Transsexuals in Iran

Pamela Nice

Inside Out

Directed by Zohreh Shayesteh
First Run/Icarus Films, 2006

“Inside Out” is a moving documentary about three Iranian transsexuals who are in different phases of the process of “sexual reassignment” – that is, changing their physical sexual characteristics to those of the opposite gender, with whom they identify.



Maria, formerly a man, was married with three children before beginning hormonal therapy, starting the process of becoming a woman. Her wife had opposed the change, even though she had been aware of her husband’s feelings since the start of their marriage. A judge had to force the wife to divorce. Maria talks to us after her sexual reassignment surgery, which is often thought of as the end of the process. She wears the required hijab, and is heavily made up, with nail polish decorating her sturdy fingers. We soon realize that her transformation will be an ongoing evolution. Though Maria is finally at peace with herself, she is anxious about making a living to support her children. She can no longer work as a truck driver and is not trained for other work.


Saman, formerly a female, now appears to be a young man and is engaged to be married. After a brief struggle, his fiancée came to accept his transsexual identity. Saman has a robust masculine appearance, and his fiancée thinks their personalities are perfectly matched. Though Saman has completed the psychological and hormonal therapies, he hasn’t yet undergone sexual reassignment surgery. We see the couple discuss the surgery with Saman’s surgeon, who tells him he will never be able to perform sexually. Both Saman and his fiancée seem to take it well – although they are, after all, on camera. Whether they will be able to have children through in vitro fertilization or other options, or whether they have agreed they don’t want children, is not addressed in the film.


The last person we meet is Arash, an 18-year-old high school dropout. She has already undergone hormonal therapy to create a female body, but perhaps because of her age or the stage of her process, she seems more androgynous than the other two. Filmmaker Shayesteh plays with this perception in the last images of the film: Arash puts on a hijab and then removes it, appears first feminine, then masculine – playing with our view of her sexual identity.


Each subject in this film is portrayed respectfully and simply; the tone is gentle. We are invited into a world usually hidden, that of the inner thoughts and feelings of someone who feels trapped in the body of the wrong sex. The subjects speak of their life journeys toward wholeness, toward making the outside of their bodies reflect their inner self-identities. Their appeals for social acceptance may be as basic as wanting a parent’s acknowledgement that they are not homosexual, but transsexual.


None of the three subjects regret the decision to undergo the sexual reassignment process. We can see that they finally feel at peace, even while suffering from social ostracism. The filmmaker also interviews a Muslim cleric, a psychiatrist and a surgeon who are all supportive of the transsexual’s need to change his/her body for personal coherence. One wonders, however, if their opinions are representative of their professions or the larger Iranian society. This is the one aspect of the film that is wanting: the social context of contemporary Iran regarding this issue. Are these professionals and transsexuals representative examples or unusual ones? 

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid

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