Transgender Iranians take to the stage to raise awareness
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In a conservative society like Iran, talking about what it is like to be transgender is still considered shocking and taboo. But a theatre group is daring to start that conversation in cafés and performing arts spaces across Tehran. For some of the actors, the struggle is personal.
While most LGBT communities are banned in Iran, transgender people who choose to undergo a sex change operation – also known as transsexual people – are legally recognised. Our Observer Saman Arastou was born with female anatomy, but underwent a sex change operation in 2008. After a stint as an actor, Arastou became a theatre director and playwright. He and his troupe have been performing his play, “You all know me”, which discusses what it is like to be transgender in Iran today, across Tehran. In parallel, Arastou has also been organising small, informal performances about transgender issues in cafes across the Iranian capital.
“Audience members who had a negative opinion about transgender people say that the show helped change their minds”
In the 1980s, I realised that I was different from other people but I struggled to understand why. Over the years, I saw some psychologists but, ultimately, I had to deal with my struggle alone. I had never met a transgender person before. In 1985, Ayatollah Khomeini published a fatwa authorising sex change operations.
As I learned more and came to understand myself, I realised that I could play an important role in sharing information about the transgender experience with other people – especially psychologists, journalists and the families of transgender people. In my own experience, most of the psychologists who I had seen over the years had no idea what to do with me. I work in theatre and decided that this would be the perfect medium, so I wrote a performance based on my life story. I brought together a troupe of seven actors. One of them is transgender herself.
“One night, about twenty people stormed the stage and ripped my wedding dress”
We start out the performance as if it were just a normal play. Then, I run into the cafe screaming that I am running away from my family and that my brother is chasing me. The actor portraying my brother arrives and starts hitting me. The audience is confused because it is unclear whether this fight is part of the performance or if it is actually happening.
My “brother” is upset that I am transgender, and says he wants me to marry a man. Then my sisters arrive and start trying to put makeup on me and force me into a wedding dress. What happens next depends how the audience reacts. Sometimes, people interfere in the performance and try to stop the marriage from happening. Sometimes they don’t say anything. Other times, they protest but they don’t step in.
The best reaction I ever had was when twenty audience members stormed the stage and ripped off my wedding dress to keep the forced marriage from taking place. It’s not the only time that has happened: another time, an audience member ripped off the woman’s dress that my stage brother had forced me to put on over my clothes.
We have performed the play about 80 times on stage and about a dozen more times in cafes around the capital. So far, we’ve been getting very positive reactions. We’ve had parents come up to us after performances to say that their child is currently wondering about his or her gender and that this performance helped them understand what their child is going through.
There are no official statistics about the number of transgender people currently living in Iran or how many Iranians have had gender reassignment surgery. However, the BBC has reported that there are more sex change operations taking place in Iran than in Thailand, which is known to be one of the countries that has made the largest strides towards integrating its transgender population (a third sex is recognised on official documents and 2% of the Thai population is transgender).
We’ve also had people tell us that they used to think negatively about transgender people and that after seeing our play, they changed their minds. Now, they say that they regret how they felt in the past.
Most Iranians don’t have a positive image of transgender people but it isn’t their fault. There is a huge lack of information. The media doesn’t talk about us at all and I think a lot of us transgender people don’t know how to talk to other people about our situation either.
"Even after I transitioned, I still had to wear women’s clothes for a year”
Transgender people face a lot of legal challenges in Iran. It took me a year to get a new identity card after my gender reassignment surgery. Because I only had an ID that identified me as female, I ended up having to wear women’s clothes despite my operation. People made fun of me.
There are other challenges, as well. When you apply for a job in Iran, you have to prove that you completed your mandatory military service or provide official documents showing that you were exempted. Transgender people are exempted from military service but, often, the army doesn’t know what to write on the forms. So some transgender people end up with things like “mental health issues” or “hormone imbalance” written on their files, which can cause them problems when they are seeking employment.
“A sex change operation costs about 10,000 euros and insurance only pays 600 euros”
A lot of teenagers who are asking questions about their gender end up having problems at school or even getting expelled or dropping out. I think that kids born with male anatomy who want to transition to women are perhaps the most affected. They get constantly harassed about why they are so feminine.
Another challenge for transgender people in Iran is that there are very few specialists who can carry out sex change operations. The operations themselves are very, very expensive. An operation with a good surgeon costs around 10,000 euros and insurance only covers about 600 euros.
When you are transgender, you also have to face other people’s disapproving gaze. When a person is transitioning to become a woman, they take hormones that make their breasts grow and make them start looking more feminine. They often face a lot of harassment, especially at work. Many people don’t understand what being transgender means and they still consider us gay or bisexual.
All that we want is for society to recognize us and accept us.
In 2014, an Iranian surgeon said he had carried about more than 1,800 gender reassignment surgeries. Moreover, more and more artists are using their work to talk about the experience of being transgender, especially within the cinema industry. One recent example is the film “An Iranian Woman”, which came out in 2011.
This article was written in collaboration with Iranian social sciences researcher Bahar Azadi.