EHRAN, Aug. 1 - Everything about Amir appears masculine: his broad chest, muscled arms, the 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 surgical procedures and expects another 4. 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"I love my life and I'm happy, as long as no one knows about my past identity," said Amir, who asked that his full name not be published.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, the Islamic government is recognizing that some people want to change their sex, and allowing them to have operations and obtain new birth certificates.
Before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, 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 gender. The issue was discussed at a conference in Tehran in June that drew officials from other Persian Gulf countries.
One cleric, Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, is writing his thesis on transsexuality at the religious seminary of Qum.
"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 was formerly 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 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 he had his blessing.
However, the revolution intervened and men like himself 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," Ms. Molkara recalled. "It was like torture for me. They even made me take hormones to look like a man.''
It took him eight years after the revolution, in 1986, to get government permission to proceed with surgery. But he could not afford the surgery 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, Ms. Molkara established an organization to help those with gender-identity problems. Co-founders include Ali Razini, head of the Special Court of Clergy, a branch of the judiciary that only deals 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 equivalent to about $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 gender-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.
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Dr. Bahram Mir-djalali, one of Tehran's few sex-reassignment 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 surgery, 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."
But 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 ran 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 only emerges dressed that way at night. He says the constant need for secrecy has left him severely depressed, and he has attempted suicide several times.
"I have suffered all my life,'' he said, constantly adjusting his long curly hair to cover his sideburns. "People treat me as though I have come from Mars. Women pull my hair and laugh at me on the street. Most men I am attracted to reject me."
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.
Dr. 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 had performed sex-change operations. Even if Iran's Muslim clerics are more understanding now of transsexuals' needs, others lag behind.
"We have a problem even deciding at which hospital to do the surgery because society considers these people deviant," he said. "Hospital officials have reacted negatively because they say other patients do not like the looks of my patients."
He said one patient's father pulled a knife on him in his office, and threatened to kill him if he touched his son. "What we really need to help these people,'' Dr. Mir-djalali said, "is a serious cultural campaign."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Wednesday July 27, 2005
A fatwa for freedom
Maryam Molkara was a woman trapped in a man's body. She was also living under Islamic law in the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet, as Robert Tait reports, her determination to confront the hallowed leader has made Tehran the unlikely sex-change capital of the world
It could take something extraordinary to move the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa. The novelist Salman Rushdie did it by challenging the sanctity of the Prophet Mohammed in the Satanic Verses, provoking Iran's austere revolutionary leader into pronouncing the death sentence. For Maryam Khatoon Molkara it required the equally dramatic step of confronting Khomeini in person and proving, in graphic terms, that she was a woman trapped inside a man's body.
To do so, she had to endure a ferocious beating
from bodyguards before coming face-to-face with the Ayatollah in his living
room, covered in blood, dressed in a man's suit and, thanks to a course of
hormone treatment, sporting fully-formed female breasts.
"It was behesht [paradise]," Molkara, 55, says of the meeting 22 years ago. "The atmosphere, the moment and the person were paradise for me. I had the feeling that from then on there would be a sort of light." Light or not, the encounter produced, in turn, a religious judgment which - unlike the unfulfilled edict on Rushdie - has had an enduring effect that still resonates. Because today, the Islamic Republic of Iran occupies the unlikely role of global leader for sex changes
In contrast to almost everywhere else in the Muslim world, sex change operations are legal in Iran for anyone who can afford the minimum £2,000 cost and satisfy interviewers that they meet necessary psychological criteria. As a result, women who endured agonising childhood and adolescent experiences as boys, and - albeit in fewer numbers - young men who reached sexual maturity as girls, are easy to find in Tehran. Iran has even become a magnet for patients from eastern European and Arab countries seeking to change their genders.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning in Dr Bahram Mir-Jalali's Tehran clinic, young men and women gather in preparation for a new start on the opposite side of the gender divide. Many are desperate, seeing the operation as an escape from a confused sexual identity that has led to parental rejection and persecution by police and religious vigilantes.
Ali-Reza, 24, wearing thick make-up, has livid red burn marks on his arm after his father poured boiling water over him in a rage over his "sexual deviancy". "I have attempted suicide three times," he says. "The interpretation of my family was that having a child like me was a punishment from God. My parents were religious and traditional and they called me trash under the name of Islam."
Others voice feelings of spiritual renewal after the surgery. "It's like a rebirth," says Hasti, formerly Hassan, now reinvented as a svelte, leggy 20-year-old who is planning to marry her German fiance. "I've even forgotten my male birthday. I only remember my female birthday, the day when I received the operation. It was very painful but I feel happy whereas before I was always crying."
Dr Mir-Jalali, 66, a Paris-trained surgeon, has performed 320 gender operations in the past 12 years. Around 250 have involved the complex and physically painful process of transforming men into women by creating female genitals through a skin graft from the intestines. In a European country, he says, he would have carried out fewer than 40 such procedures over the same period. The reason for the discrepancy, he says, is Iran's strict ban on homosexuality, as required by the Qur'an.
