Sex and Transgender in Iran

img_0511On Tuesday, October 18, 2016, members of the Indianapolis community gathered in Christian Theological Seminary’s Shelton Auditorium to hear from acclaimed scholars Dr. Afsaneh Najmabadi of Harvard University, Dr. Sholeh Shahrokhi of Butler University, and Imam Anisse Adni of the Indianapolis Muslim Community Association. The topic of this second seminar in the Religion and Trans Lives in a Global Perspective Series was transsexuality in contemporary Iran and in the broader context of Islam. The Islamic State of Iran provides a fascinating example to examine in regards to  transgender issues because for the past few decades, the LGBTQ community has been subjected to a bizarre paradox. In Iran, it is a capital crime to be homosexual and commit homosexual acts; however, gender reassignment surgery is not only legal, but also partially subsidized by government health care plans.

Dr. Najmabadi has explored this seeming contradiction for much of her academic career and has produced many award-winning books on the subject, including Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, and more recently Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. As the keynote speaker, Dr. Najmabadi began her speech by reading an excerpt from her newest book, and unpacked the issue of transgender rights in Iran as being a social rather than a religiously or ethically contended concern. One of the key differences in Iranian culture, Najmabadi explained, is that homosexuality is viewed as a sexual deviance or a sin as opposed to transsexuality, which is viewed as a psychiatric illness. Living in a country where we enjoy exercising a freedom of religion, it is hard to imagine living in a society where Islamic law is imposed on all citizens; however, this has been the case in Iran since 1979. Dr. Najmabadi, who lived in Iran during this period of revolution, describes in her newest book the challenges she observed that marginalized communities such as the homosexual and transsexual population faced in response to Islamic traditions enforced in Iran.

Dr. Sholeh Shahrokhi is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Butler University and was the first respondent to Dr. Najmabadi’s speech. Dr. Shahrokhi was also born in Iran and conducted her Ph.D. research on at-risk youths in the country. Dr. Shahrokhi shared personal encounters that she has had with transsexual individuals in Iran, and many of these encounters contained a common theme. Simply engaging with transsexuals in public spaces, Dr. Shahrokhi recalls, made an incredible impact on some people she encountered, as they said it humanized them in a way that the state would not allow. The criminalization of homosexuality in Iran, which historically has had both religious and cultural roots, has had one of the biggest negative impacts on the transsexual community in Iran.

img_0540Imam Anisse Adni, the Associate Imam and Community Organizer of the Indianapolis Muslim Community Association,was the second respondent to Dr. Najmabadi’s keynote speech. Imam Adni provided a unique point of view as a religious leader in the Islamic tradition. The audience seemed very engaged as Imam Adni unpacked the relationship between Islam and transsexuality, and provided contextual evidence in the teachings of the Qur’an to support his points. There was little time for questions following these three incredible speakers; however, from the questions that were posed it is clear that this was a unique and thought provoking topic.

By: Caroline Wang

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