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Sunday, November 13, 2005

Iran's transexual revolution

The Independent

An unlikely religious ruling has made Tehran the sex-change capital of the world. Caroline Mangez went to meet the brave souls who have swapped gender in this rigidly conservative city, where women wear the chador and homosexuality is punishable by death.

I know because I've experienced both worlds: as a man in Iran I have more freedom and choice than as a woman," muses 30 year-old estate agent Milad Kajouhinejad, 30, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a hirsute chest. It gives him pleasure, this manly gesture, just as it gives him pleasure to carry an attaché case and sport the full beard of a practising Muslim. Until three years ago, he could do none of these things. "I never used to go to the mosque, either," he adds. "I did not want to have to wear a chador. Now I can pray in boxer shorts if I feel like it, and I never miss prayers," he says.

Milad gives thanks to Allah five times a day and, while doing so, always offers a special prayer to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "without whom," he says, "every transexual would have had to leave Iran. He was the first to issue a fatwa authorising a man or woman to change their sex."

More than 15 years after Khomeini's death, the cleric's unlikely religious judgement means that Iran now has one of the world's largest populations of transexuals, and the fatwa itself has become the stuff of legend. "A theology student told me that he delivered his verdict after he was contacted by a couple who no longer experienced any physical pleasure. He advised them to change sex and, once the woman had become a man and the man a woman, then to remarry," says Mahnaz Javaheri, 42, the mother of Athena, a 20-year-old who, as she puts it, "needed to be freed of her man's body". A devout Muslim, Mahnaz says that if the three imams she consulted hadn't given their permission, she would never have let her son Hadi become Athena, "even if it meant him committing suicide. These three great ayatollahs all said that he should have the operation as soon as possible."

The real story behind Khomeini's fatwa is scarcely less dramatic than the apocryphal version. He issued it in 1983, after a man named Fereydoon, who had made several unsuccessful attempts to gain an audience with the Iranian leader, eventually forced his way into Khomeini's private rooms. Fereydoon persuaded the cleric that he was a woman trapped in as man's body by revealing the breasts he had grown thanks to a course of hormone treatment.

Before this extraordinary moment, Khomeini's administration had routinely harassed and arrested transexuals, lumping them together with Iran's gay community. According to Iranian law, homosexuality is punished by lashings, prison and even, in the case of persistent offenders, the death penalty.

"Before Khomeini delivered his verdict, there was a lot of corruption. Hundreds of gays and lesbians used to meet in Laleh Park, right in the heart of Tehran. By authorising transexuals to change sex, the imam separated the wheat from the chaff," Milad says pragmatically, delighted to be the man he always felt he was back in the days when he was a she called Mahboubeh, "the beloved". The only traces of this other life are two minuscule pinkish piercings in his ears, where his mother Fatima used to try and get him to wear earrings, and the black-and-white photograph in their family album which shows Mahboubeh, aged three, crying because her hair has been put in bunches.

"All the restrictions that women in Iran are subject to applied to me," says Milad. "I wasn't allowed to go out, let alone consult a doctor about my problems, and of course I had to wear the veil in public. I used to hide boy's clothes in my satchel to play with the kids in the street after school."

He sees the past as a procession of bad memories - with one or two compensations. "I was a big hit with the girls in my class. They came from strict families, so it was a chance for them to have a boyfriend without seeming to be up to anything."

"Yes, they knew we couldn't take what was most precious to them, their virginity," concurs Amin, 28, formerly Milad's best friend at school, who has also undergone a sex-change operation. "So they were very relaxed. No one ever made fun of us. In Iran, a man who behaves like a woman is despised, looked down on. But a girl who behaves and dresses like a man is respected for her strong character."

Mahboubeh was nine when her father, a long-distance lorry driver, caught her in a clinch with one of her girlfriends. He didn't say anything but was convinced that his daughter was turning into a homosexual. In 1986, to "awaken" Mahboubeh's femininity, her parents forcibly married her to a 30-year-old cousin. She was only 12 but, on the eve of her wedding, a state doctor confirmed that she was an "adult woman" by establishing that she had breasts and was menstruating. After being raped, she ran away.

"After the police took me back to my father, he agreed to let me get a divorce when I told him that otherwise I would commit suicide," he says.

Some years later, at university, Mahboubeh discovered a book on transexuals in the library - and with it the existence of Milad within her. Since Iran's clergy prides itself on its ability to pronounce on every aspect of the faithful's lives, it was to them that she turned. "First I saw a state doctor and then, for a year and a half, I was passed between experts and psychiatrists. I was given hundreds of tests, a brain scan. In the end, a clerical judge gave permission for my operation."

"On grounds of sexual identity disorder," the accompanying medical certificate reads.

