive erasure but problematic because it emphasizes an appropriation of a particular people into an identity category they might not self-identify. Only from positioning these subjects in their cultural contexts and using their own discourse of how they describe their roles and identities within their community can we begin to reflect or deconstruct our society’s dominant understandings of gender and sexuality. We must never make this comparison explicit that would be as productive as comparing apples within a community of oranges; instead we may understand the community of apple in their own orchards and apply some of what they teach us to our own groves of oranges.


-Sophia Koehler-Derrick


When discussing the medical emphasis on genitalia among trans* bodies, it is also important to note the accessibility of such surgeries and what effects this availability may have on an individual’s gender identity.  The western notion that one’s gender should be represented through their genitalia has led to a demand that “incongruent” sex and gender must be “matched” through surgery.  With this, one must consider those who have no access whatsoever to transsexual medical technologies and those who do not identify with western definitions of trans*, but choose to carry out similar practices.  As Katrina Roen argues in “Transgender Theory and Embodiment: The Risk of Racial Marginalization,” trans* theory is a construction of whiteness without attention to race and cultural understandings.  Inserting theories of race and trans* identity after a body of work has already been created only allows for a problematic attempt to infuse ideas of race into a system that has already been fixed to compliment white ideals of gender and embodiment.  On main issue with this attempt is that perhaps individuals of marginalized racial categories identify first with their race rather than with their gendered or trans* identity.  In this sense, trans* theory must be challenged to understand racial categorization as a part of the trans identity rather than determining factor, telling whether a person has a proper claim to the trans identity.  With the racial character taking precedence over the trans character, the medicalization of race in regards to gender becomes a horrifying realty.

The theme of racial categorization and trans* theory is particularly important when it comes to cross-cultural identities.  In the same way that embodiment of gender and embodiment of race work against each other in trans* theory, the western perspective works to invalidate different cultural embodiments of gender that cannot be understood through the trans* identity.  Roen outlines the ways in which western ideas of gender and trans bodies have been overlaid and applied to cultures that do not fit these ideals.  The colonization of gender liminal individuals throughout the world has worked to diminish gender variability and eradicate significant differences among cultures.  These expressions of gender identity that choose not to subscribe to medical involvement or comply to a system of gender dichotomization challenge the western notion of corporeality and cannot be understood through such a lens.  On this, Roen writes, “through the processes of westernisation (via colonisation), it is now not un- common for gender liminal persons to seek sex reassignment surgery even though they live within a cultural context where their gender liminality might formerly have been understood in terms of a gender role for which bodily change was not considered an issue.”  The medicalization of not only gender in the western world, but cross-culturally poses a problem for the cultural traditions and preservation of gender liminality.  Due to the colonization of gender expression and the surgical standard of “matching” sex with “internal” gender, the genitals have become an extremely important part of an individual’s gender.

In addition to this, Towle and Morgan point out the ways in which western scholars also lump ideas of “third gender” into a simple category for those that do not exactly fit the trans* narrative ideals.  As if adopting other cultures’ gender non-comforming individuals into trans* theory is not enough, those who further push gender dichotomization, are then forced into a category of “third,” which does not properly allude to any difference in characteristics and identity among each culture. As many of us are in the same G215 class, most can probably recall the documentary we watched called Middle Sexes. With the purpose of informing the public about “middles sexes” all over the world, I believe this film is a prime example of the language, tone, and lack of variability used when the western perspective is reflected onto those living in very different cultures. Although we do see numerous accounts an interviews about the ways gender is experienced among individuals, there is little discussion about the effect trans* theory and gender colonization has had on these people. Many of these case studies live in a “gray area” when it comes to gender and western notions of “third gender,” but the impact of lumping these numerous categories and personal accounts together to create an anonymous “middle sex” within the classroom and educational field brings about the very problems that Roen, Towle and Morgan discuss. It seems that if we are not creating a category with exponential expectations with a very distinct understanding of “matching” and leave very little room for variation, then we are creating a category that brings all variations together, allowing for no personal understanding and identity that can be translated throughout cultures.

-Elizabeth Nash