Sex, Ayatollahs and Expectations

Obviously, a lot of the world’s attention is currently on Iran and the political turmoil there.  I don’t think that this blog is the place to make comments about the disputed presidential election – but I am reminded of a story from a couple of years ago, and it’s worth airing here.

One of the characteristics of the Islamic Republic is that it’s much more complicated than a lot of the Western media would have us believe.  (For example, I once ended up in conversation in a Tehran park near the old American Embassy Den of Espionage with a member of the Baseej* about the comparative merits of British and Persian women – I’d tried to explain political correctness to him, but he didn’t get it.  Wouldn’t you know it: even the fanatics are human.)  Nevertheless, you’d expect the Ayatollahs to have a certain set of fairly predictable ideas about sex, and for those ideas to be fairly rigid and unforgiving.

Not always.

Consider the case of Maryam Khatoon Molkara.  She used to be a man.  Remarkably, her sex-change operation came with the blessing of the religio-civil authorities, who

[are] starting to recognise people with sexual-identity disorders and allowing them to have sex-change operations and obtain new birth certificates. Some [people] are now even recommended for treatment by clerics and the government helps fund operations.

It’s not quite the vision of Islamic theocracy that we might have expected, is it?

[W]hen the chance to have gender-swap treatment arose in the 1970s, she went to see Ayatollah Behbehani, one of the leading religious figures in the country. He performed a typical Iranian religious ceremony, an istikhareh – letting the Koran fall open and interpreting her problems according to the page that was revealed. It was the sura of Maryam, the verses in the Koran that tell the story of Jesus’ mother Mary. Ayatollah Behbehani said he thought this meant that her life would be like Maryam’s – a struggle.

“He said it meant I should have the operation but he said I should write to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was then in Iraq and was one of the leading Shia religious experts. Khomeini decided then that it was a religious obligation for me to have the sex change because a person needs a clear sexual identity in order to carry out their religious duties. He said that because of my feelings, I should observe all the rites specific to women, including the way they dress.”

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that surgery became even a possibility, but – all the same – the story is surprising and gives a glimpse into the regime in Iran.  Grim and stony-faced it may often be, but that’s not the whole story.  And even if you think that the Ayatollah’s judgement was based on the silliest of arguments – and, frankly, I do – it’s still interesting to see someone coming to the right sort of decision for the wrong sort of reason.

And, of course, the story gives us a nice example of the danger of ad hominem reasoning.  People – even Koranic literalists – are often very surprising.

There’s more on transsexuality in Iran here, here, and here, and lots more via Google and YouTube.

*ERRATUM: It was a member of the Komitè, the religious police.  Meh.  Tomayto tomahto.

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