x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Changed lives win acceptance in Iran

Country has allowed sex reassignment operations for three decades and about 80 people change their gender every year.

Sogand, a transsexual, with her husband Vahid in their home in Tehran. Below, Sogand putting on a veil.
Sogand, a transsexual, with her husband Vahid in their home in Tehran. Below, Sogand putting on a veil.

TEHRAN // After waiting nearly 30 years, Sogand finally became the person she dreamt of. "When my boyfriend placed a ring on my finger and proposed, I realised that he saw me every bit a real woman who he wanted to share his life with. I could no longer doubt my own femininity," said Sogand, who spent 26 of her 29 years living a life trapped - as she says - in a male body. Sogand is one of the hundreds of Iranian men and women who, thanks to a religious edict by Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran's Islamic revolution nearly three decades ago, have had sex reassignment surgery, legally. In many cases, it has been with the help of the state Welfare Organisation. Every year, about 80 people undergo sex reassignment surgery in Iran, 90 per cent of which are male to female cases, said an official of the Legal Medicine (Forensics) Organisation. From early childhood, Sogand felt different from her body. "Real trouble began when hair started to appear on my face and body. I would spend hours in front of the mirror plucking the hair from my face. The constant plucking inflamed my skin most of the time and to hide it I began wearing foundation and a little lipstick to make up for the paleness," she said. On several occasions it was too much for Sogand's family, who live in a conservative neighbourhood in the south of Tehran. She said her father would often try to beat the "deviance" out of her. "He never asked me why I wore make-up and I never told him that I felt I was a woman. He just kept telling me not to disgrace the family. If he had asked the reason, maybe I would speak up about my problem and my condition could be diagnosed earlier," Sogand said. "I speak a lot now. It is like veils covering my real character were removed after the surgery, as I finally became the woman I longed to be." It was in college, when Sogand first glimpsed that she could possibly become that woman. A friend, who studied psychology, suggested she see a therapist who confirmed she was psychologically in need of a sex change. She then turned to the state Welfare Organisation for professional help, which also arranged and paid for the psychological evaluation, counselling and surgery. A certificate issued by a court allowed her to wear women's dress in public until her surgery three years later and hormone therapy stopped the growth of hair on her face and body and gave her a more feminine look. "The operation and psychotherapy costs around 40 million rials [Dh14,739] and they paid almost all once I was diagnosed with the condition and got a court order to have the operation," Sogand said. Vahid, a male friend from college stayed by her side throughout the process. The two were married two years ago. "The new birth certificate allowed me to marry Vahid legally and by a court order I even had my college diploma remade to accommodate my new identity." But not everything is always so easy for transsexuals in Iran. Operations can go wrong and cause serious deformities. A society that Sogand and some friends have formed plans to campaign for better medical and psychological treatment for transsexuals. "Doctors' training is outdated. We want the health ministry to provide opportunities for surgeons to learn new techniques, to bring in surgeons from abroad to treat transsexuals, or even send them abroad for treatment, if they recognise us as patients, and they definitely do," she said. "Sometimes wrong diagnosis of the condition leads to deep depression, regret and even suicide among transsexuals after having the surgery, so more care has to be taken in evaluation and diagnosis by psychologists too," said Sogand, who is planning to start a post-graduate psychology degree. Sogand even starred in Tedium (also known as Sex My Life), a trans-genre film directed by Bahman Motamedian that depicts the lives and problems of seven transsexuals, including a female-to-male transsexual, living in Tehran. The film has been shown in at several festivals abroad and won the Brian Award from the Venice Film Festival in 2008. msinaiee@thenational.ae