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“But these days, Iran's Muslim clerics, who dominate the judiciary, are considerably better informed about transsexuality.

Some clerics now even recommend sex-change operations to those who are troubled about their sex.”



Sex changes are gaining acceptance in Iran
Nazila Fathi
The New York Times
Monday, August 2, 2004

TEHRAN Everything about Amir appears masculine:  his broad chest, muscled arms, dark full beard and deep voice.

But, in fact, Amir was a woman until four years ago, when, at the age of 25, he underwent the first of a series of operations that would change his life.

Since then he has had 20 operations and expects four more.   And Amir, who as a woman was married twice to men — his second husband helped with the transition and remains a good friend — is now engaged to marry a woman."

I love my life and I'm happy, as long as no one knows about my past identity," said Amir, who asked that his full name not be published. "No one has been more helpful than the judge, who was a cleric and issued the permit for my operation."

After decades of repression, Iran's Islamic government is recognizing people with sexual-identity disorders and allowing them to have sex-change operations and obtain new birth certificates.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, there was no particular policy regarding transsexuals.   Iranians with the inclination, means and connections could obtain the necessary medical treatment and new identity documents.

The new religious government, however, classed transsexuals and transvestites with gays and lesbians, who were condemned by Islam and faced the punishment of lashing under Iran's penal code.

But these days, Iran's Muslim clerics, who dominate the judiciary, are considerably better informed about transsexuality.   Some clerics now even recommend sex-change operations to those who are troubled about their sex.

The issue was discussed at a conference in Tehran in June that drew officials from other Gulf countries.  One cleric, Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, is writing his thesis at the religious seminary of Qom on transsexuality."

All the clerics and researchers at the seminary encouraged me to work on the subject," he said in an interview.

"They said that my research can help change the social stigma attached to these people and clarify religious decrees on the matter."

One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who formerly was a man known as Fereydoon.
Before the revolution, under the shah, he had longed to become a woman but could not afford surgery.   Furthermore, he was a devout Muslim and wanted religious guidance.

In 1978, he wrote to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution but was still in exile, explaining his situation.

The ayatollah replied that his case was different from that of a homosexual and therefore Fereydoon had Khomenei's blessing.

However, the revolution intervened and men like Fereydoon or those who had already changed their sex were harassed, even jailed and tortured.

"They made me stop wearing women's clothes, which I had worn for many years and was used to," Molkara said.   "It was like torture for me.   They even made me take hormones to look like a man."

It took him until 1986 to get government permission to proceed with surgery.   But he could not afford the operation and did not have it until 1997, when he underwent a sex-change operation in Bangkok.   The Iranian government covered the expenses.

Four years ago, Molkara established an organization to help those with sexual-identity problems.   Co-founders include Ali Razini, head of the of the Special Court of Clergy, a branch of the judiciary that deals only with clerics, and Zahra Shojai, Iran's vice president for women's affairs.

An Islamic philanthropic group known as the Imam Khomeini Charity Foundation has agreed to provide loans of $1,200 to help pay for sex-change surgery.

To obtain legal permission for sex-change operations and new birth certificates, applicants must provide medical proof of sexual-identity disorder.

The process can take years.   It also involves considerable expense.   In Tehran, the initial male-to-female surgery runs about $4,000.   So far, Amir has spent $12,000 on medical procedures.

The people who pursue this route come from many different backgrounds.   Dr. Bahram Mir-djalali, one of Tehran's few sex-change surgeons, said one of his patients had been a member of the Revolutionary Guards who served five years in the war with Iraq.
His operation was paid for by a Muslim cleric he had worked for as a secretary.

After the operation, the man-turned-woman divorced, and then married the cleric."

When she came to see me years later, she was wearing a chador," the doctor recalled, referring to the black head-to-toe garb worn by religious women.   "She took off the chador, and there was no sign of the bearded man I had operated on."

Many who cannot deal with the legal and financial obstacles to a surgical solution have to deal with humiliation in their daily lives.

One 27-year-old man said he had run away from home at the age of 14 because he did not dare tell his family of his urge to become a woman.

He wants to be known as Susan and wears women's clothes at home but emerges dressed this way only at night.

He says that the constant need for secrecy has left him severely depressed."

I have suffered all my life," he said, constantly adjusting his long curly hair to cover his sideburns.

In a society where men enjoy a higher status than women, the stigma against any man who wants to be a woman is especially strong."

They compliment a girl who behaves and dresses like a man as a strong person, but they look down at us and despise us," said Assal, who was disowned by her father for having surgery to become a woman.

Mir-djalali said he had to fight on many fronts to help more than 200 patients who had consulted him in the 12 years he performed sex-change operations.

Even if Iran's Muslim clerics are more understanding now of transsexuals' needs, others are not."

