Something happened in 2003–4: transsexuals and transsexuality in Iran suddenly became a hot media topic, both in Iran and internationally.
The medical practice of sex change by means of surgery and hormones dates to at least the early 1970s in Iran; for nearly three decades the topic had received occasional coverage in the Iranian press, including a series of reports (presumably based on real lives) published in a popular magazine, Rah-i zindigi (Path of Life), beginning in 1999.1 Iranian press coverage of “trans-” phenomena increased sharply in early 2003, however, and it has continued intensely ever since—sometimes the reports directly address transsexuals and transsexuality, and sometimes they pertain to them in the context of other people marked as “vulnerable to social harm,” such as prostitutes (both male and female) and runaway girls, who reportedly live trans-dressed lives. It was these last two topics that drew the attention of documentary filmmaker Mitra Farahani to the subject of transsexuals in Iran. Her documentary Just a Woman won international acclaim at the 2002 Berlin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and elsewhere and seems to have ignited broader international attention to the issue of transsexuality in Iran. A flurry of articles appeared in the world press in 2004–5. The Guardian, for example, wrote on July 27, 2005, that “today, the Islamic Republic of Iran occupies the unlikely role of global leader for sex change,” adding, “Iran has even become a magnet for patients from eastern European and Arab countries seeking to change their genders.” A number of television documentaries in France, Sweden, Holland, and the United Kingdom followed, as well as several independent documentary film productions (Abdo 2000; Eqbali 2004; Fathi 2004; McDowall and Khan 2004; Harrison 2005; Stack 2005; Tait 2005).
The celebratory tone of many of these reports—welcoming recognition of transsexuality and the permissibility of sex change operations—is sometimes mixed with an element of surprise: How could this be happening in an Islamic state? In other accounts, the sanctioning of transsexuality is tightly framed by comparisons with punishments for sodomy and the presumed illegality of homosexuality—echoing, as we shall see, some of the official thinking in Iran. 2
While transsexual surgeries are not new in Iran, over the past decade such operations seem to have increased not only in publicity, but also in actual frequency. At the first national symposium on transsexuality, “Studying Gender Identity Disorder,” held in the northeastern provincial capital of Mashhad in May 2005, Dr. Aliriza Kahani, from the National Legal Medical Board, reported that in the fifteen years between 1987 and 2001, 200 males and 70 females had submitted sex change petitions to the board, and 214 had been approved. Over the following four years, between 2001 and 2004, another 200 petitions had been received (Shakhis, May 24, 2005).3 Anecdotal statistics from a private sex change clinic in Tehran point to similar increases—for the period 1985–95, 125 of 153 clients went through partial or full sex change operations; in the decade that followed, the numbers increased to 200 surgeries in a client population of 210.
The increasing frequency of sex change petitions and operations is not an unproblematically positive development, empowering though this trend has been for transsexuals. Many political challenges are posed by framing transsexuality within a dominant mapping of sexuality that explicitly renders as diseased, abnormal, deviant, and at times criminal any sexual or gender nonconformity (including transsexuality itself, as well as same-sex desires and practices). For legal and medical authorities, sex change surgeries are explicitly framed as the cure for a diseased abnormality, and on occasion they are proposed as a religioegally sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desires or practices. Even though this possible option has not become state policy (because official discourse is also invested in making an essential distinction between transsexuals and homosexuals), recent international media coverage of transsexuality in Iran increasingly emphasizes the possibility that sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) is being performed coercively on Iranian homosexuals by a fundamentalist Islamic government (Ireland 2007). This narrative framing (along with similar ones concerning the suppression of women’s rights and other political and labor struggles) circulates within larger...