Book Review: Najmabadi’s Professing Selves

In Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran, Afsaneh Najmabadi writes about the lives of contemporary transgender Iranians. In several ways, her book is a sequel to her Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity (2005). This past work explored the shifts in Iranian constructions of sex/gender/sexuality from the Qajar period to the Pahlavi dynasty. She documented the adoption of the modern gender and sexuality binary and how that intersected with Iranian masculinity, femininity, family, and nationalism. Professing Selves picks up this social history after the fall of the Pahlavi state with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. In contrast to Women with Mustaches, ethnography forms the heart of her book. She started fieldwork in Iran in 2006, interviewing transgender men and women, psychologists, doctors, and clerics. Her book focuses on the lives of her transgender informants but with important considerations of how the scientific, medical, legal, and religious discourses inform trans and other non-heteronormative lives.

professing-selves_cover-image

Cover design: Amy Ruth Buchanan

In her introduction, she explains her interest in her subject, foreshadows her main arguments, and discusses some of the research questions that guided her through her ethnographic fieldwork. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the complicated process trans Iranians must go through to apply for sex-reassignment surgeries. In Chapter 2, Najmabadi turns to the tensions between the vernacular and institutional medical discourses around transsexuality and homosexuality. In both discourses, science is used as a means of being modern. Iranians sought to find the medical or social reasons for sexual and gender deviances. She marks several key shifts in pre-1979 Iran. There is a move to disassociate trans from homosexuality.

In Chapter 3, Najmabadi writes about the role of newspapers, magazines, and dailies in vernacularizing the topic of transgender identity and homosexuality. She draws out two trends for pre-1979 media and popular writing: that male homosexuality was linked with violence and murder but female homosexuality was linked with insanity. Chapter 4 takes up the topic of “gay Tehran” which challenges the contrasting claims that Tehran was and was not a gay-friendly city around the time of the Islamic Revolution. This chapter helps to contextualize the complex lives of trans, cross-dressing, gay, and other non-heteronormative Iranians.

Her next chapter, “Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith,” is an important chapter in which she writes about the post-1979 situation of science and religion in which doctors, psychologists, and clerics formed current scientific and religious perceptions of trans persons. Science continues to be a means of being modern. At the same time, modern Islam is marked by its totalizing reframing. Religious scholars, leaders, and reformers consider Islam applicable to all aspects of life. They draw upon the Islamic past and make it usable by coopting modern science.

In the past, Muslim jurists have discussed intersex individuals with ambiguous genitalia. Corrective operations or categorizing an intersex adult as either a man or woman was based on their discordant physical and biological attributes. However, trans individuals report a kind of inner discordance with their outer bodies. In order to bring transgender subjects into religious discourse, clerics such as Hujjat al-Islam Karimi-nia draw upon 20th century psychology. To indicate one’s inner soul or psyche they use Arabic terminology ruh and nafs (for “soul”) as well as Persian ravan (for the more secular “psyche”). All three terms lack concrete definitions but the relationship clerics (and psychologists) draw between the three terms does important work. As Najmabadi puts it, the relationship “enables the contemporary traffic between ‘the new science of psychology’ and the older sciences of religion (‘ulum al-din), among healers of psyche and guardians of souls…. The slippage between soul and psyche thus has produced a creative space for extensive discursive and practical collaboration on the issue of transsexuality among psychiatrists, scholars of fiqh, sexologists, surgeons, and other health professionals” (pp. 189-90).

In Chapters 6 and 7, Najmabadi moves from the medical and religious discourse to the lives of her trans, gay, and lesbian informants. In the former she writes about the activism of trans Iranians and their interactions with the state. Her most important finding in this chapter is that trans organize their activism around entitlement rather than the discourse of rights (as is found in the West). They interact with medical and governmental institutions as a vulnerable population entitled to protection.

In Chapter 7, Najmabadi focuses on the life-stories her informants shared with her. Identifications and gender performances were figured out in the everyday situations her interviewees found themselves in. Identifying as trans, gay, lesbian, or otherwise was not simply the naming of an inner feeling (p. 286); rather, her interviewees were involved in continual processes of self-cognition. The reader having been already introduced to many of her informants in previous chapters, she effectively extracts examples from her informants’ stories to prove her point. The overlap of transsexuality and homosexuality is also part of this practice of self-cognition. Leila and her girlfriend, Minu, are a key example. Leila is unsure about who she is and the possibility of each identity—either lesbian or a transman—each has their own consequences. Calling herself a lesbian names her preference for her female body; but calling herself trans would legitimize her relationship with Minu in ways their current same-sex arrangement cannot.

