Whispering like conspirators, the two cousins hook their thumbs in their belt loops, skim cocky eyes over the women and swivel, stiff-legged from their hips, like the men they have become. Across the room, and a few steps away on the gender spectrum, a man with shaggy hair wrinkles a pug nose in the mirror and struggles to drape a silky scarf over his head in the style of Islamic womanhood.
Almost everybody here, in this sterilized waiting room at a clinic in the clanging heart of Tehran, is in the midst of changing their sex. Waiting their turn to see the doctor, they strut about in self-conscious gender rehearsal. Someone has brought cookies, sweet with honey.
“I was married. I had a wife and children,” says Maria Pakgohar, a curvaceous former truck driver wearing flower barrettes and fake furs. She claims she’s in her 40s but flashes an identification card giving her age as 62. “The cleric came to my house and said to my wife: ‘What do you want from him? He’s a woman, not a man.’ ”
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, gay male sex still carries the death penalty and lesbians are lashed, but hundreds of people are having their gender changed legally, bolstered by the blessings of members of the ruling Shiite clergy.
“Approval of gender changes doesn’t mean approval of homosexuality. We’re against homosexuality,” says Mohammed Mahdi Kariminia, a cleric in the holy city of Qom and one of Iran’s foremost proponents of using hormones and surgery to change sex. “But we have said that if homosexuals want to change their gender, this way is open to them.”
Not that it’s easy in Iran. The Islamic Republic remains a fundamentally traditional, conservative society, laced by harsh judgments and strict mores. A blizzard of clerical decrees is unlikely to make a mother eager to see her son become a woman or enlighten leery co-workers who squirm at hearing their colleague’s voice drop a few octaves. And the government’s response is fractured, with some officials remaining opposed to sex change.
“The people our age, they all know and accept us,” says Toumik Martin, a brusque 28-year-old businessman who was born a girl named Anita, leaning in close to be heard over the cacophony of ambiguous tenors bouncing off the waiting room walls. “Our problem is with the parents. They don’t know how to differentiate between transsexuals, gays and lesbians.”
Like their brethren around the world, these people have complicated, often sorrowful, stories. They have been cast out by their families and fired from their jobs. They have struggled to find love.
Martin, who became a man six years ago, proposed marriage to the woman he’d loved ever since they were classmates.
“She said, ‘Yes, I love you, I understand you, but I don’t know about my parents,’ ” says Martin, who has a prospering business importing vitamins from Russia.
When the couple approached the woman’s parents, they were flatly rejected. “They think I’m a lesbian,” Martin says. “They said, ‘We won’t give our daughter to a girl.’ Especially her mother, she was very hard with me.” His heart was broken, and the relationship faded.
When Dr. Bahrom Mir-Djalali first began performing sex-change operations 15 years ago, he endured death threats from scandalized parents. One father, he recalls, showed him a dagger and vowed to slash his throat. But slowly, he says, society has come around. He measures the shift in the fights with the families, which he says have become less drastic.
“This is an Islamic country, and very, very old-fashioned,” says Mir-Djalali, a white-haired surgeon who studied sex-change procedures in Paris. “I try to tell people, ‘They don’t have horns, they are normal people.’ But it’s hard for society to accept. At least now we have a discussion about it.”
Iran isn’t the only Muslim society that appears to be growing more accepting of sex changes while still shunning homosexuality. A Kuwaiti court recently decreed that a 29-year-old man who had changed his gender could live legally as a woman. That decision was later overturned by a higher court, but it provoked a startling debate in a country where the subject of homosexuality remains taboo.
In Saudi Arabia, an Islamic judge backed an heir’s right to keep the larger share of inheritance given to sons even though the heir had undergone surgery to become a woman. Even Al Azhar, the ancient seat of Sunni Muslim learning in Cairo, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, in the mid-1990s that approved gender changes in some cases.
But no Muslim society has tackled the question with the open-mindedness of Shiite Iran. That’s probably because the father of the revolution himself, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, penned the groundbreaking fatwas that approved gender reassignment four decades ago.
Khomeini reasoned that if men or women wished so intensely to change their sex, to the point that they believed they were trapped inside the wrong body, then they should be permitted to transform that body and relieve their misery. His opinion had more to do with what isn’t in the Koran than what is. Sex change isn’t mentioned, Khomeini’s thinking went, so there are no grounds to consider it banned.