We have a problem even deciding at which hospital to do the surgery because society considers these people deviant," he said.

He said one patient's father had pulled a knife on him in his office, and threatened to kill him if he touched the man's son.

"What we really need to help these people," Mir-djalali said, "is a serious cultural campaign."

Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, 5 January, 2005
Iran's sex-change operations

By Frances Harrison
The BBC's Tehran correspondent

Cleric Hojatulislam Kariminia with Frances Harrison
Clerics can study transsexuality but not homosexuality which is illegal in Iran

In a country that has outlawed homosexuality, Frances Harrison meets one Iranian cleric who says the right to a sex change is a human right.

For 20 years Mahyar has been a woman trapped in a man's body.

As a small child Mahyar liked dressing up in women's clothes and experimenting with make-up but as she grew older it got more difficult. "I badly needed to do it but it had to be in secret," she says.

Now she wants to have a sex-change operation — if she can muster the £2,000 it will cost in Iran. If her family doesn't help financially, she says she might sell one of her kidneys to pay for it.

"People say you'll get other illnesses but I think I can live without one kidney. I cannot live between the sky and the earth," says Mahyar.


Surgeons have already removed Mahyar's testicles. After the operation, her older brother locked her up for a week and wouldn't let her use the telephone. Mahyar's brother says someone has put a spell on her.
Dr Mirjalali discusses the operation with Mayhar
Dr Mirjalali discusses the operation with Mayhar

When Mahyar wants to feel normal she goes to the clinic of Dr Mirjalali — Iran's leading sex-change surgeon. There are women who were men, men who were women and those like Mahyar waiting for the operation they believe will be a sort of rebirth.

Dr Mirjalali says in Europe a surgeon would do about 40 sex change operations in a decade. He's done 320 in the last 12 years in Iran.

"If you saw them out in the street you wouldn't realise that one day they were the opposite sex," he boasts.

The doctor will use parts of Mahyar's intestines to create female sex organs. He warns it involves five or six hours of difficult surgery and weeks of painful recuperation.

Mahyar loves to go to cosmetics shops — and try out new nail varnish for her long manicured nails and discuss with the amused female shop assistants the best sort of foundation cream to hide her stubbly chin.

The sight of a man wearing make-up does turn heads on the street. Islamic tradition does not allow cross dressing — a man should only dress in male clothes. But that is not to say Iran's religious scholars are antagonistic to transsexuals.
I want to suggest that the right of transsexuals to change their gender is a human right
Hojatulislam Kariminia

Hojatulislam Kariminia wrote his doctoral thesis on the implications of sex-change operations for Islamic law.

He is a leading expert on questions like does a husband or wife need the permission of their spouse before a sex change operation? Is their marriage automatically annulled afterwards and what happens to the wife's dowry money or inheritance if she becomes a man.

Ayatollah Khomeini

He shows me the book in Arabic in which, 41 years ago, Ayatollah Khomeini wrote about new medical issues like transsexuality.

"I believe he was the first Islamic scientist in the world of Islam who raised the issue of sex change," says Hojatulislam Kariminia.

The Ayatollah's ruling that sex-change operations were allowed has been reconfirmed by Iran's current spiritual leader.

That has meant that clerics like Hojatulislam Kariminia can study transsexuality — unlike homosexuality which is completely forbidden in Islam and illegal in Iran.

"I want to suggest that the right of transsexuals to change their gender is a human right," says the cleric, who is so fascinated by the subject that he says he dreams about the transsexuals he has studied at night.

"I am trying to introduce transsexuals to the people through my work and in fact remove the stigma or the insults that sometimes attach to these people," says Hojatulislam Kariminia.

Iranian society is not as accepting of transsexuals as the country's religious leaders
Iranian society is not as accepting of transsexuals as the country's religious leaders

That's not easy. In every way Alan looks like a man but he was born Alim — with a woman's body. Three years ago he had a sex-change operation.

"I don't remember who Alim was — what she used to do, what kind of personality she had," says Alan. The past is something he'd prefer to forget.

Alan was about to get married when the parents of his bride found out he had been born a woman. They were horrified and refused to allow their daughter to marry what they considered another woman.

Iranian society has yet to catch up with its religious leaders — who say transsexuality is an illness like any other for which Islam has the solution and science the cure.

Alan shows me his new birth certificate and passport, which has been legally changed to say he is now a man. He's surprised to learn in Britain a transsexual who's had a sex change operation cannot change his or her gender on their birth certificate.

"I think in Iran it is better; in Iran they say you need to know your identity — either you have to be a boy or a girl," says Alan.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004 comes into force in the UK in from April 2005.
Under the provisions of the Act a transsexual person can apply to be legally recognised in their acquired gender.


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For archive purposes, this article is being stored on website.
The purpose is to advance understandings of environmental, political,
human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues.