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

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