"Lost in Transition". Finding an own Identity as a Transsexual in Iran

Term Paper, 2015

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents



Jurisprudential Discourse

Steps of Transition

Recognising yourself as a transsexual

The Issue of Finding an Identity



‘Lost in Transition’-Finding an own Identity as a Transsexual in Iran

I wanted to live like everyone else, like all the other boys and girls walking around.

My goal was simply to find my own identity.Anoosh11


Since Ayatollah Khomeini published a fatwa that permitted sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) for hermaphrodites, the Iranian government uses methods to enforce adherence of gender roles and defines transsexuals as people with a Gender Identity Disorder (GID) who need to be treated. The aim of the fatwa was to ‘correct the true sex’ in order to prevent same-sex desire and maintain society’s heteronormative morality. The illegality of homosexual acts supported the development of sex change operations in Iran because transsexuality became a more accepted way of being non-heteronormative as they are perceived to be born in the wrong body. However, despite the legalisation of SRS, social oppression towards transsexuals is still prevalent in Iranian society. Prejudices and discrimination create a transphobic discourse within the society. Many transsexuals have to deal with identity issues, social oppression and often challenge the essential discourse of gender/sex, while seeking for recognition within their social environment. Transsexuals do not seek for recognition of identity politics, but rather for recognition of status in society in order to become an equal social participant. The legalisation of SRS is not progressive but rather reinforces gender apartheid and homophobia as many homosexuals are forced to change in order to escape punishments of homosexual acts. This paper describes how transsexuals in Iran negotiate their everyday life within social and cultural boundaries and how post-operation transsexuals are recognised by others. It gives an overview of the legal situation, the transition process, and describes socio-cultural issues of transsexuals while finding their own identity in Iranian society.


GID – Gender Identity Disorder

FtM – Female-to-Male

MtF – Male-to-Female

LMOI - Legal Medicine Organisation of Iran

SRS – Sex-Reassignment Surgery

TPI - Tehran Psychiatric Institute


In the 1940’s a discourse of sexual conduct highly emerged in Iranian literature. It discussed topics related to love, sex, desire, marriage, and reproduction, but also mentioned non-heteronormative desires, gender/sex dis-identification and sex changes.2In the 1960’s and 1970’s the discourse of gender disorder was exceedingly debated and transsexuality was shaped by psychology’s gender/sex dimorphism, which shifted the conceptualisation of transsexuality.3Suddenly, transsexuality was contrasted to ‘deviant’ homosexuality and the issue moved from a physical to a psychological problem. Thus, a medical-psychological sex and gender discourse which links the body to sexual behaviour was produced. Everyone outside the gender-normed frame was defined as abnormal while suffering from a gender disorder. In 1967, Ayatollah Khomeini published afatwathat permitted sex-reassignment surgery (SRS) for hermaphrodites. Clerics and jurisprudents elaborated rules that deal with the issue of transgender people through medical technology and introduced a legal procedure in order to ‘cure’ the people with gender identity disorder (GID). Their aim was to ‘correct the true sex’ in order to prevent same-sex desire.4Khomeini was the first ruler who differentiated between homosexuality and transsexuality. In 1985 a supplement was attached to thatfatwawhich declared to include transsexuals who suffer from gender dysphoria.5He stated that only a person with a clear sexual identity can carry out religious duties. Thefatwahas been supported by many clerics but shifted its meaning to a medical, legal, and religious control of individual’s sexuality. Since the Iranian Revolution until today, legal, clerical, biomedical, and psychiatric specialists work together to set up legal procedures from the diagnosis to the treatment in order to provide social and financial support.6The aim of this legal approval is to achieve a social control and maintain society’s morality.7

Since the Iranian Revolution, there have been radical transformations in Iran regarding the conceptualisation of sex changes due to repressions of social deviance.8After 1979, the government enforced a public gender code that disrupted the semi-accepted non-heteronormative discourses. Gender equality and disorders became a taboo topic. Homosexuality was publicly disapproved, while transsexuality became a socially more accepted way of being non-heteronormative.9However, in the 1990’s a new religious thinking arose.10Nowadays, sex and sexuality discourses are highly discussed in Iran, while the gender-sex binary became intertwined with religious discourses. Heterosexuality became the natural ‘norm’, whereby sexuality has a set of sociocultural normative restrictions in order to reproduce and become a ‘happy’ believer.11Yet, the constructed discourse of gender and sexuality in Iran contrasts the actual experience especially of young Iranians when talking about sexual identities. The regime politicises the body and setting of sexuality, while the younger generation pushes the regime for a social and political reform. Mahdavi talks about ‘Iran’s sexual revolution’ that tries to reform sexual identity and various ‘non-normative’ sexualities.12The sexual revolution aims to change the current sexuality discourse and demands a socio-political change. Also the media coverage of sex changes in Iran increased significantly since 2003 in- and outside of Iran. Initially, those reports positively described a development of an Islamic country, yet later the regulations were criticised as ‘curing’ abnormal, non-heteronormative individuals from their disease/disorder to keep the gender-binary ‘alive’.

