“In the name of the Almighty. God willing, sex reassignment if advised by a reliable doctor is permissible, I hope you are safe, and those who you have mentioned treat you well.”
– Ayatollah Khomeini
For our third article in women’s history month, we will look at a pioneer for transgender rights in Iran, a woman who changed her country and the world, Maryam Khatoon Molkara. As a transgender woman of faith Maryam represents an often ignored sector of the queer community. To help fix this we will shine a light on the story of a woman who in 1987 faced religious leaders to change how transgender people were viewed within the Muslim community and the laws regarding transgender people in Iran. So now we are proud to look into the life of the woman responsible for changing the discussion around transgender rights in Iran.
Maryam was born in Iran and her remembrance of her younger years mirror many other transgender people’s stories. There were signs from a young age that she was not the gender assigned to her at birth, she said: “my mother had told me that even at the age of 2, she had found me in front of the mirror putting chalk on my face the same way a woman puts on her makeup.”
And while this is not the case for all transgender people, the narrative of having clues about one’s identity from a young age is prominent in mainstream media. In that way, Maryam had an advantage as her story fits into what most people expect from transgender people. So she was able to find a small support system, including a doctor at the hospital she worked in, who was also transgender and told her about gender confirmation surgery. Soon after she found out about this option, she began pursuing it, but while it was legal for her to have the surgery, there were financial barriers, familial ones, and religious ones.
While there had been a clear judgment on same gender attraction, and intersex individuals there had not been a definitive answer on how to treat transgender people. So Maryam began asking different religious leaders, telling them about her life, and looking for answers. And while many came back to her with approval the final word had to come from someone who was more prominent, Ayatollah Khomeini. A man who would become the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and leader of the Iranian Revolution.
Unfortunately, the Iranian Revolution itself put a stall into her attempt to get in touch with the man. And while she had been discriminated against before for dressing in clothing that is traditionally worn by women the revolution brought a fresh wave of hatred. She was forced on to hormones in an attempt to make her into a man and imprisoned multiple times. It was only through her connections to religious leaders that she was able to get out of jail, and she began working as a nurse throughout the war between Iran and Iraq. It was only at the end of the fighting that she felt able to go back to her pursuit of Khomeini. And it was through this pursuit that she became a somewhat of a hero.
Like many heroes though, her victory was not easily won, and what she went through to succeed makes quite the story.
While her journey began much earlier it came to a turning point when Maryam went to Khomeini’s compound in a suit holding the Quran, and with shoes tied around her neck, a symbol that translates out to a request for shelter. Upon reaching the compound, armed guards beat her, knocking onto the ground. It was only when Khomeini’s brother happened across the scene and told them to stop that she was even allowed inside of the house. By this point Maryam was rightfully emotional, and could barely make out words, all she could say was, “I’m a woman, I’m a woman.”
The security guards pointed out that they were concerned about the band around Maryam’s chest, afraid she was hiding explosives, so she removed it revealing her breasts which had developed during hormone therapy. Quickly the women in the room covered her with a chador. Escalating the commotion came Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, curious about what was happening. Maryam told Ahmad her story, and the boy was moved to tears so after a short discussion the group decided to allow Maryam to talk to Khomeini. They took her to where he was, and as she was faced by this man she had been trying to get to for so long, and had much power over her future, Maryam fainted.
She was taken to a corridor, and she remembered the moment after waking up, saying, “I could hear Khomeini raising his voice. He was blaming those around him, asking how they could mistreat someone who had come for shelter. He was saying, ‘This person is God’s servant.’ He had three of his trusted doctors in the room, and he asked what the difference was between hermaphrodites and transsexuals. What are these ‘difficult neutrals,’ he was saying. Khomeini didn’t know about the condition until then. From that moment on, everything changed for me.”
And from that moment on, everything changed for Iran as well. Maryam told Khomeini her story, and he listened.
Maryam returned from her quest with a victory and a trophy. The chador - a badge of Iranian revolutionary womanhood - and a fatwa, which is a ruling point in Islamic law.
The fatwa said “In the name of the Almighty. God willing, sex reassignment if advised by a reliable doctor is permissible, I hope you are safe, and those who you have mentioned treat you well.” and allowed for not only her gender confirmation surgery to go forward but opened the door for any other transgender person in Iran who wanted to go through the surgery and change their birth certificate to their true gender. And with public religious figures embracing gender confirmation surgery it opened whole new avenues for transgender people in Iran and shifted public opinion closer towards support.
Through this one act of courage, Maryam changed the quality of life for transgender people throughout an entire country. Though there still is transphobia in Iran, leading religious officials reject it, which has a huge impact not only in Iran but in any place where a Muslim transgender person lives. Queer people of faith exist, and to have experts in that faith show their support for queer people can save lives. Through sharing her story, Maryam saved lives.
We want to emphasize that life for queer people is not perfect in Iran, same gender attraction is still illegal, and transgender people still face violent discrimination every day. Also, since gender confirmation surgery is such a large part of what people know about transgender people in Iran, it pushes forward the idea that every transgender person needs to have the surgery to be legitimate, which is not true. It also creates a situation in which queer people who aren’t transgender are forced to have gender confirmation surgery to escape discrimination, criminal charges, and in some regions even death. The changes that were made were not wholly beneficial and in many cases damaging and dangerous for all queer people in Iran.
As Iranian-American scholar and gender theorist, Afsaneh Najmabadi said "The increasing frequency of sex-change petitions and operations is not an unproblematically positive development, empowering though this trend has been for transsexuals. For legal and medical authorities, sex-change surgeries are explicitly framed as the cure for a disease, and on occasion, they are proposed as a religiously sanctioned option for heteronormalizing people with same-sex desires or practices.”
So it is important to discuss these changes in a nuanced way. While they helped Maryam Khatoon Molkara, and others who share her desire for gender confirmation surgery, these changes actively harm people who don't need or want those things. While this is the first step, there is still a long way to go to achieve equal rights for queer people in Iran.
Maryam went on to start an organization to help fund gender confirmation surgeries, hoping to remove the financial barrier from the surgery, and now the organization is subsidized by the government. While she spent much of her time trying to help others gain access to gender confirmation surgery, she waited for her own because of her mother’s objections. It was only later in life that Maryam did eventually have the surgery herself, and became legally, and religiously accepted as a woman.
She lived until 2012 and had a full, happy life. She built her activist organizations and became a leading transgender advocate in Iran. And now her story has almost reached the point of a legend. The story of a woman, who lived through imprisonment and bigotry and changed her country through sharing her story.
And now she is gone, it is our job to keep sharing the truth about her life, and watch as it continues to affect the world. Not only through the spreading of knowledge, but through the spreading of hope. Because her life shows that things can change, that people can change, that though sometimes it feels as if the world is against us, people will listen to us. It's a heartening message to remember in times such as these. Nothing in the future is certain, and sometimes stories can change minds, and those minds can change the world.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
Robert T. (July 28, 2005) A fatwa for transsexuals. Retrieved March 15, 2017
Nazila F. (August 2, 2004) As Repression Eases, More Iranians Change Their Sex. Retrieved March 15, 2017
The Independent (November 24, 2004) The Ayatollah and the transsexual. Retrieved March 15, 2017
Dan L. (December 4, 2012) Iran performed over 1,000 gender reassignment operations in four years. Retrieved March 15, 2017
OutRight (2016) Human Rights Report Being Transgender in Iran. Retrieved March 15, 2017