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Truth of sex
While trans-sexuality in Iran is made legitimate, homosexuality is insistently reiterated as abnormal

January 12, 2005

The recent BBC Newsnight program [Frances Harrison, "Iran's sex-change operation," January 5, 2005,] follows a number of similar reports that have hit the international media over the past few months. Earlier reports include: Nazila Fathi, "As Repression Eases, More Iranians Change their Sex," The New York Times, August 2, 2004, p. 3; Aresu Eqbali, "Iran's Transsexuals Get Islamic Approval, But!" Middle East Online, September 30, 2004; and Angus McDowall and Stephen Khan, "The ayatollah and the transsexual," The Independent, November 25, 2004.

What all these reports have in common is a certain celebratory tone about recognition of trans-sexuality and permissibility of sex-change operations, sometimes mixed with an element of surprise [How could this be happening in an Islamic country/state?]. And why not? Why should any of us not be happy about such possibilities for persons who desire sex-change?

But I have been one of those uneasy people, even though it isn't nice to introduce a discordant note into a celebratory circuit. Like Aresu Eqbali, every time I read one more of these reports I want to say BUT, BUT, BUT, because there are some scary things going on that have gone almost un-noticed.

Not that I don't share the view that if that's what some people want, all power to them. But empowering as these practices and discourses have been for transsexuals, it is deeply troubling because of the explicit framing of trans-sexuality within a particular mapping of sexuality that simultaneously renders homosexuality and more generally any sexual and gender non-conformity as deviant and criminal.

This is a discourse that only recently has become dominant in Iran. Its contemporary production makes same-sex desire unreadable except for people stuck in the "wrong bodies"; it makes homosexuality as such illegible and illegitimate not only as a publicly recognized possibility, but also for one's own self-perception and self-constitution of sexual subjectivity. In their self-narrativizations in interviews published in Iran, for instance, the "bi-sexed" [dawjinsi-ha] refer to their sense of their bodies in pathological terms, such as bimar. [See, for instance, Taq-i bustan, 101 (31 August 2004): 1 and 5.]

The New York Times article reports on the case of a Muslim cleric who paid for the operation of his male secretary to become female and then married her. Well, in earlier times the cleric could have lived with his secretary as his milhaf! One wonders to what extent the dominant discourse on dawjinsi-ha as stricken with some sort of illness closes off the acceptability of their desires as same-sex desire in their own perception.

This discourse of gender and sexual abnormality and disease has begun to gain frightening national prominence. While the nineteenth-century cultural transformations in Iran re-coded adult male desire for an amrad as unnatural, this recoding was not largely driven by the logic of production of "governmentable citizens." For instance, particular sexualities were not criminalized. In fact, a category of crimes in national law specifically named sexual, jara'm-i jinsi (as distinct from sinful acts punishable by religious sanctions -- hudud and ta'zir) was so named at a much later date.

Nor was the Qajar medical discourse on matters sexual focused on categorizing desire or acts as natural or unnatural. The medieval Islamic medical discourse on sexual practices and diseases were selectively dropped and partially replaced by adaptations of European modern medical treatises. Significantly, a psycho-medical discourse of male same-sex desire as illness (through the figure of ma'bun, and in particular in Ibn Sina's discourse on 'ubna as illness of will) was available, and the modernist projection of same-sex desire as a derivative un-natural desire, forced upon the natural as a consequence of unfortunate social arrangement of sex segregation, could have produced a tendency to "type" men (and women) who "still" engaged in same-sex practices as a-normal, if not abnormal, stricken with some sort of "illness."

Yet the "modernist optimism" [that with heterosocialization same-sex practices would disappear] had initially worked against mapping of same-sex desire and practices onto minoritization of human types. However, the "failure" of producing homogeneously heterosexual modern men and women -- despite decades of gender heterosocialization and propagation of the notion of complementarity of the two now-transcribed as "opposite sexes", and of companionate marriage -- provided the socio-cultural space in which gradually two distinct discourses have come to combine and produce a religio-psycho-medicalized discourse on "unnatural and deviant" [ghayr-i tabi'i and inhirafi] sexualities.

In the 1940s, a discourse of naturalized heterosexuality had already begun to become more dominant through manuals on marriage, and popular psychology books on modern marital relations and on parenting practices. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, translation of behavioral psychology books on "gender disorder" and medical texts of hormonal and genetic "sex and gender determination" began to dominate medical discourse. This now-medicalized-psychologized discourse produced "scientific definitions" of sex and gender (both coming in two!) that firmly coded any bodies outside what could be clearly defined as male or female as sexual mal-function and any person whose behavior did not correspond to gender role definitions as suffering from the "disease of gender identity disorder."

Moreover, in this discourse, which now seems to have gained national dominance in Iran, one's gender is rooted in one's biological (hormonal and chromosomal) make-up which may have not adjusted well with socializing norms, thus producing abnormality and gender disorder. [See, for instance, Bihnam Awhadi, Tamayulat va raftarha-yi jinsi-i tabi'i va ghayr-i tabi'i-i insan (Tehran: Atrupat, 2000).]

This discourse has powerfully informed recent parental guidance books on bringing up gender-appropriate kids, advising them on early signs of "gender disorder." It has also informed some literary productions about trans-genders and trans-sexuals, often written as texts of warning against these transgressions. [See, for example, Farkhundeh Aqa'i, Jinsiyat-i gumshudah (Tehran: Nashr-i Alburz, 2000). For a critique of this story and more generally of the discourses informing this literature, see Sima, "Naqdi bar kitab-i Jinsiyat-i gumshudah," Homan 18 (2001): 34-36.]

By the late 1960s, the medical profession began to perform sex-surgery as a cure for both "gender and sexual troubles" -- a move that was welcomed and embraced by a number of people who opted to take that course. The clerical authorities who had been consulted by some clients or doctors have sanctioned such operations through invocation of classical Islamic discourse on hermaphrodites, which considered every human body as innately male or female, yet accepted the possibility that in the case of hermaphrodites it was difficult and at times impossible to know their "true sex."

Jurisprudents then elaborated rules of behavior to deal with the possible threat of gender transgressions that such impossibility of knowing would produce. [For a recent fatwa on sexual surgery, see Taq-i bustan, 104 (19 September 2004): 7.] In its modern re-configuration, it is argued that new medical sciences have helped the unraveling of the puzzle of the true sex of difficult hermaphrodites and medical technology can and may correct "coming out" of that truth.

It is this confluence of the Islamic discourse on the "true sex" with the psycho-medicalized notion of "truth of sex" that has given a powerful impetus to acceptability of trans-sexuality and sex-change bio-surgical interventions. Such interventions are seen to not only bring out the true sex of the "bi-sexed" persons, but also they would transform same-sex desire into opposite sex desire. While trans-sexuality is thus made legible and legitimate, at the same time homosexuality is insistently reiterated as abnormal.

Most ominously, in several accounts, "gender disorder," homosexuality, and child sexual abuse by male perpetrators (especially upon male children) have all been mapped as part of the same bio-socio-cultural phenomenon. [See Sina Qanbarpur, "Janian-i buzurg-i imruz qurbanian-i kuchak-i diruzand!" Zanan 114 (November 2004): 2-7.] Even more perniciously, the link opens up the terrifying possibility of punitive measures, such as legal imposition of sex-change as "cure" or as alternative punishment (to execution) of homosexuals.

Afsaneh Najmabadi is Professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University (homepage). Her most recent book is Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxiety of Iranian Modernity.

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