In order to understand the variation of certain terms, I will give some short definitions to clarify differences between queer, homosexual, transgender, transsexual and transvestism:

Queer:An umbrella term which embraces a matrix of sexual preferences, orientations, and habits of the not-exclusively-heterosexual-and-monogamous majority. Queer includes lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transpeople, intersex persons, the radical sex communities, and many other sexually transgressive (underworld) explorers.13

Homosexual:A person primarily emotionally, physically, and/or sexually attracted to members of the same sex.14

Transgender:A person who lives as a member of a gender other than that expected based on anatomical sex. Sexual orientation varies and is not dependent on gender identity.15This can include medical transition but not necessarily.

Transvestism:The wearing of clothes of the opposite sex for part of the individual's existence in order to enjoy the temporary experience of membership of the opposite sex, but without any desire for a more permanent sex change or associated surgical reassignment, and without sexual excitement accompanying the cross-dressing.

Transsexuality:A person who identifies psychologically as a gender/sex other than the one to which they were assigned at birth. Transsexuals often wish to transform their bodies hormonally and surgically to match their inner sense of gender/sex, thus they can be in a pre-operative, transitioning (in the process of change) and post-operative phase.16

In Iran the above mentioned categories are perceived as medical or gender identity disorders because trans people and homosexuals identify with a gender or perform sexual behaviour that is culturally not associated with their sex in a heteronormative discourse. In the following, I will focus on transsexuals who have the desire to medically and hormonally change their body according to their inner gender in order to ‘fit’ to their socially accepted gender. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the social and legal discourses of transsexuals in Iran and also explores challenges they face when constructing an alternative identity within Iranian and thus alsoShi’a-Islamic social and cultural norms. It is not my intent to compare the situation of transsexuals in Iran to other countries, as it would extent the study due to various differences from country to country and even from case to case.

There are certain limitations that need to be taken into account, due to the shortage of this research paper as well as the limited access to Iranian transsexuals who are afraid to speak openly about their sexual desire because of various social, cultural, religious, and political issues. Thus, some arguments will be very general and do not stand for every transsexual in Iran. There is also a geographical limitation as most findings and literature regarding this topic cover urban communities, especially in Teheran17. Thus, there is a lack on research within rural areas, which might differ from urban communities.

In the following, I will discuss how transsexuals in Iran negotiate their everyday life within social and cultural boundaries and also how post-operation transsexuals are recognised by others. The first part will give an overview of the legal situation and the transition process of transsexuals in Iran. The second part will describe socio-cultural issues transsexuals face and their challenges of finding their own identity.

Jurisprudential Discourse

In 1984, Ayatollah Khomeini reissued hisfatwafrom 1967 that approved transsexual operations and declared sex change as officially legal. The illegality of homosexual acts supported the development of sex change operations in Iran.18The legalising discourse of transsexuality began as an elaboration of intersex discourses, emphasising on the harmony of body and soul that are necessary for a good believer.19Transsexuals’ body and soul are contrasting and a harmonic mind-body balance is very important inShi’ismin order to be a faithful Muslim.20Thus, anyone whose mind is not aligned with the body needs to be ‘cured’.21Philosophical and scientific debates about the relation of mind and soul are continuous, “addressing transsexuality as a psychological condition in Islamic terms”.22Psychology and religion are working together in order to present a psycho-sexological discourse of transsexuality, whereby the physical sex disagrees with the psychological gender. Thus, transsexuality is explained as a psychological disorder.

Many clerics issued additionalfatwason the topic of transsexuals that include definitions on gender, recognition of transsexual identity, surgical procedures, and jurisprudential approvals as well as legal provisions on marriage, divorce, and child custody. Over time, details about the legal and medical procedure on transsexuals were developed, to assure that SRS is in accordance to Islamic law. However, all extendingfatwasare corresponding with the originalfatwafrom Khomeini as hisfatwais the most important jurisprudential source in that matter.23In general, clerics extremely disagree on this topic, however Khomeini’sfatwaon SRS brought a significant change to transsexuals. It was a decision by a unique authority that no one dares to topple.

The Iranian government does not recognise homosexuality as an identity, but as a performance, a deviant act that needs to be controlled.24It intertwines sexual orientation and gender identity issues, whereby the distinction blurs.25Any non-heteronormative sexuality is rejected, thus there is a lack of sexual and gender discourses outside the normative gender binary. In Iran, religion and law are intersectional and influence society’s morality and its acceptance of certain behaviours. Theulamadescribe any person that cannot clearly be defined as male or female to have a sexual mal-function and thus suffer from a GID. Here, they combine religious reasoning with morality of sexuality and legally restrict it, whereby transsexuality is morally more accepted than homosexuality. Because of the legal regulations regarding transsexuals, it seems more possible to live a non-heteronormative, alternative live if one desires his/her same sex. On a surface the permission of SRS seems to empower transsexuals in their right. Yet, the linked distinction to deviant homosexuality and criminal sexual behaviour is prevalent in this regard.26It might be true that many post-operative transsexuals benefit from the surgery, governmental subsidisation, and a new birth certificate with their new name and sex. Yet, many Iranian transsexuals still suffer from a heteronormative obsessed society that discriminate non-heteronormative groups.27Thus, the legalisation of SRS does not necessarily designate an advanced or open-minded government or society. Additionally, there are many homosexuals who feel indirectly forced to change their sex only to escape the punishment of homosexual acts and believe it is a ‘cure’ from homosexuality.28This might be the reason that the number of SRS is increasing in Iran.29Also, the category of ‘transsexuals’ demarcates from normative gendered individuals. Hence, the legalisation of SRS is not progressive but rather reinforces gender apartheid and homophobia.30

