Sandra Comment: I Am a Christian however I feel increasingly Gender Tree needs to express to those of any faith that they are acceptable as they are. Since it is my web site I get to chose which beliefs are represented and quite frankly there are those that will not be. I also feel that reaching out to those of other faiths is living mine.
Muslim and TS
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
Wednesday July 27, 2005
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
IS IRAN REALLY THAT DIFFERENT?
By Claire McNab, 28th July 2005
Iran's relative openness to trans people is something we have covered several times before on PFC-NEWS: there are a series of links at the end of my comments.
Maryam Molkara's amazing personal story is not just another illustration of how our stereotypes of non-western countries may be mistaken -- it's also an example of how trans people around the world have had to battle against authority for the simple right to exist.
It's easy to see the differences between Iran and the UK ... but I think it's also intersting to consider the similarities.
In Maryam's case, the battle was against the religious authorities who controlled access to surgery. In the UK, we have our own religious zealots who would like to return trans people to the situation of Iran before Khomeini's edict, by denying us medical treatment: several of them spoke in the House of Lords 18 months ago during the debates on the Gender Recognition Bill. Mercifully, those people don't hold enough power in the UK to have their way, which leaves trans people here free to encounter the secular obstacles erected by the NHS and by the so-called gender identity clinics.
PFC's postbag is regularly filled with correspondence from people battling against transphobic Primary Care Trusts, whose idea of care for trans people is to employ every trick possible to enable them to provide no care ... and from those who get through the local adminstrative hurdles to find humiliated, delayed and messed around by the clinicians in the GICs. As a result, many vote with their feet and seek surgery in Thailand -- which is just what Maram Molkara eventually did.
So the obstacle course here is constructed differently to the Iranian one, but when we stand back, is it really all that different? Both have a hard-to-access medical system, with questionable standards of treatment. Ours is better, but like the Iranian service, it is still woefully inadequate.
In terms of social change, the UK has made rapid progress in the last decade. Protection against discrimination in employment, increasing attention to hate crime and improvements in media coverage have all contributed to a climate here which is remarkably different to that endured by pioneers in the 1970s and 1980s ... and nobody in the UK faces arrest simply for being transsexual.
But a period when the gap was much smaller is well within my lifetime. Maryam describes trans people being arrested in Iran, but that has happened here not so long ago -- the most recent case I know of was in the late 1990s.
Pioneering British trans people such as Mark Rees, Rachel Webb, Stephen Whittle and others all fought their battles on a terrain which is unimaginable to those transitioning today. We still have a long way to go ... a long way towards decent medical services for those transitioning, a long way to any sort of decent ongoing medical care after transition, and we are still battling for the right not to be discriminated against in access to goods, facilities and services.
Sometimes the breakthroughs come from a lone individual who seizes an opportunity as Maryam did when she pushed her way in to see Ayatollah Khomeini. And other times progress is made by the combined efforts of lots of people campaigning for change.
We may soon face another of those moments. The working group on set up by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to devise new so-called "standards of care" for those transitioning in the UK is soon likely to publish a draft. It remains to be seen whether the draft is a libertaing fatawa like Khomeini's edict of transition, or a repressive fatwa which shuts off choices.
I hope for the former, but fear the latter. The RCPsych working group includes a number of psychiatrists who would dearly like to see the most popular prcatitioner, Russell Reid, driven out of practice -- and some of them have alreadsy put a lot of effort into achieving that.
If the new so-called "standards of care" for the UK make it impossible for lone practitioners to operate, the consequences will be devastating ... and we won't have a sympathetic Ayatollah to come to the rescue.
Best wishes, Claire
Previous reports on trans people in Iran:
"Changing their Sex in Iran" (Jan 2005)
"The Truth of Sex" (Jan 2005)
"Iran's Sex-chnage operations" (Jan 2005) http://www.pfc.org.uk/pfclists/news-arc/2005q1/msg00004.htm
"The Ayatollah and the Transexual" (Nov 2004) http://www.pfc.org.uk/pfclists/news-arc/2004q4/msg00082.htm
"As Repression Lifts, More Iranians Change Their Sex" (Aug 2004) http://www.pfc.org.uk/pfclists/news-arc/2004q3/msg00078.htm
"Sex changes on the up in Iran" (Aug 2004) http://www.pfc.org.uk/pfclists/news-arc/2004q3/msg00062.htm
"Sex-change Iranian hates life as woman" (Jun 2000) http://www.pfc.org.uk/pfclists/news-arc/2000q2/msg00122.htm