Najmabadi’s final chapter is more theoretical, recasting her ethnographic findings under the question of identity formation. In this chapter she is in conversation with theorists such as Michel de Certaeau, Erving Goffman, and Judith Butler. She also references Tom Boellstorff’s research on warias (Indonesian transvestites) to inform her own work of applying her ethnographic findings into theory. Identities are never preexisting; they are always in process, being dependent on the context in which professing such selves takes place.

Overall, I enjoyed her book and admire her scholarship. It is difficult to find anything lacking in her work. The only thing that I would have liked her to write more about was the role of translation of Euro-American medical texts in forming contemporary notions of transsexuality and homosexuality in Iran. In her second chapter, “‘Before’ Transsexuality,” she mentions several French and English language works that were translated into Farsi. I wanted her to write more about how the practice of translating Euro-American science influenced or were reframed in Iranian medical and psychological discourses.

Najmabadi admits that she is a novice at ethnography and throughout her book she describes her experiences during interviews and interactions with informants. Although she is not trained as an ethnographer, her fieldwork is incredibly rich and the analysis of her findings effectively illuminate transsexuality and same-sex sexuality in Iran for the reader. She is honest about the imperfectness of her fieldwork—e.g. relating awkward situations, revealing her own limiting assumptions, and elsewhere reflecting on bad interview questions

In addition to her ethnography, I also appreciated her usage of categories. Terms such as “transgender” and “gay” are products of modernity and Euro-American medical and social contexts. However, Iranians employ these originally Western categories to self-identify and emplace themselves within Iranian medical and social discourses. She reminds her reader that these categories are used in ways specific to the contemporary Iranian context. She italicizes words that are originally Western in origin to indicate when they are being used within a Farsi-language context. Elsewhere, the reader is able to understand the specificity of Iranian appropriations. For example, the word “gay” is used by some men as an alternative to native terms that are too still too pejorative for them to reclaim (e.g. kuni, a particularly crass word for an effeminate and passive male). “Gay” is also linked with gender in ways that it is not in its Western usage because of the persistent overlap between transsexuality and homosexuality. I also appreciate how her work describes the interplay between native (e.g. hamjins-baz, “same-sex-player”) and nativized (e.g. gay) categories. Hamjins-bazi (same-sex-playing) has its own social history which comes with cultural stigmas differentiated on the lines of gender which also defines what it means to be gay or lesbian. Her history of hamjins-bazi also helps explain the differences in stigma between transwomen and transmen.

Another place where she reveals her sharp awareness of categories/categorization is her usage of pronouns in discussing her trans and gay informants. In her introduction, she explains that it was not always clear to her which pronoun (either he or she) someone used. This is partly due to the fact that Farsi only has one pronoun for third person singular (‘u). Other times, the lack of clarity is due to an informant’s own uncertainty about their gender/sex , in which case she uses s/he and she/his. For some of her informants, shifting from he to she or she to he makes more sense in the stories they tell. In Euro-American contexts, pronouns are a linguistic site around which trans persons form their identities. This is not the case for trans Iranians. Najmabadi’s attention on pronouns, gender ambiguity, and changes in gender identity are another aspect to her book that makes her ethnography admirable and responsible.

The theoretical aspects of Najmabadi’s book has broader implications, namely, that through her ethnography she shows how identity formation is never comprehensive, unambiguous, or final. “The located, contextual, and contingent character of our daily practices of the self makes any demand for coherence of the self problematic.” (p. 180). Professing Selves is not just about transsexuals, gays, and lesbians in Iran. It is a study on how people form perceptions of self. Rather than arguing that identities reveal something inherent to the individual, it is perhaps more helpful to think about identities as making our lives more livable. Najmabadi takes this cue from the stories her informants shared with her. Narrating our lives “is significant because through telling these stories, we live meaningfully the present moment of our lives” (p. 280). These narratives are not about how we might anachronistically categorize our pasts; it is about how we give meaning to our present.

In addition, Professing Selves breaks apart assumptions Western readers may have about non-heteronormative individuals in Iran. The medical community in Iran does not agree on transsexuality but most consider being trans a disorder[1] and homosexuality as a deviance. But this categorization was not necessarily disenfranchising. Trans persons use this category of disorder in order to apply for gender reassignment surgeries as well as find allyship from therapists and family. In addition, the continuing entanglement of gender and sexuality causes transgender identity and homosexuality to push and pull one another. For Iranians who identify as gay and lesbian, questions about one’s gender identity can be a creative space of possibility. For transgender Iranians, differentiating themselves from gays and lesbians allows them to tap into religious, legal, and medical permissibility. Both trans and gay Iranians play with the system that is given to them in order to make their lives livable.

Najmabadi, Afsaneh. Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014.

[1] In the United States, medicine still considered transgender individuals as suffering from gender identity disorder (GID) until the release of the newest Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders in 2013. This latest edition of the manual, DSM-5, uses the term “gender dysphoria.”

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