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Special Features

Iranian Women You Should Know: Maryam Khatoon Molkara

April 10, 2020
Maryam Dehkordi
7 min read
Maryam Khatoon Molkara was the first Iranian to undergo sex reassignment surgery as legally sanctioned by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Maryam Khatoon Molkara was the first Iranian to undergo sex reassignment surgery as legally sanctioned by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Molkara went on to found the Iranian Society to Support Patients with Gender Identity Disorders.
Molkara went on to found the Iranian Society to Support Patients with Gender Identity Disorders.

Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.

In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema... And so the list goes on.

This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.

IranWire readers are invited to send in suggestions for how we might expand the series. Contact IranWire via email ([email protected]), on Facebook, or by tweeting us.


To redress her grievances with herself and the rest of the world, she put on shoes of steel. She tried everything, from appealing to the Shah of Iran's court and meeting with then-empress Farah Pahlavi, to writing to Ayatollah Khomeini, to meeting him in exile and later at last in Jamaran, Tehran - just to be who she wanted to be.

Maryam Khatoon Molkara was a woman born with a masculine stature. At the time of her birth in 1950 in Abkenar, Bandar-e Anzali, they chose a male name for her, calling her Fereydun. She was forced to wear men's outfits, even though she always felt that she was a woman.

Molkara was born in 1950, in Abkenar, Anzali. She was the first transsexual in Iran to legally undergo sex reassignment surgery with the permission authorization of Ayatollah Khomeini. His letter of auhorization and fatwa, issued in 1987, which she acted on in 1997, enabled sex change operations in Iran to exist as part of a legal framework for the first time.

Shaya Goldoust, an Iranian minority and gender rights activist, told IranWire: "There were sexual and gender minorities who underwent this surgery, wrongly called "gender change surgery", before Molkhara.

"For example, a woman called Kobra underwent female-to-male sex reassignment surgery in 1930: 55 years before Maryam Khatoon Molkara. The first male-to-female sex reassignment surgery had been carried out 65 years before on the body of a 16-year-old called Farhad Najafi, whose story and photograph were published in Etela'at newspaper in 15 September 1953."

Why, then, is Molkara better-known than other transsexual Iranians? Goldust says: "She was the first person who managed to receive a religious verdictfrom one of the Shia sources of emulation, who was well-known and followed in his time, and without any fear of social pressures from outside to undergo the surgery."


The Story of a Fatwa

Maryam Khatoon Molkara met with Farah Pahlavi in 1974, five years before the Islamic Revolution. She spoke to the then-Empress of Iran about her problems; chief among them was her discomfort with her male name and with having to introduce herself as a man while convinced that a woman lived under that shell. She also told Pahlavi that she had always wanted to wear women's clothes, but social conventions forced her to abstain.

Farah Pahlavi is understood to have told her to gather together a few people facing the same difficulties and form a society, on which special priileges could then be conferred. But the idea never came to fruition.

Although Khatun was eventually being able to undergo surgery, Goldoust says, the problems she reported to Farah Pahlavi persist for others today. "The same story is still going on in the transsexual community in Iran," she says. "The procedure is in reverse order; they must first undergo surgery to be able to choose their name, to wear what they want, and to appear with the makeup and in the configuration they wish.

"It should be the other way round. They should first be able to dress, talk, use makeup, make contact and socialize in the way they like and then later decide whether they want to undergo sex reassignment surgery or not. This is what has been imposed on sexual and gender minorities in society from the beginning: a man-woman bipolarity. One must be either a man or a woman to be accepted by society."

As Molkara considered herself religious, she was determined to obtain a fatwa to legitimize her surgery. In 1975 she wrote an initial letter to Ruhollah Khomeini, who had at that time been exiled to Iraq by the Shah of Iran and was living in Najaf, asking him what to do.

A year later, Molkara was working at the then-state broadcaster National Iranian Radio and Television, still under the name Fereydun, when she received Ayatollah Khomeini's reply. In an interview with Chelcheraq magazine, Molkara would later recall: "I wrote to him saying my mother had told me of how I made up myself like a woman with chalk. Imagining that I was bisexual, the Imam wrote that based on Islamic law I must become a woman. He had assumed that I was bisexual, when that was not the case."

"In the closed and masculine society of those days," Goldoust explains, "none of these people really knew what they were. Religious law considered them either bisexual or neutral, which is not right for transsexuals and midsexuals. The bipolarity defined in societies such as Iran, which recognizes gender only in the form of men-women and male-female, forced these people to look for a legal justification for surgery with everything they had; enough to still hold some religious beliefs as well."

Molkara went on to spend years in search of a fatwa from a sufficiently well-regarded source of emulation, never allowing herself to give up. In 1978 she tried to meet with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris, but failed. After the Islamic Revolution it became even more difficult: Molkara was expelled from her job due to her disclosures prior to the revolution, and was forced to inject male hormones and undergo psychiatric treatment.

But Molkara was uniquely persistent. Disregarding the hardship she was facing, she kept trying to meet with influential members of the clergy, including Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Ultimately in 1984, at the peak of Iran-Iraq war, she wrote another letter to Ayatollah Khomeini in an attempt to re-explain her case. The reply she received was similar to the first. "Religiously," she was told, "you are obliged to be a woman."

The response compelled Molkara to try to meet Khomeini at his residence in Jamaran, Tehran, despite the stringent security measures in place there. "Like Al-Hurr Ibn Yazid on the day of Ashura," she would later recall, "I put on a male suit, wrapped the Koran in the Iranian flag and hung my shoes from my neck.

"The officers stopped me, but Sayyed Morteza Pasandideh, Ayatollah Khomeini's elder brother, stopped them and allowed me to enter. The officers were suspicious of the cloth I had wrapped around my chest. They thought it was explosives. After removing it, they realized it was my bra. The women of the house immediately made a chador for me. I fainted because of all the stress, but I received the fatwa I was after."


The Problems Persist Today

It was another ten years before Molkara would finally undergo surgery in Thailand. In Iran, she established an association - the Iranian Society to Support Patients with Gender Identity Disorders - with the help of several physicians. The name of the society was based on a then-prevalent belief that sexual and gender minorities suffer from a mental illness or disorder. This viewpoint still persists today even though, in 2019, the World Health Organization removed "gender identity disorder" from the "Mental and behavioural disorders" chapter in its global manual of diagnoses, categorising it instead under "Conditions related to sexual health".

Nevertheless, in a time of precious little awareness of transsexual people or sexual and gender minorities, Maryam Khatoon Molkara did her best to provide what she thought people similar to her needed to be accepted in Iranian society. After years of tireless work, she died of a heart attack in April 2012 at home and was buried in her hometown of Abkenar.

In her interview with Chelcheraq, Molkara had issued an important caveat regarding her ongoing concern for sexual and gender minorities. "I do not like to talk about myself and my personal life," she said, "or speak only about the day I went to see Imam Khomeini or the hardship I suffered after that fatwa. If you are going to interview me and write about my life, I want you to write about the problems still existing for transsexuals even now that the case is known: the problems I encounter every day as a member of the Society, but not reflected anywhere else."

Goldoust concludes: "I do not deny that Maryam Khatun's endeavor helped the transsexual and transgender society in Iran. But given the current situation, they can only enjoy some of their citizenship rights as members of society. This was an important accomplishment for them, but what happens to a person after surgery remains to be seen."

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