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Be Like Others

The sex change business is legal and highly regulated in Iran. As revealed in Be Like Others, it is also full of obvious, painful contradictions.

Be Like Others

Airtime: Wednesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali, Anoosh/Anahita, Shahin, Ali, Ali Askar, Vida, Farhad, Hojatol Islam Kariminiya
Network: HBO
Director: Tanaz Eshaghian
Air date: 2009-06-24
I am treated better by others when I wear female clothes. I know I have to wear female clothes after I operate, but why can't I do so without surgery?

-- Anoosh

"Nature has created you. This abnormality exists throughout the world." Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali looks across his desk at a new patient, and they're talking about the possibilities for his sex change operation. It's true, the doctor says, that afterwards, "You can't make a family physically, you will not attain the prowess and virility of Tarzan." The young man smiles. "I like women, not men," he says, "So can't you operate on me without government permissions?" Mir-Jalali explains. "The government needs to start a file on you."

Indeed, the sex change business is highly regulated in Iran. As revealed in Be Like Others, it is also full of obvious, painful contradictions. For one thing, as Mir-Jalali says, "It is curious that homosexuality is a crime [in Iran]. Why do they then give permission to transsexuals?" The rationale, says Cleric Kariminiaya, a theological expert on transsexuality, is found in Islamic law. For those who are transsexual, or "those that have two genders," he says, "They need surgery. They are allowed via a sex change operation to become either a male or a female." The problem with homosexuality is its violation of this one-or-the-other order. Homosexuals are evil; transsexuals merely need to adjust themselves to fit the established order, to "be like others."

The gender opposition that drives such efforts to conform is hardly unique to Iran or Islam. It is, after all, the ground for sex change in all cultures, that a "wrong body" can be fixed to match a soul or being trapped inside it. The premise allows no ambiguities, no mixing of male and female characteristics within one body. What Tanaz Eshaghian's documentary explores is the struggle such opposition poses for two young men, 20-year-old Anoosh and 25-year-old Ali Askar, as they "operate," that is, prepare for and have the reassignment surgery. As they look forward to lives that seem more "natural," they also accept the social restrictions on women: as long as they cover and submit (and carry their legal papers with them at all times), they can walk the streets in Tehran without fear of being picked up by the morality police.

Ali Askar reports that his father wants rather literally to kill him ("It's worse in the small villages"), but believes that the operation will lead to a "decent life." His mother is less certain of how this will work out. "I've been a woman since the start," she says, "It hasn't been so great being a woman in this society. Why do you guys want to be women so badly?" It is, in a sense, the question to ask of all sex change candidates. As the idea of the opposite gender is born of observing it -- in media as well as in role models -- it is desirable in and for its opposition. If there are only two choices and the first is wrong, where else might Ali Askar look for a solution? Later, as he waits for anesthesia to take effect so he can go in for surgery, he lies on a bed and sounds wistful about his decision. The good part, he says, is that "My identity will be defined, things will be clarified." But still, he says, "If I didn't have to operate, I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't touch God's work."

Life for post-op transsexuals is complicated, a series of renegotiations -- of friendships and family ties. Though Anoosh is thrilled to be a woman (renamed Anahita) and her mother Shahin enjoys their "mother-daughter conversations," her fiancé, Ali, is reluctant to go through with their plans. "I don't want to get married right now," he says, stretched across the sofa in Shain's apartment and avoiding eye contact with Anoosh and the camera both, "It's too early for me."

Ali Askar's post-op experience, without the support of family, is more difficult. Early on, Vida warns him, "If you have a good life after this," she tells then it is all good. Just don't let yourself loose on the street," she warns, "And bring shame to all our kind." Vida makes this appeal more than once in the documentary, suggesting the basic parameters of a TS-TG community, yet another group of "others" whom Anoosh and Ali Askar might want to be like, and in particular a community that needs good PR. While the group provides a place to stay for transsexuals in need, their living conditions also reveal the particular difficulties of TS in Iran, where the genders are strictly separated with regard to work and domestic life (Ali Askar says the men he has tried to work with "sexually harass me and make fun of me," but he is unable to manage the only other option -- because he is not "officially a woman").

The TS group home makes its own demands: in order to pay rent, she must, as she puts it, "do 'business,'" or sell herself. "We first do a temporary Islamic marriage contract, she explains. "In other words it's allowed by Islam. Since we don't have female reproductive parts, we can get 'married' once an hour or so." How convenient, in this reading of the religion, that male-to-female prostitutes can be so easily and so legally had.

Disturbing and insightful, Be Like Others shows how such social, ethical, political, and legal absurdities shape lives. Under the guise of order, the expectations and laws in Iran (again, premised on fears and prejudices that exist elsewhere as well) wreak havoc on the emotional and physical experiences of these young people. In search of conformity, of "a decent life," they do what they're told, then seek peace with extremities.


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