Gender and Sexuality In the Middle East: Iran

Gender relations in Iran are combative and unstable. There is immense difficulty in providing an all encompassing understanding of the ideology concerning gender in Islam or within Iran itself. Religious communities are no different. There have been various interpretations of “women in Islam” because they have been interpreted and influenced by individual’s specific historical circumstances as well as considerations. Koranic axioms and Hadith narratives also contribute to this. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became infuriated in 1961 because of the enfranchisement of women in society. However, in 1979 he embraced the political role of women and asked for their vote in establishing an Islamic republic. The reasoning behind these different reactions to different events is found in Islamic principles. Different times and circumstances was the reasoning behind this shift. This understanding made different conflicting interpretations possible.

Muslim reformists, in recent years, have attempted to bring about a revision of Islamic discourse because of the internal societal changes, political exigencies, and international opinion.

The ideologies of Islamic Fundamentalists are not popular belief, but only a view of Islamists’ aspirations and policies concerning gender. These actions may reflect a minority of people’s beliefs, but total conformity in Islamic Fundamentalism is difficult to find. Though the legal ramifications are potentially significant and affects all women, numerous families do not adhere to them in practice. These articulations may reflect some social norms, but even among Islamic fundamentalists it is hard to find total conformity. The legal implications of many Islamist concepts potentially affect all women, yet many families do not adhere to them in actual practice.

The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded after decades of alterations in gender relations. Though they were limited, the role’s of women in culture, politics, as well as the economy had at the time increased steadily before the revolution took hold. At this time, men’s power was diminished within the family. More so in terms of the rights for him to remarry in regards to polygamous marriage. Men also lost their power to arbitrarily divorce their wives.

There were new opportunities for relations between women and men. The middle and upper class urban youth experienced this the most. Gradual reforms enacted during this time allowed for a freedom of sexuality.

In reaction to these changes the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to reinstate and reestablish these restrictions from before this period of secularization and liberalization. The social advances gained before the revolution, however have restricted the policies of Islamists and they have had to allow for some freedom. They have been forced to allow women to play a role in public life only if it did not compromise her familial responsibilities.

There has been pressure to conform to the religious moral codes of the nation, however this has not always worked out the way that the Islamists had hoped. Even though it has been more than two decades since the Islamic fundamentalists success in Iran, they have not been successful in suppressing the aspirations, expectations, and lifestyles of women completely.

The resistance towards their regime has prompted them to make some modifications to their policy. It has had to revise its initial banning of women from taking classes for certain careers. In terms of employment, the government has had to allow for women to hold office as judges, but only in limited capacities.

Divorce rights have been changed to where women can divorce men only under certain circumstances. There are now a duality in this society. One in which the clergy run everything and ideally their policies are obligatory. The other is where men and women make their own private decisions out of view of the government.

A similar situation can be seen observed in the Islamic country of Iran where transgenderism is accepted, but homosexuality is condemned and criminalized. There are many people who would be surprised to know that Iran is the global leader in gender reassignment surgery in the Middle East, even surpassing Western countries. One would think that Iran, being such a religiously conservative theocratic country, would scoff at the idea and that transgenderism would be extremely taboo and forbidden by Islamic law. This is not the case, however. The justification for allowing transgenderism in this religiously conservative nation comes from the fact that the Islamic holy book, the Quran, says nothing explicitly about transgendered individuals. In 1967 Ayatollah Khomeini published a fatwa, while living as a political dissident in Iraq, supporting the medical practice of sex reassignment surgery. However, at the time his fatwa had no influence in the political or medical field of Iran at the time. He reissued it in 1985 and this allowed for a strong surge in support and increase in surgeries. Classical Islamic conversations talked about the body and soul as being distinctly male or distinctly female, but they also left room for hermaphrodites or gender ambiguous people whose sex could not be determined. This provided a sort of dilemma until the possibility of sex reassignment surgery came into the picture. Before that it was assumed that the soul was misaligned with the body and a realignment needed to take place. Sex reassignment surgery now allowed for such a possibility. This surgery is not required if diagnosed as transsexual, but it is recommended if the person diagnosed is religiously observant and fears falling into sin. Some see it as a “wonder of God’s creation” now that its acceptance is more pervasive in society.

Despite all the positive feedback from other countries and the ability for transgendered people to be able to live as their authentic selves, gays and lesbians are not afforded the same rights and privileges. Homosexuality is still a forbidden and a punishable offense under Islamic law within the Islamic country of Iran. Homosexuals and lesbians do face pressures to conform to the heteronormative view of society by undergoing sex reassignment surgery, but many religious and legal officials are opposed to codifying this into law. They would rather have a strong distinction between trans individuals and same sex individuals. The fact that there is such a robust industry and support system for trans individuals, however, has allowed for gays and lesbians to have support systems and relatively safe places to be themselves. Male to female trans individuals have a much harder time of familial acceptance and chances of reconciliation than do female to male trans individuals. Male to female individuals face bullying, poverty and even death because they are seen to be behaving feminine or desiring to be feminine throughout their lives and within their relationships. Transsexuality is still seen as something shameful, but it is nevertheless accepted as a fact of everyday life.

Families do fear for their children who may in early childhood tend to cross gender norms in their behaviors and dress. These parents are afforded information beforehand concerning what to do when they encounter these things and how to prevent them. If the child’s transsexuality or same sex behavior continues and causes problems in their schools, which are gender separate or the behavior is within the child themselves, the parents may take extreme steps to correct or prevent the behavior.

The rights of LGBT people in Iran is a complex subject that must take into account the cultural and historical aspects of the country itself. The third gender is accepted and tolerated, but still more or less looked down upon by the predominant culture. Same-sex individuals similarly find safety and refuge under the shadow of these third genders within their respective cultures.


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