Cinema and Gender Politics in Contemporary Iran: Subversive or Co-extensive?

Shekoufeh Behbehani | University of Amsterdam | Cinema and Gender Politics in Contemporary Iran: Subversive or Co-extensive? | Supervisors: Murat Aydemir, Gerard Wiegers | 2017-2021

The 1979 Iranian Revolution was exceptional as it led to the establishment of a modern Shi’a theocracy in Iran. After the establishment of the new regime, Iranianized Shi’a fiqh, jurisprudence, became the main source for Iran’s constitution and criminal law, leading to radical changes in Iran’s law. The most apparent and immediate changes, however, were related to the country’s gender politics. Not only the hijab and Islamic dress code became mandatory but also women’s rights to travel, work, get married, divorce, and have child custody altered based on Shi’a fiqh.

Additionally, another significant legal mandate was issued in 1985. Based on a fatwa, legal opinion, by Ayatollah Khomeini (1968), the first supreme leader of Iran, sex reassignment surgery (SRS) became legal in Iran, allowing both hermaphrodites and transsexuals to undergo the surgery, if obtaining the approval of their physician (Kariminia 83,84). Although homosexual acts, if proven, are severely punishable by law, the legalization of SRS in Iran alludes to a space within the contemporary politico-religious discourse, where gender and sexuality can be discussed, a space, which has also fortified a cinematic discourse on issues of gender and sexuality in Iran. Despite the heavy censorship after the revolution and perhaps because of it, contemporary Iranian films actively engage with the politico-religious discourses on gender and sexuality, creating a multi-faceted discussion with both social happenings in the country as well as the politico-religious discourses on gender and sexuality.

The current project, which is an extension of my previous research, aims to investigate the mutual influences of the discourses opened up in contemporary Iranian films and the existing and emerging politico-religious texts on sex change operation and transsexuality in order to understand how ‘queerness’ is defined, explained, and approached in today’s Iran. This study seeks to discover the implications and ramifications of the particular mapping of gender and sexuality in Iran, while relating it to gender inequality in a broader sense. The aim of this project is thereby two-fold: on the one hand, it strives to examine the dynamic between contemporary politico-religious discourses and the cinematic discourses on transsexuality in order to discover the ways through which the politico-religious discourses, as a state-led project, enable, control, and react to contemporary cinematic discourses on gender and sexuality; on the other hand, it looks at the changing dialogue between discourses on transsexuality and women’s rights in an attempt to discover the gained or denied rights and living possibilities of male and female transsexuals post-surgery.

This research proposal is based on my Master’s thesis titled “Be Unlike Others: Sex Change Operations and Homosexuality in Iran” (2016), which was supervised by Dr.Murat Aydemir. In my M.A thesis, I looked at two contemporary Iranian films in relation to a recently published book, titled Sex Change, Taghire Jensiyyat (2010), which partly explains the state’s mapping of gender and sexuality, which allows SRS, while condemning homosexual acts. My previous research has highlighted the crucial link between legal mandates that are meant to perpetuate gender norms and limit women’s rights and those that are geared towards disciplining non-normative gender and sexualities. Building on my previous research, this project ultimately aims to examine the changing dialogue between the discourses on transsexuality and women’s rights.