- Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran by Afsaneh Najmabadi
In 1985 Faridun (later Maryam) Mulkara’s effective lobbying of the religious-political establishment in Iran culminated in a fatwa by none other than Ayatollah Khomeini sanctioning sex reassignment surgery. Transsexuality, which had been a topic of curiosity and fascination approached through notions of natural occurrences, insanity, or deviance, now entered the legal and medical discourse. Merging Islamic jurisprudence with sexology and psychiatry, Khomeini’s edict had important repercussions on the history and production of modern subjectivity in Iran, on the role of Islam as an epistemological discipline, and on the relation between the law and social perceptions. Equally important in this event was the activism of Mulkara, who brazenly met Khomeini to make her case.
What appears as a top-down ruling by Iran’s supreme leader was in fact the outcome of a network of forces with a long and intricate history involving acts of translation, jurisprudential opinion, social prejudice, transsexual activism, media sensationalism, and scientific theories that Afsaneh Najmabadi expounds on in her fascinating and groundbreaking study Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Najmabadi sets out to explain and understand how transsexuality is produced through diagnostic mechanisms adopted by the state but also through personal narratives of transsexual persons. She examines the way state-sanctioned transsexuality, which continues to be stigmatized in Iranian society, intersects with forms of identification, including gay and lesbian. To examine case studies and medical discourses, Najmabadi went to Iran to meet transsexual persons, activists, religious scholars, and psychiatrists and psychologists. Bringing her own subject position into the research, Najmabadi listened, observed, confronted, and challenged opinions, arguments, and rulings. Her multifaceted engagement, which ended up repositioning her research questions, presents the topic in all its complexity. The feat of this book is precisely this openness to recognizing that just as [End Page 221] these models of subjectivity are produced at the intersection of multiple social and political forces, so is the academic research that draws on its interpretative power yet confronts and criticizes its own limitation. Najmabadi’s analytic voice and her physical presence in the text, journeying from the United States to Tehran to Qum and from transsexual support group meetings to psychiatric clinics, systematically shape the book’s argument and rework its frame. The end result is a brilliant work that opens the field of gender and sexuality studies in the Middle East to hitherto unexplored methodological and intellectual dimensions.
Najmabadi traces the Iranian modern medical discourse on inter-, homo-, and transsexuality from the beginning of the twentieth century, reading it at the intersection of scientific development and popular fascination. Najmabadi argues that, though deemed unethical by the Iranian psychiatric establishment in 1976, sex reassignment operations were conducted in Iran well before Khomeini’s fatwa. This aligns the social and legal issues involved in sex reassignment, for instance, marriage and service in the army, and anchors contemporary debates in ongoing concerns that continue to shape, accept, and push against the rule of the medicolegal establishment. While Michel Foucault fixes forms of discursive production through sexual disciplining and medicalization in the context of a homogeneous institution involving hospitals, courts, and scientific communities, Najmabadi examines the history of sexuality in Iran by assuming that the institution is not one with itself, rigid, or oblivious to critique, lobbying, and negotiation. It is by unfixing the institution that a more complex picture emerges, allowing us to understand the relation between Islamic jurisprudence and psychiatric and medical discourse, scientific and medical theories, and localized scientific and pseudoscientific practices. Her reading systematically undoes the binary of the modern and the traditional, or the view that somehow state-sanctioned sex reassignment surgery is merely an attempt to eliminate and purify society from deviance and homosexuality.
Providing a queer history of modern Iran and engaging its mutations and transformations in recent times, Najmabadi focuses on the filtering processes adopted by the psychiatric clinics working under the jurisdiction of the state...