Iran, a country where being homosexual is punishable with death, also happens to be the center of sex reassignment in the Middle East. Yes, ironically sex-change operations are not only legal but also subsidized by the Iranian government. Before the Islamic revolution, there was no real legislation on transgender people; however, things changed largely due to efforts of Maryam Khatoon. Maryam Khatoon was a campaigner for the rights of transsexuals and changed the course for all transgender to come, in her country and the world. During her struggles she was forced to wear men’s clothing, injected with male hormones and put in a psychiatric institution. She worked with several religious leaders to advocate for trans rights and eventually managed to convince Khamenei to pass a fatwa in 1986 declaring gender-confirmation surgery and hormone-replacement therapy religiously acceptable medical procedures. She left quite the impression on the then most powerful leader in Iran as following their meeting he issued a statement saying:
“If somebody wants to undergo a sex change because he feels trapped inside someone else’s body, he has the right to get rid of this body and transform into the other sex.”
Maryam Khatoon through her efforts reframed the entire transgender debate; transgender people were no longer thought of as deviants, but as having a medical illness with a practicable cure (sex reassignment surgery). Still miles away from any contemporary ideals of gender equality we strive for today, it nevertheless embodied an uncanny milestone of progression. Subsidizing these procedures was a step forward in terms of recognizing transgenderism but it did not deflect from it being a way to restore hetero-normative gender roles. Once the gender confirmation surgery was recognized, it pushed the notion that all transgender individuals had to have the surgery to be legitimate and to avoid discrimination and left people who opted out of having the surgery hugely vulnerable to violence and in some regions even death. Life in Iran as a transgender not choosing to have the surgery was and still is exceedingly difficult; Sharia-based laws mandate segregation of men and women in schools and public transport, and Iranian law requires men and women to wear “gender-appropriate” clothing in public spaces. Failure to comply with this law could result in arrest or assault at the hands of vigilantes.
If the Iranian government recognizes you with gender identity disorder you are required by law to start the sex reassignment process. A trans person who has not been legally recognized can be accused of homosexuality and face the death penalty. In fact, in some cases, gay people in Iran decide to undergo the surgery because the alternative is death. While the actual medical procedure is not mandated, the sex change operation is most of the time forced on trans people by the culture and by the government. Furthermore, you are not able to amend your gender on official documents without first undergoing the sex-change surgery. The increasingly frequent sex-reassignment operation should not be regarded as an unproblematically positive development for the transgender community in Iran; it is explicitly framed as a cure for the ‘disease’, some form of sacred option to heteronormalize people with same-sex desires or practices. While they helped Maryam Khatoon Molkara, and others who share her desire for gender confirmation surgery, these changes actively harm people who don’t need or want it.