Professing Selves

Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran

Professing Selves

Experimental Futures

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Book Pages: 432 Illustrations: 22 photographs (incl. 2 in color), 2 tables Published: December 2013

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Gender and Sexuality > Trans Studies, Middle East Studies

Since the mid-1980s, the Islamic Republic of Iran has permitted, and partially subsidized, sex reassignment surgery. In Professing Selves, Afsaneh Najmabadi explores the meaning of transsexuality in contemporary Iran. Combining historical and ethnographic research, she describes how, in the postrevolutionary era, the domains of law, psychology and psychiatry, Islamic jurisprudence, and biomedicine became invested in distinguishing between the acceptable "true" transsexual and other categories of identification, notably the "true" homosexual, an unacceptable category of existence in Iran. Najmabadi argues that this collaboration among medical authorities, specialized clerics, and state officials—which made transsexuality a legally tolerated, if not exactly celebrated, category of being—grew out of Iran's particular experience of Islamicized modernity. Paradoxically, state regulation has produced new spaces for non-normative living in Iran, since determining who is genuinely "trans" depends largely on the stories that people choose to tell, on the selves that they profess.


"In her theoretically sophisticated book, historian Najmabadi investigates the political and cultural evolution of Iranian attitudes toward 'sexual deviancy and sexual disorder,' beginning in the 1930s. . . .Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above." — A. Rassam, Choice

"A fascinating book that... challenges the Western media’s depiction of transsexuality and sex reassignment surgery as coercive while ignoring the vibrant reform movement and history of progressive activism in Iran." — Nancy Gallagher, Middle East Media and Book Reviews

“Under guise of an ethnography of transsexuality in contemporary Iran, Afsaneh Najmabadi has written a nuanced ethnography of the transition of the Iranian state and public sphere from one type (jins) to another. Building on Joan Scott’s (1986) observation that gender is a useful category for historical analysis, Najmabadi goes beyond showing that sex and sexuality are also useful categories for historical analysis to suggest that somatic-constitutional transformation can be as well. … Najmabadi is an excellent guide through this world of nonconforming confirmers of the core gender categories of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”  — Leila Hudson, TSQ

"We can now add a valuable piece of cultural history by Afsaneh Najmabadi [to the growing literature on world transsexualities]. Transsexuality in Iran became a topic of international interest ten years ago, on the idea the the Islamic Republic was using gender reassignment surgery to repress homosexuality. Najmabadi's work moves far beyond this discussion" — Raewyn Connell, Signs

“Here we find that nuanced and adept reading of power, subjectivity, submission, and subversion—this time of lived, contemporary cultural practices—that we have grown to expect from a scholar of her caliber.” — Roshanak Kheshti, GLQ

“ Afsaneh Najmabadi’s new book Professing Selves is a great start to understanding how gender and sexuality work within Iran. It makes the point that geography, history, culture, and on-going macro- and microsocial processes are crucial to understanding transsexuality and same-sex desire…. This is a work that speaks to the historical and cultural relativity of social meanings and practices—the importance of the local and specific.” — Darryl B. Hill, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

"Professing Selves is one of the best recent works on contemporary Iran. Arguing that transsexuals' legal and psychiatric negotiations reveal more general processes of proceduralism, negotiation of legal categories, and state formation, Afsaneh Najmabadi challenges the lumping of transsexuals and homosexuals as identical human rights issues, and argues that poorly targeted universalistic campaigns can damage the conditions of life for the people they are intended to help. She works refreshingly at the level of real lives, jurists, and psychiatrists." — Michael M.J. Fischer, author of Mute Dreams, Blind Owls, and Dispersed Knowledges: Persian Poesis in the Transnational Circuitry

"In this important, timely, and erudite work, Afsaneh Najmabadi brings her nuanced understanding of multiple discourses and institutions in Iran to bear on the recent and remarkable visibility of transsexuality in that country. Professing Selves is likely to have a wide-ranging appeal—to historians, Middle East specialists, sexuality and gender scholars, and social scientists interested in issues of state formation and biopolitics. It will be the definitive text on its topic for a long time to come." — Susan Stryker, author of Transgender History


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Afsaneh Najmabadi is the Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. She is the author of Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity and The Story of the Daughters of Quchan: Gender and National Memory in Iranian History. She is a coeditor (with Kathryn Babayan) of Islamicate Sexualities: Translations across Temporal Geographies of Desire.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. Entering the Scene 15

2. "Before" Transexuality 38

3. Murderous Passions, Deviant Insanities 75

4. "Around" 1979: Gay Tehran? 120

5. Verdicts of Science, Rulings of Faith 163

6. Changing the Terms: Playing "Snakes and Ladders" with the State 202

7. Living Patterns, Narrative Styles 231

8. Professing Selves: Sexual/Gender Proficiencies 275

Glossary of Persian Terms and Acronyms 303

Notes 305

Works Cited 373

Index 389
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Winner, 2014 Joan Kelly Memorial Prize in Women's History (presented by the American Historical Association)

Winner, 2014 John Boswell Prize, Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (AHA)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5557-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5543-4
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