Sunday, October 21, 2007

Gender Trouble in Iran


Israel's Dana International (née Yaron Cohen) in her latest single,
"Indian Movie" - a cultural artifact that deserves a separate post


Last Thursday (October 18), I had the privilege of hearing Afsaneh Najmabadi, Professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University, speak at Berkeley. In a week in which I attended talks and discussions featuring speakers from Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk to anthropologist of religion Talal Asad, her talk on "Transing and Transpassing Across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran" took the crown.

While many of us were busy worrying about Iran's progress toward developing nuclear weapons and the country's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, it appears that the Islamic Republic has quietly asserted its dominance in other realms. Most notably, Iran has become one of the global leaders in sex change operations.

Iran's progress in this area, though largely ignored by the intelligence community, has received a fair amount of coverage in the Western press over the past 3 years or so (see this piece, which appeared in the Guardian in 2005). Much of this coverage betrays a mixture of celebration and surprise. Najmabadi, currently in the beginning stages of what will surely be a fascinating work, presented some of the findings of her research conducted in 2006 in Iran, which does much to demystify the accounts in the press.

Iranian clerics today, basing themselves on classical Islamic discourse which posits all bodies have one true sex (either female or male), believe that in some cases medical expertise is needed to reveal what a given individual's true sex is. Having been identified as a female in a male's body (or vice versa), one may choose to have one's body fixed.

Thus, the legal situation in Iran today, based on some pioneering fatwas by Khomeini from the late 1960s, is such that individuals wishing to undergo sex-change operations (male to female or female to male) can do so, provided they a) pass a process of certification that grants them official status as transsexuals, and b) have the necessary funds to pay for the surgery.

The certification process requires producing a plausible narrative to the authorities of one's transsexuality, and passing a test - neither of which are significant obstacles for Iranian transsexuals, who like everyone else in the country are apparently excellent test-takers and have formed support networks to help their peers prepare for the interviews to assure a "pass." The legal recognition of one's transsexuality procures a number of important benefits, including an exemption from military conscription and coverage for particular medical expenses. So much for the good news.

Now the bad news. For one, legal recognition does not mean social acceptance. Here, the problem seems to be far more acute for men wishing to undergo operations to become females. Even after they have undergone operations, M to F transsexuals are stigmatized as men who are "anal" (i.e., on the receiving end of anal penetration). On the other hand, F to M transsexuals, according to Najmabadi often meet with more acceptance by their family (which can sometimes score real economic gains as a result) and experience an elevation in their own social status.

However, one of the most pernicious consequences of the current situation, which legalizes transsexuality, has been the increasing strength of a naturalizing and medicalizing discourse, which makes essential distinctions between homosexuality and transsexuality. Homosexuality (technically, the criminal code outlaws sodomy) remains strictly forbidden, with sex change operations promoted as a "cure" to this "disease." Najmabadi attributes the large number of sex-change operations in part to the illegality of homosexuality. The effects of sex-change operations on same-sex partnerships are often devastating for the people involved.

Najmabadi is the author of several other very interesting studies, including a book on Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity - definitely a subject that has long occupied me . She also contributes to Iranian.com; I especially recommend her column, "Some of us like our women hairy" to all those with parsi-ness in them.

1 comment:

motek212 said...

מה שווה כזאת אהבה זה לא מציאותילי!
שיחקת אותה דנה.
פשוט גדול ..הקליפ.

והרגתם אותי עם הפוסט הזה.