It could take something extraordinary to move the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa (or religious and legal decree). Novelist Salman Rushdie did it by challenging the sanctity of the prophet Mohammed in "The Satanic Verses," provoking Iran's austere revolutionary leader into pronouncing the death sentence. For Maryam Khatoon Molkara it required the equally dramatic step of confronting Khomeini in person and proving, in graphic terms, that she was a woman trapped inside a man's body.
To do so, she had to endure a ferocious beating from bodyguards before coming face to face with the ayatollah in his living room, covered in blood, dressed in a man's suit and, thanks to a course of hormone treatment, sporting fully formed female breasts.
"It was behesht [paradise]," Molkara, 55, says of the meeting 22 years ago. "The atmosphere, the moment and the person were paradise for me. I had the feeling that from then on there would be a sort of light." Light or not, the encounter produced, in turn, a religious judgment that -- unlike the unfulfilled edict on Rushdie -- has had an enduring effect that still resonates. Because today, the Islamic Republic of Iran occupies the unlikely role of global leader for sex changes.
In contrast to almost everywhere else in the Muslim world, sex change operations are legal in Iran for anyone who can afford the minimum $3,500 cost and satisfy interviewers that he or she meets necessary psychological criteria. As a result, women who endured agonizing childhood and adolescent experiences as boys, and -- albeit in fewer numbers -- young men who reached sexual maturity as girls, are easy to find in Tehran. Iran has even become a magnet for patients from eastern European and Arab countries seeking to change their gender.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning in Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali's Tehran clinic, young men and women gather in preparation for a new start on the opposite side of the gender divide. Many are desperate, seeing the operation as an escape from a confused sexual identity that has led to parental rejection and persecution by police and religious vigilantes.
Ali-Reza, 24, wearing thick makeup, has livid red burn marks on his arm after his father poured boiling water over him in a rage over his "sexual deviancy." "I have attempted suicide three times," he says. "The interpretation of my family was that having a child like me was a punishment from God. My parents were religious and traditional, and they called me trash under the name of Islam."
Others voice feelings of spiritual renewal after the surgery. "It's like a rebirth," says Hasti, formerly Hassan, now reinvented as a svelte, leggy 20-year-old who is planning to marry her German fiancé. "I've even forgotten my male birthday. I only remember my female birthday, the day when I received the operation. It was very painful, but I feel happy whereas before I was always crying."
Mir-Jalali, 66, a Paris-trained surgeon, has performed 320 gender operations in the past 12 years. Around 250 have involved the complex and physically painful process of transforming men into women by creating female genitals through a skin graft from the intestines. In a European country, he says, he would have carried out fewer than 40 such procedures over the same period. The reason for the discrepancy, he says, is Iran's strict ban on homosexuality, as required by the Quran.
"In Iran, homosexuality is treated as a crime carrying the death penalty," he says. "In Europe and North America, it is accepted. Transsexuals aren't homosexuals. Unlike homosexuals, they suffer from a separation of body and soul where they believe their own body doesn't belong to them. But in Europe they can have a free life. They aren't under the same pressure to change their sex. In Iran, transsexuals suffer from a lack of awareness, within their own family and in wider society. That increases the psychological pressure and contributes to the higher number of operations here."
Nevertheless, the surgery's availability has provided deliverance to a community that was once cowed and confined to a secret underground existence. Bringing it about has required a theological rethink from Iran's Shiite Islamic rulers, accustomed to rigidly traditional stances on sexual matters.
Indeed, Islamic scholars are still trying to reconcile the fatwa with religious thinking. Hojatolislam Muhammad Mehdi Kariminia, a cleric based in the holy city of Qom, is writing a Ph.D. thesis on transsexuality. "The basic humanity of the person is preserved," is his conclusion. "The change is simply of characteristics."
