Agonizing Odyssey of Iranian Transsexual: From Despair to Survival

Saman Arastoo

Saman Arastoo, an Iranian actor and director, was born a woman, but he soon found out that he is very different from his peers.

Unlike other Islamic countries, Iran legally permits transsexuals to have gender reassignment surgery. The Iranian transsexuals are indebted this freedom to the Founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Jurisprudents in Iran remained silent towards the surgery until an Iranian transsexual, Fereydoun Malekara, went to Ayatollah Khomeini’s home in Jamaran in 1964 to ask for his permission to have gender reassignment.

During the meeting, Malekara argued that psychologically he was a woman. Having consulted medical specialists, Imam issued a religious decree (Fatwa) allowing Malekara to have the reassignment surgery. With this Fatwa, Imam Khomeini provoked a wave of legal and jurisprudential discussions over the issue.

“I’m just a transsexual. I’ve no mental illness or disorder. I was born a transsexual with a body which didn’t belong to me.” These are the words of Iranian film director, Farzaneh Arastoo.

She was born as Farazaneh Arastoo in 1967. But a time came in her life when she felt there are huge differences between her and other girls. She felt her body didn’t belong to her. She finally managed to have gender reassignment after hard years of struggle and changed her name to Saman Arastoo.

Since then, he has dedicated his time and energy to help the transsexuals in Tehran and other provinces. He has also directed a theatre named ‘Be the one you are not’ with the main theme of transsexuals’ plight in society.

Though Saman’s account of a transsexual life is a personal experience, it requires an extensive exploration.

“Most reference books reduce the causes behind transsexuals’ behaviours to some chromosome and harmonic disorders particularly in earlier days of our life,” says Dr Shahriar Kohanzad, a surgeon and the author of a book on transphobia.

He rejects as baseless the reference books’ account of the transsexuals’ life, adding all humans are born with four levels of gender: Chromosome, gland, appearance and society. According to him, gender identity disorder cannot be justified only at one level.

Kohanzad warns about the sensitive personalities of the transsexuals and urges the society not to isolate them by wrong judgements.

In a Farsi interview with ISNA, Saman Arastoo has talked about his painful odyssey as a transsexual in the Iranian society. Here is the full text of the interview:

 

Q: Mr. Arastoo, when did you find out that you are different from your peers?

A: I think, at 6 or 7 I felt the differences. For example, I used to wear my father’s shoes and clothes and never paid attention to those of my mother. But I didn’t dare to talk about my feelings with others.

Meanwhile, at that age, I was not familiar with the word “transsexual.” My father was a surgeon who repeatedly told me “you are different from others.” He was tolerant towards me. I came to know my gender orientation many years later. Even after sexual reassignment surgery, I view myself as a transsexual. I think the transsexuals need, first of all, to have a self-understanding. No human is born man or woman. We are called man or woman based on our anatomy. So the category has nothing to do with our identity. We come to know the categories after the age of 5. The main point is that we are all human being regardless of our gender. But in our society the transsexuals are usually isolated. Transsexuality is not an illness. It is not an incident or disorder as well. One is born transsexual. Due to their special orientation, the transsexuals are neither completely men nor women.

Q: Were your family members aware of your special case?

A: No, because I didn’t express my feelings. I had a forced marriage back in 1991. This is the theme of my recent theatre. My marriage lasted only one day and it took me one year and a half to get divorced. I had terrible experience in my life, but sometimes such experience helped me have a better understanding of myself.

Q: How did you leave behind this painful experience?

A: By teaching children in the rural areas. Each person has its own way of salvation. I found my salvation in teaching.

Q: After marriage, how many years took it for you to have the gender reassignment surgery?

A: 17 years. During these years, I wrote my best pieces. I also worked on Bertolt Brecht plays. I taught children in the villages. I received eight rewards for best actor and I directed my best plays.

 

Q: But it seemed you had no way out of this plight. For example, in theatres, you had to play female roles.

A: It was not important for me. I was an actor. During those days, I wore mantilla. All people around me knew that I was different. When I went to the Culture Ministry, I shook hands with men and the security guards were tolerant towards me. After my surgery, they told me that they knew I was different from other women.

Q: Please tell us about your personal experience during the surgery.

A: I had three surgeries within a month. The first surgery was for ovary.

Q: How did you feel after the surgery?

A: Great. Then I referred to another doctor for breast surgery. I didn’t pay any money. My college-day friend Mahtab Keramti paid the whole costs. But for my third surgery, I had to go to Dr Kohanzad at Pars Hospital. It is one of Tehran’s expensive hospitals which doesn’t accept insurance.

On the other hand, Welfare Organization of Iran paid only 300 dollars to me for the surgery. I couldn’t afford the remaining costs because I used to live on a low wage. So, about 40 colleagues including well-known Iranian actors and actresses helped me have the surgery.

Q: How long did your recovery period last?

A: Even Dr Kohanzad couldn’t believe that I can return to normal life after a short time, because at that time I was 42 and that was not a good age for such surgeries. Though the transsexuals don’t need to have all these anatomy surgeries, I insisted on undergoing them all.

Q: When reminding your experience, I get frightened, but you talk about them without any trace of pain in your words.

A: I went through 17 years of agonizing pain. I was alone and couldn’t discuss my sufferings even with my close friends. Loneliness was just the tip of the iceberg.

Q: How about your emotional relationships? Would you please talk about them as well?

A: I had very uneasy relationships. I couldn’t trust anybody. I was always dreaming of taking the hand of a loved one. All my dreams in life have come true, except for early dreams in my 20s.  When I was young, the society was not aware enough about the transsexuals and their conditions. Today our society has deeply changed. I got married two years ago.

Q: It must be a wonderful experience. Isn’t it?

A: Yes. It’s very interesting. My wife knows me well and has accepted me as I am.

Q: What happened to your friendly relationships after the surgeries?

A: Some of my friends cut their ties, but some others stayed with me. My colleagues were very unkind to me. Some of them boycotted me, because they didn’t like to work with me any longer. They tried to isolate me, but failed.

 

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