Steps of Transition

The decision for SRS is based on medical, law,fiqh, psychological/psychiatric, and other institutions. The diagnosis if someone has a GID is based on theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IIIandIV.31The transition procedure takes a long time and starts with a 4-6 month period of psychiatric therapy e.g. at the Tehran Psychiatric Institute (TPI) in order to prove that they are actually transsexual and not homosexual or suffer from other psychological disorders.32Applicants have to undergo psychological, chromosomal, and hormonal tests, as well as answering personal questions.33If they pass the tests, a recommendation is sent to the Legal Medicine Organisation of Iran (LMOI) for further tests, therapy, and medical check-ups. The LMOI makes a final decision and if an applicant is recognised as transsexual (confirmation of GDI), the LMOI requests a judicial approval and finally issues an official certification that states their status as transsexual. During that whole process transsexuals have to carry around a lot of papers e.g. a doctor’s letter of the TPI as potential trans candidate, to be allowed to dress like the opposite sex without getting arrested.34This shows that it is not enough that one identifies as transsexual on its own. A transsexual is dependent on documents approved by responsible authorities. After that long procedure, transsexuals can request a hormonal treatment, SRS, a basic health insurance (state provided), financial aid, and exemption from military service (in MtF cases).35After their transition they still need to take hormone tablets for the rest of their live. Also, they get new identity papers with a new assigned name and sex. The whole process takes many months (sometimes years), as they have to undergo several surgeries for a complete transition.


1Vanessa Barford Iran’s ‘diagnosed transsexuals’ BBC News. Published 25-02-2008

2Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2014).Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Duke University Press, 59.

3Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2005). Mapping Transformations of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Modern Iran.Social Analysis, Vol. 49:2, 72.

4Ibid., 54-77.

5Jafari, Farrah (2014). Transsexuality under Surveillance in Iran. Clerical control of Khomeini’s Fatwas.Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies. Vol. 10:2. 31

6Najmabadi,Professing Selves,6.

7Jafarri,Transsexuality, 35.

8Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2013). Genus of Sex or the Sexing of Jins. International Journal Middle East Studies, 45, 211-231.

9Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2014).Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Duke University Press, 162.

10Mir-Hosseini, Ziba (2004). Sexuality, Rights and Islam: Competing Gender Discourses in Post-Revolutionary Iran. Neshat, Guity and Beck, Lois (eds.)Women in Iran from 1800 to the Islamic Republic. Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1-14.

11Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2013). Genus of Sex or the Sexing of Jins.International Journal Middle East Studies, 45, 212.

12Mahdavi, Pardis (2011). Questioning the global gays(ze): constructions of sexual identities in post-revolution Iran.Social Identities, Vol. 18:2, 223-237.

13LGBTQI Terminology. Received from http://www.lgbt.ucla.edu/documents/LGBTTerminology.pdf [accessed 23.02.2015]




17Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2013). Reading Transsexuality in “Gay” Tehran (around 1979). InThe Transgender Studies Reader: Volume 2, eds. Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura. New York: Routledge.

18Najmabadi, Afsaneh,Professing Selves, 6.

19Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2008). Transing and Transpassing across Sex-Gender Walls in Iran.Women’s Studies Quarterly, 36 (3-4), 30.

20Najmabadi,Genus of Sex, 224.


22Najmabadi,Professing Selves,190.

23Jafarri,Transsexuality, 37.

24Ibid., 32-33.

25Ibid., 44.

26Ibid., 73.

27Ibid., 40.

28Ibid., 31.

29Around 200 applicants in 2009 but numbers vary within different periods, for further particulars see Najmabadi,Professing Selves, p. 209.

30Ibid., 45.

31Najmabadi, Afsaneh,Professing Selves, 9.

32Najmabadi, Afsaneh (2011). Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith: Transgender/Sexuality in Contemporary Iran.Social Research, 78(2), 537.

33The trials are conceptualised after U.S.-designed tests.

34Najmabadi,Professing Selves, 167.

35Najmabadi,Verdicts of science,538.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


"Lost in Transition". Finding an own Identity as a Transsexual in Iran
Lund University
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ISBN (eBook)
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lost, transition, finding, identity, transsexual, iran
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Linda Hewitt (Author), 2015, "Lost in Transition". Finding an own Identity as a Transsexual in Iran, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/513929


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