This situation would have been unthinkable were it not for the bravery and persistence of Molkara, who embarked on a personal odyssey that brought persecution and abuse in her quest for Khomeini's official blessing. Khomeini had pronounced on gender problems in a book written in 1963, when he indicated there was no religious proscription against corrective surgery. However, says Molkara, the statement applied only to hermaphrodites, defined as those bearing both male and female genital characteristics. It provided no remedy for those -- such as Molkara -- who physically belonged to one gender but were convinced that they were members of the opposite sex.
In 1975, Molkara -- then working with Iranian television and going by her male name of Fereydoon -- wrote the first of several letters to the ayatollah, then exiled in Iraq in opposition to the shah.
"I told him I had always had the feeling that I was a woman," she says. "I wrote that my mother had told me that even at the age of 2, she had found me in front of the mirror putting chalk on my face the same way a woman puts on her makeup. He wrote back, saying that I should follow the Islamic obligations of being a woman."
In 1978 Molkara traveled to Paris, where Khomeini was by then based, to lobby him in person. She was unsuccessful, and the subsequent Islamic revolution, far from easing the transsexuals' path, cast them into darkness. Some were locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin prison while others were stoned to death. Molkara, meanwhile, was fired from her job, forcibly injected with male hormones and confined to a psychiatric institution.
Thanks to her contacts with influential clerics, Molkara was released and resolved to keep fighting. She lobbied several leading figures in the regime, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who later became president. All urged her to write once again to Khomeini.
"I couldn't continue like this," she says. "I knew I could get the operation easily enough in London, but I wanted the documentation so I could live." Desperate for the religious blessing that would confer legal protection in staunchly Islamic Iran, Molkara decided on a fateful step.
Donning a man's suit, she walked to Khomeini's heavily protected compound in north Tehran, carrying a copy of the Quran. In an additional piece of religious symbolism, she had tied shoes around her neck. The gesture -- redolent of Ashura, the Shiite festival depicting the heroism of the third imam Hossein -- was meant to convey that she was seeking shelter.
At first, it failed to provide her with any. As she approached the compound, armed security guards pounced and began beating her. They stopped only when Khomeini's brother, Hassan Pasandide, witnessing the scene, intervened and took Molkara into his house.
There, Molkara -- then bearded, tall and powerfully built -- hysterically tried to explain her predicament. "I was screaming, 'I'm a woman, I'm a woman,'" she says. The security guards, fearing Molkara was carrying explosives, were anxious about the band wrapped around her chest. She removed it to reveal the female breasts underneath. The women in the room rushed to cover her with a chador.
By then, Khomeini's son, Ahmad, had arrived and was moved to tears by Molkara's story. Amid the emotion, it was decided to take Molkara to the supreme leader himself. On meeting the nearly mythic figure in whom she had invested such hope, Molkara fainted.
"I was taken into a corridor," Molkara says. "I could hear Khomeini raising his voice. He was blaming those around him, asking how they could mistreat someone who had come for shelter. He was saying, 'This person is God's servant.' He had three of his trusted doctors in the room, and he asked what the difference was between hermaphrodites and transsexuals. What are these 'difficult neutrals,' he was saying. Khomeini didn't know about the condition until then. From that moment on, everything changed for me."
Molkara left the Khomeini compound with a letter addressed to the chief prosecutor and the head of medical ethics giving religious authorization for her -- and, by implication, others like her -- to surgically change their gender. It was the fatwa she had sought.
Subsequently, Molkara struggled to convince fellow transsexuals of their rights and to introduce the requisite medical standards for sex change operations to Iran. She only completed her gender change four years ago, ironically undergoing the surgery in Thailand because of unhappiness with procedures in her native country.
Today she runs Iran's leading transsexual campaign group and has become the community's spokesperson. But two security monitors in her living room attest to her vulnerability in a society still intolerant of sexual unorthodoxy. "It is hard to live with constant fear," she says. "I hope things are easier for the next generation of transsexuals. Every time a transsexual is arrested by the police I am called to bail them out. Outside the police station there will be a crowd of vigilantes waiting to beat me or stone my car."
A brief encounter with Iran's hallowed religious leader may have brought light. But for many Iranians, enlightenment has yet to dawn.