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Sex-change Iranian hates life as woman

The Guardian (London)
Geneive Abdo in Tehran
June 20, 2000

Maryam took one hard first-person look at life as a woman in Iran and made a decision: "she" wanted out. Born Mehran, the 25-year-old Iranian, then a man, had earlier swept aside strong parental objections and undergone a sex change operation last year. But in female form, Maryam soon found it impossible to cope with the constraints imposed by the Islamic republic - so impossible that she now wants to reverse the operation.

"I cannot go on living with the new identity, after years of living as a man with no restrictions," she told the daily newspaper Iran. "At first, I thought I would get used to it, but life has become painful and intolerable. So I want a new sex change."

No one ever said life as an Iranian woman would be easy. The country's social and legal codes severely limit women's choices.

Most move from the authority of their father and brothers to that of a husband, so have little or no experience of life on their own.

They also face personal restrictions and taboos that implicitly prevent them renting apartments on their own or travelling overseas without first getting the consent of a male relative.

State health officials report that between the sexes, it is the women who have the higher suicide rate, with the highest figures being registered in the holy Muslim Shi'ite city of Qom, Iran's centre of religious learning.

Although reliable figures are impossible to come by, anecdotal evidence makes it clear that women turned out overwhelmingly in the 1997 parliamentary election to vote for the social, cultural and political reforms advocated by President Mohammad Khatami.

Some of the more superficial restrictions on women's dress and conduct have been eased. The enforcement of veiling is more relaxed, particularly in the capital, Tehran. But on substantive issues involving legal and social rights, much more remains to be done.

Sex change operations are legal in socially conservative Iran, although formal permission from the coroner's office is required before the surgery can take place. Critics of the system say conservative mores prevent candidates for such radical operations from testing out their new sexual identity first, as is often the case elsewhere.

The only option for someone who changes her mind, like Maryam, is to undergo a second operation.

In the legal system, a woman's testimony is given half the weight of that of a man, while inheritance, divorce and child custody laws all favour men. For example, a boy as young as two and a girl as young as seven are automatically awarded to the father if a couple divorces, a fact that keeps some women in abusive or dangerous marriages.

Upper middle class women have taken to demanding special clauses in their marriage contracts reserving them the right to initiate divorce. Otherwise, that power resides with the man alone.


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