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Number 13: Spring 2018

Scenes of Self-Conduct: Transnational Subjectivities from Tehran to Laplanche

Dina Al-Kassim

Contemporary medical notions of psychology, pharmacology and cognitive therapies do not constitute a foreign or “western” scientific matrix, though their implantation has necessarily evolved in tandem with the currents of local culture and taken up vocabularies of self and other that reflect regional, sedimented and linguistic as well as religious inflections of place and people. The medical view, one preceding the Islamic Republic yet surviving the transition of state, that transsexuality reflects a “gender identity dysphoria” dovetails with one traditional, religiously informed view that the trans person suffers a discrepancy between soul and body (rather than gender, for on this account there is no clear notion of gender) that can be corrected by acknowledging social reassignment. As early as 1964, Ayatollah Khomeini published the view that sex change is permitted in Islam while his 1984 formal ruling or fatwa affirmed the piety of sex change in response to a transwoman’s request. This laid the foundation for the refinement over the next twenty years of a bureaucratic and medical apparatus resulting in the institutional approach to trans habitus today. SRS is as achievable, partially funded and regulated as highly as is immigration, education or any of a host of other government functions that shape our citizen being. This is to say that gender reassignment is not a matter of sovereign choice but a form of agency highly mediated by a social process. And yet, the juridical change of status proceeds from and requires as foundation, the personal perception of suffering and, key, of a suffering soul whose social appearance and physical body fail to reflect inner being. 

Despite significant disagreement among Islamic jurists, the weight of Khomeini’s fatwa is indisputable as the basis of law while its authority is directly attributable to “his unique position as the leader of the most massive revolution in the late 20th century. … Only Khomeini in fact had the combined religious and political authority that would translate his … ruling into law.” (Najmabadi, 2014: 174). Countering the legal obligation to enforce SRS in all found cases of transsexuality, the state fully covers only the costs of hormones not SRS and thus the obligation to pursue surgery is unenforceable, while enforcement itself would be unpopular with a number of conservative religious jurists. 

Reassignment also highlights personal narratives and an informal register of social chatter and cultural production in the particular forms of self-narration that support the medical and legal assessment of bodies and subjects. A dialectical pair emerges in the surfeit of a new confessional apparatus: the same-sex player (kuni, which is only unevenly described as “gay” and never as “lesbian”) and the transsexual (and in particular male-to-female [MtF] persons), whose mutual self-definition highlights the entanglement of two seemingly incompatible models of subjectivity: the psychological, deep subject of self-reflection and the contingent self-in-conduct, who finds themself in litanies of action and surface appearance. Intertwined by law, medicine, parties and home, this couple poses fundamental questions for postcolonial critiques of psychoanalysis and transnational accounts of subjectivity.