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.
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“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. “Sometimes they say: ‘May God cure him!’”
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.
But even with those caveats, the Islamic Republic’s stance opens a startling margin of space for transgender people.
It dates back to only a few years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A transgender woman, Maryam Khatoonpour Molkara, managed to push her way through the guards to meet Khomeini while dressed in men’s clothes. Molkara explained to the supreme leader how she felt her true gender was different from her physical sex. After consulting with doctors, Khomeini sanctioned gender-transition surgery in a groundbreaking fatwa.
Iran’s current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, later gave Molkara a black veil to officially recognize her as a woman, upholding Khomeini’s fatwa, she said. She died in 2012 at the age of 62.
“It was like paradise, that moment, that place, everything felt like I was in paradise,” she once said in describing that day.
Transgender people can go to the courts and receive official permission for gender-transition surgery after going through detailed medical examinations and an interview with a psychiatrist. Afterward, they can receive new identity documents and financial aid for the surgery.
Iran grants transgender people loans worth nearly $1,200, though that’s still well below the $7,000-$12,000 cost of the surgery. In February, the State Welfare Organization of Iran said 3,000 people have applied for gender reassignment financial aid in the past 15 years. Habibollah Maoudi Farid, the organization’s deputy manager, told Iran’s semi-official ISNA news agency that as many as 70 people a year apply for the loan.
But even in relatively politically liberal Tehran, Iranians remain highly conservative about sex and gender issues. Few understand what it means to be transgender.
“Social encounters are not good at all — verbal and physical abuse and harassment,” said Nahal. “Once even some people attacked and beat me.”
That’s what inspired Sanaz Bayan, a young director, to make “Blue Pink,” a stage show shedding light on the darkest corners of transgender life in Iran.
The play narrates real, often bitter stories, including one of a transgender woman forced by her father to go into Iran’s compulsory military service as a man.
Despite his show, Bayan thinks Iranian society as a whole isn’t ready to accept transgender people.
“More than 30 years have passed since Imam Khomeini issued the fatwa. ... Thirty years is more than enough for a rule to be realized and implemented,” she says. “Our society lacks the ability to accept minorities.”
Perhaps the worst abuse transgender people face is in the home. Families still find it difficult to accept their loved ones. Many transgender women end up being kicked out of homes or being threatened by family members.
Behnam Ohadi, a psychiatrist and psychologist who counsels transgender people and refers them to Iran’s Health Ministry for surgery, says some families do whatever they can to stop the surgery.
“Some families even threaten to kill me if I tell them their child is a trans,” he says. “Sometimes they wish their child had cancer or died.”
Ohadi says transgender people rejected by their families can end up working as prostitutes as it is very difficult for them to find work.
“Families try to silence the children, sometimes they even move their house and go to another city,” Ohadi says. “These issues are forcefully buried in our society.”
For Nahal, whose world now seems limited to the safety of her mother’s balcony, she dreams of opening a charity to help other transgender people like herself.
“I want to help people to be good to each other,” she says.