At this point, the young woman, who was by then 26, was rejected by her parents. "We needed someone to prepare us," her father says now, "to explain that afterwards we wouldn't be able to see any difference between him and other men."

"We didn't like it at first," explains Fatima, the mother who Milad still helps in her kitchen - unlike the other three sons in her now-reconciled family. "My family threw me out," recalls Milad. "I had to find money... I drove a taxi from six in the morning to midnight. The rest of the time I slept in my car."

The procedure took years and cost thousands of pounds, between two and three times as much as the £2,000 an Iranian surgeon charges for turning a man into a woman. "I applied to the committee of imam Khomeini's charity for financial assistance which they give to people, well, to people like me. They give us interest-free loans up to £700."

Milad had read on the internet that four operations would be enough. Skin grafts, nerve grafts, muscle grafts - he has had 23 operations in three years and will have the last one before the end of the year. "My surgeon, Dr Khatir, has done such a good job that soon a woman won't notice a thing," he says. "He is a pioneer. He was doing this before the revolution. I am the only person in Iran, and perhaps in the world, to have gone as far, medically speaking. The last operation was the hardest..." Two bouts of four hours at a time on the operating table; his friends crying in the corridor, him thinking he was dying, saying his final prayers, a scarf clamped between his teeth to stop him screaming, and which he only took out to tell Dr Khatir, "Go on, I'd rather die than stay a woman."

Milad still saves all his money to spend on removing his unwanted femininity. "My birth certificate, my identity card and my driving licence were changed when I stopped being a woman, in 2001. For the deep voice, the build, the beard, there are the hormones... I'll be taking them all my life." Milad, who claims to have as much success with women now as before, wears a wedding ring "so they don't hassle me. When I've finished all the operations and I have enough money, I'll think about marriage."

Amin, who is still Milad's best friend, is already engaged. He is a respected member of the Guardians of the Revolution, a very strict military organisation; no one there knows about his operation. "No one in my wife-to-be's family knows my former identity either," he says. "All trace of it has been erased. I would be too afraid that they would object to our marriage. Everyone in my family was fine about it until my father died. But since my two sisters learnt that, under sharia law, as the only male heir of the family I was entitled to twice their share of the inheritance, they have refused to see me."

In male-dominated Iran, girls who have the misfortune to be born in a boy's body are a laughing stock. Setareh, now a 24-year-old woman, has first-hand experience of this from the two years' military service she had to do when still called Saeed. "Life in barracks was agony. While I felt more and more like a woman, I was being ordered to speak in a deeper voice, to be more masculine. To stop people making fun of me, I ended up wanting to look like a Hizbollah fighter, growing my beard long and trying twice as hard in training. It was in the army that I fell in love with Ali, the day he fought with three soldiers who were trying to rape me at knifepoint. I was 19, he was nearly 21. It was Ali who encouraged me to set about changing sex so that I could marry him."

They have persuaded Ali's parents that Setareh is the sister of the Saeed they used to know. "Every time my parents-in-law ask me about Saaed, I blush and say he has gone on a long trip," says Setareh, who never takes off her chador. "Ali insists I wear one, just as he likes me to devote myself to housework." Giving pleasure without being able to feel it - "I was warned" - Setareh is perfectly reconciled to her lot.

With one eye glued to a religious chat show, Magnaz, the mother of 20-year-old transexual Athena Javaheri recalls: "At first we thought this odd idea of dressing as a woman came from his grandmother who loved dressing him up as a girl and getting him to dance."

Now, she says her main concern is whether her former son will be able to give her any grandchildren.

Athena has torn all the pictures of her as a little boy out of the family album. In the photographs from the 1960s, her father Hussein, who is 52 now, looks like Jim Morrison. Twenty five years of revolution, however, have made him a conventional man who doesn't let Athena go out without a chador.

"I couldn't accept it," he says, "my only son! I beat him until he tried to commit suicide. Then the doctors had to explain to me that he wasn't homosexual before I would agree to the operation."

According to some transexuals, their legal status in Iranian society has prompted hundreds of gay Iranians to apply for permission for sex-changes, which, if granted, would allow them to continue their relationship without fear of arrest. "The best psychiatrists don't make any distinction between a transexual and a homosexual," claims Amin. "So, if you're a woman, you just have to go the chemist and inject yourself with testosterone to obtain a permit to be operated on. Many women then have a bit of breast reduction to be able to indulge their deviancy. When they get arrested, the permit is a big help."

But legal recognition is not the same as social acceptance. Transexuals in Iran continue to suffer not just ostracism, but physical attacks. For every happily assimilated Milad and Athena, there are newly made men and women on the streets of Tehran who can never reveal the truth that lies behind their chador or business suit.

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