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Gender Reassignment in Iran: A Growing Phenomenon

Gender reassignment is legal in Iran. Yet like in other Muslim nations, it has been a taboo there as well. The remarkable news on gender reassignment in Iran came out in 2010, when the Iranian Legal Medicine Organization (ILMO) announced that 270 Iranians have a sex change each year. Fifty-six per cent of those with a ‘sexual disorder’ – an Iranian epithet for transsexuals and homosexuals – want to become females. According to the ILMO, between 2006 and 2010, a total of 1,366 Iranians applied to the organization for a sex change license. On an annual basis, application have risen from 170 in 2006 to 319 in 2010. No more data have been published, but the growing number suggests a continuing trend.

There are differing views on what has made Tehran the world’s gender reassignment capital. Some suggest that the ban on homosexuality in Iran is the cause. Some even claim that homosexuals are being forced to undergo the surgical procedure, although no such cases have been reported. In fact, the legal and medical process indicates the opposite. Others seek to explain the religious and legal context in which gender reassignment was made possible. According to this view, those with a so-called sexual disorder can freely opt for gender reassignment.

Legalizing gender reassignment began with a jurisprudential process. Ayatollah Khomeini‘s views played a key role in this regard. In the 1960s, he developed an argument on gender reassignment as one of the new phenomena (Omore Mostahdatheh) in Islamic jurisdiction. According to the fatwa (religious decree) he issued, gender reassignment is not inconsistent with Islamic jurisdiction. He viewed transsexuals as sick people who needed to be cured. After the 1979 revolution and the establishment of an Islamic republic, the Ayatollah’s spiritual guidance and accompanying pressure brought about change in various spheres of life, including gender identity. His religious authorization of medical intervention in transsexual cases in 1985 opened the doors for those seeking a sex change. However, he predicated the authorization on two conditions: first, that the authenticity of transsexual sickness be proven through medical and psychiatric checks; and second, that gender reassignment should be complete. That is to say, it should turn the person into a complete male or female. Iran’s current supreme leader and many other Shia ulama (scholars) have the same attitude toward gender reassignment.

To change one’s gender, a legal process has to be completed. First, the person should be mentally assessed by at least two psychologists. After their approval, s/he should apply for a court ordered sex change. The court in turn will ask the ILMO to check the person physically and mentally. Following the approval of ILMO’s specialists, s/he will be granted a sex change license which s/he can use to undergo the surgery at a hospital approved by the government. In Tehran alone, 13 doctors now specialize in the procedure. In addition, the government offers financial assistance. Last year, it allocated $647,000 to support sex-change patients.

Yet several challenges remain with regards to state policies and social attitudes toward gender reassignment. The first is the religious and hence cultural and social understanding of sexuality. Accordingly, there can only be males and females in heterosexual relationships, and anyone who deviates from this standard behaviourally or physiologically is sick and needs to be cured.

The second is the government’s definition of a sexual disorder, which applies to both transsexuals and homosexuals. This despite the fact that homosexuals usually have no problem being attracted to the same sex and do not require gender reassignment. Although homosexuals do not appear to be forced to undergo sex-change procedures, neither are they free to openly express their sexual orientation. Reforming Islamic laws that relate to the treatment of homosexuality thus requires both a religious reformation and a theological intervention.

The third is the stigma that is still attached to transsexuals, although this has softened somewhat since Ayatollah Khomeini’s decree. Despite significant modernization, Iranian society is still resistant to new realities perceived as opposing its religious beliefs. As such, the sexual identities of transsexuals and especially homosexuals are not accepted. This, in turn, creates barriers to a more open policy towards those with a ‘sexual disorder’. Initiatives have been launched to change public attitudes, but there is still a great deal to be done.

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