Maryam Khatoon Molkara: A Testament to the Existence of Devout Queer People of Faith

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Maryam Khatoon Molkara (1950 - 2012) was a devout Muslim trans woman who survived purges of the Iranian Revolution and came out of them with an official religious decree in hand which recognizes the struggle of trans people and offers a blessing that they may pursue transition and life as their authentic selves—so long as they present themselves in a rather heteronormative, binary manner.

 

Early Life

Maryam Khatoon Molkara was born in Iran in 1950, on the edge of the Caspian Sea. As a child, she experienced some of the more frequently touted signs of fledgling dysphoria that we see in our community—playing with her mother’s clothes and make-up, small town love for the boy next door, a more natural ease around girls rather than the boys she was assigned as at birth. Late night prayer cycles when adolescence starts to set in, begging in quiet moments for one’s body to shift in the night into something which feels as if it fits comfortably within the invisible map drawn out by one’s soul.

In her late teens, early twenties, Molkara worked as a caretaker for an elderly woman in her neighborhood. After one occasion of taking her out to the local hospital, she was able to snag a part-time job there at the health center without telling her parents. She becomes acquainted with one of the doctors there, who turns out to be a post-operation trans man. When she confided in him that she felt like a woman and not like a gay man, he opened her eyes to the concept of transness as a viable option for her life. In this, he became the first outside reflection she received of her own experiences echoed back at her. It was an incredibly validating, enlightening turning point which changed the course of her life, giving her clarity and focus on what she could do to try and make a life for herself which felt genuine and true.

In 1970’s Iran, there was no real official policy on SRS (sexual reassignment surgery). There were levels of day to day transphobia typical to the time, but there were private doctors working in Iran which could freely perform SRS if they could afford the procedure.

 

Maryam Seeks Out A Religious Opinion and Begins Presenting as Female Full Time

Once she found out about hormone therapy and SRS as an option, Molkara worked up the courage to come out to her parents, but they did not take it well. Though she wanted so fiercely to surgically transition, she chose not to pursue SRS at that time in order to respect her mother’s wishes. The interaction caused her to second guess her path, and as a devout Muslim, she decided to get a second opinion on the issue from someone with a higher authority.

In the early 70’s, she reached out to one of the nation’s religious experts local to her area, the Ayatollah Behbehani. When they met, he performed an istikharah for guidance—allowing the Quran to fall open to a page with an air of divine directed chance and determining a reading based on that passage. The text fell open to the Quran’s verses about Jesus’ mother, The Virgin Maryam. Behbehani drew correlations between their stories and interpreted this to mean that her life will be a struggle for the belief of others, much like Maryam herself, and suggested that she write to the controversial Ayatollah Khomeini for further interpretation.

In the meantime, she lived in a poor district in Tehran with a platonic boyfriend. It was a hard life, but she revelled in the community she found around the cabarets—the kindred spirits thriving under the cover of night, seeking to be their authentic selves. She started taking estrogen while working at a nail salon in the city, and began to present as female more often than not. She found support from her coworkers and other members of the community as she grew out her hair and dressed in women’s clothes, living out her days and making plans to reach out to Khomeini—a mission which is interrupted when he becomes the spearhead of the Iranian Revolution.
 

Ayatollah Behbehani

Ayatollah Behbehani

 

Forced Back into the Closet

The Iranian Revolution breaks out in 1979.

During this time of a strict religious interpretation and burgeoning war with Iraq, a push towards fundamentalist morality created purges of ‘unsavory’ or ‘degenerate’ people—resulting in the deaths of mass numbers of homosexuals, prostitutes, addicts, and trans people in various iterations of presentation and transition. Molkara was beaten and imprisoned several times for wearing women’s clothes and was forced to take testosterone in attempts to “correct” the breasts which she had developed during her years of estrogen therapy. She is helped out of prison detainment only through her strong connections with the local religious community, with faith leaders advocating on the behalf of her character.

Her body was trapped in limbo. Binding her breasts while growing back into a beard, Molkara started working as a nurse on the front lines of Iran’s bloody war with Iraq in the early 1980. Several wounded soldiers became quietly infatuated with her and raised questions about her gender, citing the incredible tenderness of her touch and bedside manner.

 

Maryam and the Ayatollah

In 1983, she finally gets her meeting with the Ayatollah Khomeini.

She approached his compound with the Quran in her hands, shoes tied together by the laces and hanging around her neck - a gesture indicating a request for shelter. Upon her arrival, she is seized by his bodyguards and brutally beaten in the yard, all dust and dry grass and blood, coiling in to protect herself and telling them repeatedly, hysterical and hazy that she is a woman, she is a woman.

The vicious beating caused The Ayatollah’s son Ahmed to run out of the compound towards the commotion. When he came upon the scene he immediately called off the guards, chastising them for attacking a person who came seeking shelter. The guards pointed to the wrappings around her chest, suspecting that it could be a bomb strapped to her body, and she quickly tore them off, exposing her breasts.

S. Reza for The New York Times

S. Reza for The New York Times

The women at the compound rushed to cover her with a black chador, and Ahmed—moved instantly by her story—brought her into the house to meet his father. As they approached, she became overwhelmed and collapsed. When she came to, she finally received her audience with Khomeini.

With some of his most decorated doctors in attendance, the Ayatollah listened to her story. He considered the evidence of her life and the advice of the doctors, weighing it against the tenants of the Quran and the relative lack of direct instruction on how trans and intersex persons fit in to the gendered traditions of the faith.

At the end of his deliberations, the Ayatollah decreed a fatwa in favor of sex reassignment surgery for trans individuals, stating “In the name of the Almighty. God willing, sex reassignment if advised by a reliable doctor is permissible, I hope you are safe, and those who you have mentioned treat you well.”

This religious decree eased the warring waters of her soul, that conflict between what she wanted for herself and what she felt that she could do to have that life without breaking from her faith.

 

Later Activism and the Double Edged Sword of Clergical Acceptance of SRS

She gets approved by the government for SRS in 1986, but does not follow through until the late 1990s, after the reformists come to power in 1997. She opened a trans resource center in Tehran, and worked with Ali Razini—head of the Special Court of Clergy—and Zahra Shojai, Iran's vice president for women's affairs at the time, in order to secure more accessible health care and public education for trans people in Iran. She also helped found The Imam Khomeini Charity Foundation, which works as an auxiliary liaison with government-funded operations and secures $1,200 loans for persons seeking different stages of operation.

Today, there are several experienced doctors working in Tehran who have helped make the city of of the gender-reassignment capitals of the world—despite occasional death threats and attacks from citizens who do not agree with the clergy’s support of their patients and procedures.

While this clergical acceptance of gender reassignment and hormone therapy is great for binary trans people seeking transition, it does at the same time serve as a source of pain for other members of the queer community in the region. Homosexuality is still illegal in Iran, with punishments ranging from imprisonment, public beatings, and even death. This makes SRS an unwitting avenue of heteronormative, biological conversion therapy and forced sterilization, in which queer cisgender or non-binary Iranians are forced to go through gender reassignment as a way to ‘fix’ same-sex desires and avoid brutal prosecution.

 

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Mel Paisley is transmasculine author, illustrator, and general loudmouthed inkslinger based out of Savannah, GA. He writes a lot about pre-Stonewall herstory, schizophrenia, and being mixed and queer in the Deep South. (IG/Twitter: @melpaisleyart, melpaisleyart.com)