"In Iran, homosexuality is treated as a crime carrying the death penalty," he says. "In Europe and north America, it is accepted. Transsexuals aren't homosexuals. Unlike homosexuals, they suffer from a separation of body and soul where they believe their own body doesn't belong to them. But in Europe they can have a free life. They aren't under the same pressure to change their sex. In Iran, transsexuals suffer from a lack of awareness, within their own family and in wider society. That increases the psychological pressure and contributes to the higher number of operations here."
Nevertheless, the surgery's availability has provided deliverance to a community which was once cowed and confined to a secret underground existence. Bringing it about has required a theological re-think from Iran's Shia Islamic rulers, accustomed to rigidly traditional stances on sexual matters.
Indeed, Islamic scholars are still trying to reconcile the fatwa with religious thinking. Hojatolislam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, a cleric based in the holy city of Qom, is writing a PhD thesis on transsexuality. "The basic humanity of the person is preserved," is his conclusion. "The change is simply of characteristics."
This situation would have been unthinkable were it not for the bravery and persistence of Molkara, who embarked on a personal odyssey that brought persecution and abuse in her quest for Khomeini's official blessing. Khomeini had pronounced on gender problems in a book written in 1963, when he indicated there was no religious proscription against corrective surgery. However, says Molkara, the statement applied only to hermaphrodites, defined as those bearing both male and female genital characteristics. It provided no remedy for those - such as Molkara - who physically belonged to one gender but were convinced that they were members of the opposite sex.
In 1975, Molkara - then working with Iranian television and going by her male name of Fereydoon - wrote the first of several letters to the Ayatollah, then exiled in Iraq in opposition to the shah.
"I told him I had always had the feeling that I was a woman," she says. "I wrote that my mother had told me that even at the age of two, she had found me in front of the mirror putting chalk on my face the same way a woman puts on her make-up. He wrote back, saying that I should follow the Islamic obligations of being a woman."
In 1978 Molkara travelled to Paris, where Khomeini was by then based, to lobby him in person. She was unsuccessful and the subsequent Islamic revolution, far from easing the transsexuals' path, cast them into darkness. Some were locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin prison while others were stoned to death. Molkara, meanwhile, was fired from her job, forcibly injected with male hormones and confined to a psychiatric institution.
Thanks to her contacts with influential clerics, Molkara was released and resolved to keep fighting. She lobbied several leading figures in the regime, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who later became president. All urged her to write once again to Khomeini.
"I couldn't continue like this," she says. "I knew I could get the operation easily enough in London, but I wanted the documentation so I could live." Desperate for the religious blessing that would confer legal protection in staunchly Islamic Iran, Molkara decided on a fateful step.
Donning a man's suit, she walked to Khomeini's heavily protected compound in north Tehran, carrying a copy of the Qur'an. In an additional piece of religious symbolism, she had tied shoes around her neck. The gesture - redolent of Ashura, the Shia festival depicting the heroism of the third imam Hossein - was meant to convey that she was seeking shelter.
At first, it failed to provide her with any. As she approached the compound, armed security guards pounced and began beating her. They stopped only when Khomeini's brother, Hassan Pasandide, witnessing the scene, intervened and took Molkara into his house.
There, Molkara - then bearded, tall and powerfully built - hysterically tried to explain her predicament. "I was screaming, 'I'm a woman, I'm a woman'," she says. The security guards, fearing Molkara was carrying explosives, were anxious about the band wrapped around her chest. She removed it to reveal the female breasts underneath. The women in the room rushed to cover her with a chador.
By then, Khomeini's son, Ahmad, had arrived and was moved to tears by Molkara's story. Amidst the emotion, it was decided to take Molkara to the supreme leader himself. On meeting the near-mythic figure in whom she had invested such hope, Molkara fainted.
"I was taken into a corridor," Molkara says. "I could hear Khomeini raising his voice. He was blaming those around him, asking how they could mistreat someone who had come for shelter. He was saying, 'This person is God's servant.' He had three of his trusted doctors in the room and he asked what the difference was between hermaphrodites and transsexuals. What are these 'difficult-neutrals', he was saying. Khomeini didn't know about the condition until then. From that moment on, everything changed for me."
Molkara left the Khomeini compound with a letter addressed to the chief prosecutor and the head of medical ethics giving religious authorisation for her - and, by implication, others like her - to surgically change their gender. It was the fatwa she had sought.
Subsequently, Molkara struggled to convince fellow transsexuals of their rights and to introduce the requisite medical standards for sex change operations to Iran. She only completed her gender change four years ago, ironically undergoing the surgery in Thailand because of unhappiness with procedures in her native country.
Today she runs Iran's leading transsexual campaign group and has become the community's spokesperson. But two security monitors in her living room attest to her vulnerability in a society still intolerant of sexual unorthodoxy. "It is hard to live with constant fear," she says. "I hope things are easier for the next generation of transsexuals. Every time a transsexual is arrested by the police I am called to bail them out. Outside the police station there will be a crowd of vigilantes waiting to beat me or stone my car."
A brief encounter with Iran's hallowed religious leader may have brought light. But for many Iranians, enlightenment has yet to dawn.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005