The Ayatollah and the transsexual

That Maryam Khatoon Molkara can live a normal life is due to a compassionate decision by one man: the leader of the Islamic revolution himself. By Angus McDowall in Tehran and Stephen Khan

Maryam Khatoon Molkara is the first to admit that she has had a complicated life. A plump, good-looking, middle-aged woman with strong features, she is ladylike and not a little flirtatious. "Marry me," she said. "Take me away and we'll live in Italy."

Keen not to complicate matters further, your correspondent declined the offer. Ms Molkara used to be called Fereydoon - Mr Fereydoon Molkara. And now she is a transsexual living in the Islamic Republic of Iran: someone who has volunteered to go under the veil. During the past 54 years, she has seen seismic shifts in both her body and her homeland.

Recently dozens of transsexuals - including a former Republican Guard - have been able to openly seek treatment to switch sexes. And it is largely thanks to Ms Molkara and a personal campaign that saw her twice appeal directly to the very man who charted Iran's shift to theocracy - the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Iran's Islamic government is starting to recognise people with sexual-identity disorders and allowing them to have sex-change operations and obtain new birth certificates. Some are now even recommended for treatment by clerics and the government helps fund operations.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution there was no particular policy regarding transsexuals. Maryam Khatoon Molkara had to put up with the kind of abuse commonplace in many countries. But those who wanted to switch sexes could if they had the cash.

As for so many Iranians, the revolution was a vital moment in her life and for a number of years her true identity was forced to exist in the shadows. The new religious government classed transsexuals and transvestites with gays and lesbians, who were condemned and faced the punishment of lashing under Iran's penal code.

And of course to those in the West it seemed anathema that anyone should want to be a woman in Iran in those early days of the Ayatollah.

By the mid-1980s Iran was locked in a bloody war with Iraq. In the early years of the revolution, moral puritanism became a scourge sweeping through the nation. Thousands of prostitutes, drug addicts and homosexuals were executed. In public places, revolutionaries challenged people who failed to abide by the strict new codes of dress and behaviour. Prison sentences and the lash became commonplace for the smallest of public moral lapses and public offices were purged of the ideologically unsound. The national trauma was amplified when Saddam Hussein's army crossed the border in September 1980.

"When the war started, I did voluntary nursing work near the front line. When I bandaged wounded men, they sometimes felt as though a woman was doing it because I was more gentle and I overheard them wondering what kind of person I was. Some of the chemically wounded patients had sores that needed to be dressed near their groins, and sometimes they implied they had sexual feelings for me."

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman. And it was an even harder time for Ms Molkara to be confused about her gender, but the medical work on the front line brought her to the attention of important figures in the government. And at this low point of enforced male sexuality, an unlikely guardian angel appeared in the guise of a patient with high connections in the new revolutionary establishment. He secured the meetings with senior officials

By 1987 Ms Molkara was being introduced to Ayatollah Khomeini himself. Within half an hour of entering Khomeini's compound, she was granted a liberating decision that changed her life - and ultimately those of many more Iranians.

The tent-like black chador - a ubiquitous badge of Iranian revolutionary womanhood - was given to her that day. She prefers to wear more modern and fetching clothes, but in a country where women's rights have often come under attack, the gift was a paradoxical symbol of Ms Molkara's newfound freedom of identity.

The decision may even have been rooted in an earlier correspondence between Ms Molkara and the leader. Because of a troubled early life, Ms Molkara had always been religious. So when the chance to have gender-swap treatment arose in the 1970s, she went to see Ayatollah Behbehani, one of the leading religious figures in the country. He performed a typical Iranian religious ceremony, an istikhareh - letting the Koran fall open and interpreting her problems according to the page that was revealed. It was the sura of Maryam, the verses in the Koran that tell the story of Jesus' mother Mary. Ayatollah Behbehani said he thought this meant that her life would be like Maryam's - a struggle.

"He said it meant I should have the operation but he said I should write to Ayatollah Khomeini, who was then in Iraq and was one of the leading Shia religious experts. Khomeini decided then that it was a religious obligation for me to have the sex change because a person needs a clear sexual identity in order to carry out their religious duties. He said that because of my feelings, I should observe all the rites specific to women, including the way they dress." Although surgery was still some years off, it was a day she rediscovered herself. Born in 1950 to a landowner on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Ms Molkara was the only child from the second of her father's eight marriages. "When I was very small I used to scream when they tried to dress me in boy's clothes and when I was taken to toy shops I wanted dolls instead of boy's toys. I played at cooking with the neighbouring girls and every night I prayed for a miracle but in the morning I looked at my body and it hadn't happened."

She found that age and adolescence did nothing to cushion a growing but painful awareness that her identity was confused. "I was in love with the next door neighbour's son. I tried everything on him. I even tried hypnotising him. I would dream about him, but it was always sad because I knew it wouldn't work."

At about this age, Ms Molkara started helping out for an elderly woman who lived near by. When the woman fell ill, she took her to hospital, lied about her age and got a part-time job there as a care assistant without telling her family. It was a doctor at the hospital who told her she was a woman, not a gay man, and could have an operation to change her life. It was only later that she realised he was also transsexual. Soon she got a job in a beauty salon and ventured into Tehran's exciting nocturnal world. "I started going to cabarets in south Tehran. I still wore men's clothes, but in a very feminine way. One night, I was standing in the street waiting for a taxi and wearing a black velvet suit with red flames on it. A car stopped and several men leaned out and called excitedly to me. When they called me sister I knew they were like me."

She started living with her boyfriend in a poor district of the city. She says the relationship was not sexual. Her mother had reacted very badly when Ms Molkara told her she was transsexual and refused to accept it.

Her mother's opposition was so intense that she decided not to go through with surgery. Instead, she went on a course of hormones. Her colleagues were sympathetic, she dressed as a woman and to all intents and purposes she became, in her own words, "a she, even without the operation".

Things became easier. But still, she did not have the operation. Her now elderly mother remained vehemently opposed and the cost was prohibitive. She split up with her boyfriend of nearly 20 years and was briefly married to a government official.

After the reformists came to power in 1997, she once again thought about having a permanent sex change. The new atmosphere in the country was more tolerant. Money for the operation remained a problem, but the government finally agreed to pay. Through her charity, she has secured the offer of funding from the state-affiliated religious charity, Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, for future operations for numerous transsexuals.

Eventually, she flew to Thailand to start the long series of operations - a procedure that has taken years.

Four years ago, Ms Molkara established an organisation to help those with sexual-identity problems. Co-founders include Ali Razini, head of the Special Court of Clergy, a branch of the judiciary that deals only with clerics, and Zahra Shojai, Iran's vice president for women's affairs. An Islamic philanthropic group known as the Imam Khomeini Charity Foundation has agreed to provide loans of $1,200 to help pay for sex-change surgery.Others are now able to have operations without leaving the country.

But even if Iran's Muslim clerics are more understanding now of transsexuals' needs, others are not. As one medic who had a knife pulled on him by the father of a prospective patient, explained: "We have a problem even deciding at which hospital to do the surgery because society considers these people deviant."

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