The Paradox of Transgender Equality in Iran

It’s hard to go a day without hearing mention of the Middle East—a disconnect between radical (and even not-so radical) Islam and Western views can’t be denied. Even for those hoping for diplomatic and peaceful solutions, it’s almost impossible not to hit a mental wall when it comes to one topic–human rights. Many Islamic republics in the Middle East simply treat everyone except heterosexual men in ways that most Westerners find absolutely deplorable when it comes to human rights.

Many of us remember when, upon visiting Columbia University in the fall of 2007, then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran we do not have this phenomenon, I do not know who has told you we have it.” But while a head of state saying something so blatantly intolerant in a public setting may seem like a shock, it was largely unsurprising: Iran is an Islamic republic and Islam forbids homosexuality. What may come as a surprise, however, is Iran’s place in the transgender movement: after Thailand, Iran is the leading nation for the number sexual reassignment surgeries.

Initially, it is difficult to reconcile the two ostensibly conflicting facts that Islam explicitly forbids homosexuality but the Islamic republic of Iran not only permits, but even provides government funds for those seeking sexual reassignment procedures. The caveat is that this is not due to a general cultural acceptance of transgender individuals in Persian culture but to a religious decree, a fatwa, by the leader of the Iranian revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s. After having been petitioned by Maryam Khatoon Molkara, who sought the male to female transition, Khomeini decreed that there is nothing in the Koran condemning sexual reassignment surgery and allowed it for Molkara, subsequently allowing others to seek the procedure in Iran.

However progressive this may seem, homosexuality is still strictly illegal and punishable by death. In fact, many gay men and women in Iran are forced to have the procedure in order to avoid this punishment and improve their quality of life because of this “loophole” in Iran.

This has interesting implications for transgender rights across the world. The paradox is that, while the social movement in the United States has focused on the acceptance of gay and queer rights in a social and cultural sense, we’ve been slow to address the political and medical needs of the transgender community. In Iran, there are more medical rights for transgender individuals—but arguably for all of the wrong reasons. If one thing is certain, it’s that every culture’s view of gender and sexuality is just that—their own.


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