Reading: Afsaneh Najmabadi — Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran

Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity had been on my reading list for a long time before I got around to buying it, and it quickly became a work I refer to for all things 19th-century Iran; Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran on the other hand I had on pre-order from the moment I first read of it, have been working my way through ever since, though likewise it’s become a critical reference for me. Both works I’ve put down and picked up again, interspersing her dense academic writing with sallies into sci-fi and fantasy. Neither of these are casual reads, just having to flick back and forth to the extensive notes (almost a quarter of the book in Professing Selves case) breaks my usual reading speed.

I’ve discovered in the last couple of years in branching out from exclusively China/Central Asian study that there are similar authors, academics, researchers to be found elsewhere, which is to say that Najmababi is the Iranian equivalent of Susan Mann or Gail Hershatter on China or Katherine Pratt Ewing on Islam. Part of this is the specificity of their topics—Mann on a family of Qing Dynasty literary women or Ewing on Muslim men in Berlin—from which they expand out to frame an entire era and cultural region (Mann the Jiangnan region, and Ewing concentrically out from Berlin to Germany then Europe). I could even add Nicole Griffith’s Hild to this list (or other sci-fi or fantasy for that matter). It’s not a banal, self-evident thing to say it’s possible to find similar authors in diverse fields; it’s taken me a lot of time to find works outside the habitual historical/anthropological/political trajectory of works, to find ones that actually demonstrate scholarship, intelligence, curiosity, critical thinking, all traits one would suppose are mandatory, yet largely seem to be absent. For example, reading on Afghanistan for me dried up completely as new publications fell broadly into Taliban/New Taliban/regional geopolitics/war, always against the mirror (or spectre) of the USA and the ‘international community’, all of which I can get from blogs by specialists already. Works of substance like Mann or Najmabadi on the region—both in terms of subject matter and scholarship—don’t seem to exist of late.

Professing Selves is a complex, extremely well-researched and written work at the intersection of three individual subjects already poorly understood in western culture—transsexuality and gender identity, Islam, and Iran—that meet in a period from mid-late-20th-century to today. A digression: I’m about half-way through and it’s occurred to me there is no comparable work on transsexuality and gender identity in western countries that I can think of, certainly not one that goes into such detail (Susan Stryker’s Transgender History is not comparable, nor exactly is The Transgender Studies Reader works, which she edited), which makes it all the more remarkable such a work is first written on Iran, a country positioned since the revolution as diametrically opposite the west’s imagination of itself.

A second digression: the west’s understanding of transgender and GLBT issues in Iran in mainstream media (where it occurs) and GLBT media is largely framed in terms of coercive or forced sex-change on gay and lesbian people as a cure for homosexuality perpetrated by a variant of ‘Islamofascism’, which to me seems to be driven by equal parts homonationalism and transmisogyny on the part of that media. While this is covered here (and separately by Najmabadi in other essays), it’s only within the context of a work which spans almost 60 years of Iranian history from post-WW2, and only within the broader transsexual/transgender, GLBT history in Iran which in itself drew much from contemporaneous western developments.

I’m perhaps not doing such a good job of summarising this. To understand the situation for trans and GLBT people in Iran at the moment, Najmabadi explores western cultural influence on Iran stretching back to the 19th century, Islamic law and the fatwas on transsexuality and sex reassignment surgery, intersex and the changing relationship with transsexuality, cultural categories of masculinity and femininity, emerging gay, lesbian, feminist movements in the ’70s, the Iranian Revolution, political, religious, medical positions and disputes, media coverage and popular culture, all of which pulled the status of gender- and sexually- non-conforming people back and forth between various states of legality, permissibility, visibility, and simultaneously opened and closed paths for a liveable life. (Despite the sometimes problematic use of appellations for trans people, Trans[ition] in Iran is a pretty good read on this.)

Speaking of appellations, and being immersed for years in the shifting choice of words to describe all this, from transsexual to transgender, trans with or without an asterisk, queer, along the way words taken up as self-identification have been dropped and become pejorative. Even the word ‘transsexuality’ on the cover would likely be replaced by ‘transgender’ (viz. Stryker, above), and terms such as MtF (male-to-female) would be instead be trans woman, along with MAAB (male assigned at birth). This last term, demonstrates an medico-legal act rather than an identity or biological ‘fact’ or ‘truth’, and I think far more accurately illustrates what’s going on before any trans status than MtF which uncritically makes some large and groundless assumptions. Transsexual has similarly been under contention for years, with transgender first replacing transsexual and broadening to become an umbrella for all gender non-conforming categories, while lately transsexual seems to be reemerging. All of which is to say it’s extremely difficult to talk about this in a way which respects the people who take these words for themselves or to whom these words are applied, as evinced by this paragraph alone. In Najmabadi’s case, I find the choice of words aids in understanding the specificity of the situation both now and historically in Iran (despite their sometimes anachronistic sound), where these are words in use by both trans people, and the medical, legal, and religious establishments where they have specific additional meanings distinct from what they do in western countries.

A great enjoyment in reading Professing Selves is that it is removed from contemporary western trans/queer/feminist theory. It offers a specific regional and historic account of trans identities, yet does not try and frame this in prevalent western narratives even though having a deep understanding of them. Crucially here, I think that when trans/queer/feminist theory (which is disproportionately coming from the US) talks about intersectionality, it’s precisely a work like this that is missing from the discussion. Further, unlike say, Tanaz Eshaghian’s film Be Like Others (which for me slides into the transmisogyny and homonationalism commonly found when discussing trans people—especially trans women—and Iran), Najmabadi has nothing invested in promoting either of the “Iran as transsexual paradise” or “Iran as land of forced gay sex-change” mythemes, nor in writing a work that confirms any current popular ideas (particularly those coming from GLBT media) about Iran and Islam alone or in combination with trans issues. It’s unlikely Professing Selves will be widely read though, which is a great pity as it deserves to be, and Najmabadi deserves also to be far better known in trans and queer theory than she is. Nonetheless, it’s equally unlikely there will be a better work written on Iran, Islam, and trans people any time soon.