“There is no reason why not,” says Kariminia, the cleric. “Each human being is the owner of his body, and therefore he can make changes.”
Before Khomeini, some Islamic edicts had approved sex changes for hermaphrodites, but nobody had given carte blanche for sex reassignment without medical deformities. To this day, some Shiite clerics argue against operating on healthy bodies.
But in a low stone house in the twisting alleys of Qom, Kariminia is writing his doctoral thesis on transgender law. His writings tease out the work of Khomeini, tackling legal questions such as: If a married woman wishes to become a man, must she first get permission from her husband? Must a man seek permission from his wife?
“Islam has recognized the rights of transgender. We can’t say to anybody that they must be a man or a woman,” Kariminia says. “But do you think just because they don’t have legal or Islamic problems, their problems are solved? I certainly do not.”
Iran’s acceptance of sex-reassignment operations raises the specter that gays and lesbians may be able to find a place for themselves here only by changing their gender. Some transgender patients complain that lesbians and gays are exploiting the surgery to create a legal way to sleep with their preferred partners.
Mir-Djalali, a kinetic man with an irrepressible enthusiasm for spelling out the more delicate details of the surgeries, says that in 15 years he’s transformed about 320 men into women, and 70 women into men.
He is careful to point out that those were only half of the would-be patients who came to his office. He disqualified the others after they were examined by a panel of three psychiatrists.
The psychiatric team tries to sort out homosexuality from gender disorder by asking a series of questions. A man hoping to become a woman, for example, is asked whether he has dreamed of removing his penis. Gay men recoil at the idea, the doctor says -- but transgender men are eager at the suggestion.
“They say, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I’ve always dreamed of it,’ ” Mir-Djalali says.
But the screening is the only restriction in Iran’s relatively lax system. In most countries where sex-change operations are performed, doctors urge their patients to live for some time in the guise of their preferred gender before taking any drastic measures.
But in Iran, there’s no waiting period. After passing the psychological screening, the patients are hustled into treatment. After all, in the interim they are considered gay, and therefore outlaws.
“By the time they come to me, they’ve made up their minds,” Mir-Djalali says. “They’ve already worn makeup and women’s dresses. They don’t need to try.”
The 25 years since the revolution have been an era of turmoil and liberation for Iran’s transgender community. Despite the tolerance contained in Khomeini’s fatwas, many suffered bitterly when he came to power, caught in revolutionary purges meant to turn Iran into a pure Islamic republic.
“Twenty years ago, we were living in secret and with fear,” says Maryam Khatoon Molkara, 54, one of the elder stateswomen of the transgender movement. “I wanted to become a woman and also do something for the others.”
Today Molkara lives in a second-floor walk-up in a dingy part of Tehran, where she receives her visitors in a cramped sitting room with pink walls and baffling layers of mirrors. There are books of religion and poetry and paintings of Ali -- cousin of the prophet Muhammad and a revered figure among Shiites -- and his trusty sword, Zulfiqar.
In the chaotic early days of the revolution, Molkara was taunted and harassed by overzealous mobs. So many transgendered people were rounded up by the regime that a special jail wing was built for them. Molkara grew depressed. “I wanted to die,” she says, waves of perfume wafting from her muumuu.
Instead, she appealed to the government, working her way up the chain of clerics until she spoke with Khomeini’s brother. It was he who took her to see Khomeini himself. That same day, Molkara won the right to live as a woman. On Khomeini’s orders, the clerics gave her a chador and registered her as a woman in the government directories.
“It was like heaven,” she remembers dreamily. “I was born again.”
But it was only the beginning of Molkara’s fight. She recently teamed up with sympathetic Iranian officials -- including the head of the Special Court of Clergy and the vice president for women’s affairs -- to form an organization devoted to transgender rights. At her prodding, a government-linked Islamic charity named after Khomeini recently agreed to provide loans to pay for the surgeries.
Still, Molkara is not satisfied. She doesn’t like the government-issue identity card that spells out her former life as a man. She doesn’t like the hard-liners who’ve threatened her. One official even sneered that she’d tricked Khomeini, she says. In short, she is hoping to push transgenders even further into the Iranian mainstream.
“Nobody ever asks why a dog is a dog,” she says. “And yet they always have to explain that I was once a man.”