Thursday, 29 May 2008

Be Like Others

Be Like Others (also known as Transsexual in Iran) is a documentary film written and directed by Tanaz Eshaghian about transsexuals in Iran. It explores issues of gender and sexuality while following the personal stories of some of the patients at a Tehran clinic. The film played at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival, winning three awards, and has just opened in Toronto.

The documentary follows the journeys of several young people who opt for sexual reassignment surgery in Tehran. Curiously, while homosexuality is still a crime in Iran, and punishable by death, sex changes have been one hundred percent legal since 1983, come Ayatollah-approved and even include the added bonus of an altered birth certificate.

The new religious government that came to be established after the 1979 Iranian Revolution classed transsexuals and transvestites with gays and lesbians, who were condemned by Islam and faced the punishment of lashing and death under Iran's penal code.

One early campaigner for transsexual rights is Maryam Hatoon Molkara, who was formerly a man known as Fereydoon. Before the revolution, she had longed to become a woman but could not afford surgery. Furthermore, she wanted religious authorization.

Since 1975, she had been writing letters to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was to become the leader of the revolution and was in exile. After the revolution, she was fired, forcedly injected with male hormone, and institutionalized. She was later released with help from her connection, and she kept lobbying many other leaders. Later she went to see Khomeini, who had returned to Iran. At first she was stopped and beaten by his guards, but eventually Khomeini gave her a letter to authorize her gender reassignment operation. The letter is later known as the fatwa that authorizes such operations in Iran.

A small number of Iranian clerics have advised that homosexual men and women undergo gender reassignment in order for them to be able to live "normal lives".

The film is both fascinating and sad, especially as it becomes obvious that many of the people who get the surgery in Iran are actually just gay men who would never elect to do so in another country, and that far from solving all of their problems, as women, many Iranian transsexuals wind up on the streets, as prostitutes.

One of them is Ali Askar, a 24 year-old man who faces harassment from other men due to his feminine appearance and behaviour. He does not want to become a woman but sees no other options for him in Iranian society. He decides to go ahead with the surgery despite death threats from his father and finds support from Vida, a post-operative transsexual he meets at the clinic. By the end of the film, Ali has become a woman named Negar. She has been disowned by her family, experienced depression and has had to work as a prostitute.

20 year-old Anoosh is another young man who has been ostracised due to his femininity. His boyfriend feels more comfortable when Anoosh dresses as a woman, and in contrast to Ali, Anoosh's mother is supportive of his desire to change sex. The end of the film shows Anoosh — now Anahita — happy and engaged to her boyfriend.

Eshaghian, an Iranian American film-maker, got the idea for Be Like Others after reading a 2004 New York Times article about sex-change operations happening in Iran and being surprised that such an operation would be acceptable in a Muslim country. She wrote a proposal for a film and tried to find funding, but was unsuccessful. She contacted a British journalist who had written on the subject and he gave her telephone numbers for Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali and the Muslim cleric featured in the film.

To find subjects, she visited the predominant sex-reassignment clinic in Iran, and spent time in the waiting-room talking to patients and their families. She found that female-to-male transsexuals were generally very successful in living as their new gender and as a result were reluctant to take part in the documentary for fear of being "outed" as transsexual.

She felt that the contrasting stories of Ali and Anoosh highlighted the importance of family bonds in Iranian society. At a question and answer session at the Sundance Film Festival, Eshaghian said that one of the men she met while filming decided to live as a gay man rather than become a woman, and that she is now trying to help him leave Iran.

The film was shown on BBC television as Transsexual in Iran in February 2008.


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