Most people would associate Iran and Afghanistan with a religious fundamentalism that goes completely against the realities of transsexuality, transgenderism and homosexuality. And while it is true that both countries have a strong stance against what they call “sodomy”, Iran is currently the country with the biggest number of sex reassignment surgeries and many families in Afghanistan choose to raise their pre-pubescent daughters as boys (bacha posh). The case of these two countries is particular because such progressive laws go against the rhetoric of both countries’ governments, or at least their reputation in the West.
In Iran, same-sex sexual relations are punishable by death, which immediately raises a red flag. In countries where that happens, any sort of deviation of sexual orientation or “correct” gender practices is outlawed, meaning transsexuality and transgenderism become immediate targets of persecution. Not in Iran.
Since Ayatollah Khomeini passed a fatwa over 30 years ago authorising sex reassignment surgeries for individuals diagnosed as transexuals, such an operation has been recognised as a human right in Iran. The surgeries and treatments have to be completely covered by health insurance and after their completion, all records of the individual former sex are erased. Although they are advised to maintain a low profile and be discreet about their past, the collaboration of the government is something many trans people in the Western world would be envious of, if there weren’t serious downsides.
The mindset behind the sex reassignment surgeries is that homosexuality, for example, cannot be recognized as a sexual orientation on its own right. Therefore, it is perceived in Iran that a man in love with another man should “fix” himself in order to fit into society’s standards; basically, it’s preferrable for you to the a transexual and be able to maintain a relationship with someone from the opposite sex than be gay. There are obvious limitations to this. For one, a man wishing to be a woman might still be attracted to women – in that case, s/he would still be under threat of execution. There are also trans people who wish not to proceed to surgery and yet identify themselves with the opposite gender, but if you are diagnosed as transexual in Iran you basically have no choice than to undergo the procedure.
For many, the sex reassignment surgery isn’t an act of liberation but rather one of subjugation to a heteronormative society. But since the difference between gender, sex and sexual orientation isn’t exactly taught in Iran, many are unaware of the various ways those dimensions can interact and believe they have no other choice. In a country where individuals suspected to be homosexuals are subject to police surveillance, harassment and torture, such a liberal law relating to transsexuality should raise some suspicious as to its real intentions, even though some, like cleric Hojatulislam Kariminia might be honestly determined to help trans people.
In Afghanistan, sex reassignment surgeries are also permissible by law, probably under the same terms as in Iran, but transgenderism rarely goes that far. Instead, it seems to be a choice of the parents, for a limited amount of time and a traumatic experience for the young girls forced to undergo it.
Afghan families turn to the practice of bacha posh when they have no sons, a serious handicap in a conservative and patriarchal society. Bacha posh literally means “dressed as a boy” and that is precisely what these families do to the chosen daughter – she becomes a boy in name and clothing and is awarded the freedoms of that gender. Since women are forced in some areas to be home-bound, even as girls, having a boy in the family even if just to complete simple tasks and errands is a major advantage. The true gender of the child is usually kept secret, although it seems to exist a tacit permission by society while the girl is prepubescent- after that, serious problems begin to emerge. Some girls simply refuse to change back to their original gender. However, is that choice motivated by an trans identity? Or is transgenderism simply a means to an end, the path to freedom is a male-dominated society? Usually, girls who were once forced to identify as the opposite gender are again “forced back” through arranged marriages, something that becomes a true harrowing experience for many since they are unable to complete the tasks traditionally expected of a woman.
In this other RT documentary, the discomfort felt by these girls is noticeable. While one of them clearly identifies as a male because she enjoys the freedoms allowed to her, she cannot fathom having a romantic relationship with a woman. Another young girl doesn’t feel right dressed as a boy and a young woman says that it makes her feel “stronger”. Once again, we can see that different concepts relating to sex, sexual orientation and gender aren’t appropriately addressed – while in Iran transgenderism is used for conforming to society’s standards, in Afghanistan it is used as a survival strategy for the families.
These two practices serve as an illustration of the tensions existing within societies with supposedly stagnant binary gender roles and heteronormative sexual orientation. In cultures where there isn’t a vocabulary to properly address these issues, different dimensions of the human experience of sex and gender are mixed and give origin to oppressive practices. The confusion of sex, gender and sexual orientation determines individuals’ lives, rights and psychological health. They also serve as a reminder that, despite the hard stance of religious regimes and societies and the monolithic way they are depicted in Western media, the actual reality is always far more complex and people will constantly look for ways to adapt to it.