Being Transgender in the Middle East

Iran is hailed as one of the most conservative countries in the world and has strict laws regarding homosexual relationships, which are punishable with death. Thus it may come as a surprise to hear that Iran does indeed carry out the largest number of transgender surgeries after Thailand, according to France 24’s Middle East Matters.

I was alerted to this when listening to the broadcaster’s podcast and was riveted to see such liberal actions take place in such a traditional country. Sanam Shantyaei interviewed Iranian director and actor Saman Arastou about his genre reassignment which took place almost a decade ago. He explained that he experienced difficulties with his family ‘because I wouldn’t tell them that I am transsexual and they would look at me and wonder what I am’.

The discussion also covered the fact that the Iranian government even subsidises the surgery, whilst also providing psychologists and psychiatrists. However, it is still a huge financial burden, often with those needing the surgery having to borrow from family or saving themselves.


The spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa permitting “diagnosed transsexuals” to have sex-change surgery in Iran

So, how is gender re-assignment permitted but not homosexual relationships?

Hojatol Islam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia told the BBC in 2008 that:

“The discussion [regarding homosexulity] is fundamentally separate from a discussion regarding homosexuals. Absolutely not related. Homosexuals are doing something unnatural and against religion. It is clearly stated in our Islamic law that such behaviour is not allowed because it disrupts the social order.”

Kariminia is the religious cleric who oversees gender reassignment in Iran. He also stated that the operation is sinful as “changing wheat to flour to bread” – i.e. not at all.

Not just in Iran…

You can find transsexual celebrities such as Turkish Bulent Ersoy and over ten years ago in Saudi Arabia a judge ruled in favour of a transsexual receiving her full inheritance which was being withheld from her by her own family after her surgery.

The only Arab country with legal provisions for transsexuals is Egypt. But similar to Iran, the society can be unwelcoming with many finding it difficult to understand, respect and accept the matter. According to the BBC, one transexual (yet to have the surgery) even lost her job due to “her feminine behaviour”. She has to dress as a man to earn a living.

A public hospital associated with Al Azhar University has processes in place for identifying patients with gender identity disorder. They even provide group therapy, a place where transsexuals can share common difficulties. However, it is also a place of respect where the subject of transexuality is not taboo but a part of everyday life.

The next step:

Although it is excellent to see that transsexuality is being talked about (albeit minimally) in the Middle East, I strongly feel that the obvious next step for these countries is the legalisation of homosexual relationships. However, one must take into account the religious stance of many of these countries, the majority of whom’s populations are Muslim. The Quran appears to condemn homosexuality in several places, so it will likely take a long time to reach the point of equality for homosexuals in Muslim countries across the globe.

{other sources:  }

Photo by Soroush Karimi on Unsplash

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