Iran’s transgender people face threats despite decree

Mehdi Fattahi
Associated Press

Tehran, Iran – Nahal smokes yet another cigarette on her mother’s balcony overlooking Tehran, one of the few peaceful places the 19-year-old transgender woman has in Iran, where her identity can bring harassment and prying, judging eyes on the street.

Nahal recalled how she had hardly started high school before being forced to leave over her classmates’ insistence she dress as a man. Her manicured fingernails, painted pink, brushed away her long brown hair as she looked through old photographs of her childhood, recounting how even her own family has struggled to accept her.

“I no longer see my relatives,” she said. “Maybe I’m a sign that if your own children will have a similar problem later, you can accept it.”

It shouldn’t be like this for Nahal in the Islamic Republic, which – perhaps to the surprise of those abroad – has perhaps the most open mindset in the Middle East toward transgender people. The Shiite theocracy’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious decree, or fatwa, 30 years ago calling for respect of transgender people, opening the way for official support for gender transition surgery.

Nevertheless, the general public still harasses and abuses them, and families often shun them. Discrimination in the workplace has forced some into prostitution and others to kill themselves.

“People on the street call me ‘womanish;’ they ask, ‘Is she a man or a woman?’” says Nahal, who asked to be identified only by her first name as some in her family are angry with her.

Of Iran’s 80 million people, estimates suggest under 50,000 are transgender, meaning their gender identity does not match the sex or gender they were identified as having at birth. Like in other parts of the world, they can face harassment.

The ruling clerics’ relative open-mindedness on transgender people hardly means tolerance of gender diversity. Homosexuality is illegal. Gay men can face the death penalty while lesbians can face flogging after three convictions and death for the fourth.

Iran’s former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously told students at New York’s Columbia University in 2007: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like you do in your country.” A Human Rights Watch report in 2010 outlined how Iranian security forces allegedly abused those it suspected of being LGBT people, though Iranian officials have denied that.

In the ruling clerics’ view, gender reassignment surgery aims to cure a “disease” and re-fit a person into a recognized binary of straight male or straight female. Those who choose not to undergo surgery and get new documents can face arrest by police for dressing in a way that contradicts their government-recognized gender.

Iran grants transgender people loans worth nearly $1,200, though that’s still well below the $7,000-$12,000 cost of the surgery.