Be Like Others

May 4, 2009

Be Like OthersOver at Reverse Shot, Joanne Nucho reviews (link here) Tanaz Eshaghian’s forthcoming documentary Be Like Others. The film focuses on how the fatwas (rulings) about transsexuality in Islam play out in the real lives of two Iranian trans women, Ali and Anoosh.

The government logic goes something like this: as intelligent human beings endowed with the capability to reason, it is necessary to correct what is a “mistake” of nature, a man or woman who feels desire for a person of his/her own gender or feels that they are born the wrong gender, by providing them with a surgical option, science at the service of religion. […] The central irony of Be Like Others is that this liberating move, the use of medical technology to become genuinely and authentically one’s “true self,” is simultaneously a form of government control over sexuality and the body.

Nevertheless, the social consequences sound familiar enough:

Ali and Anoosh, the two young men that the filmmaker chooses to follow through their path to surgery both face resistance from family members. Anoosh’s mother, who seems to be raising Anoosh and his brother on her own, appears resigned to her son’s decision


Ali, however, faces his decision without the support of any family members. In fact, it is understood that his choice will more than likely result in his permanent estrangement from them.

(In passing, it should be noted that – as is so often the case – the journalist consistently appears to misgender her subjects with the offhand presumption which is a hallmark of so many cis writers. Unfortunately it is not made clear which pronouns are preferred by Ali and Anoosh, much less how they self-identify)

The strength of Eshaghian’s film lies in her ability to approach the subject with compassion but also with a critical distance. Her account of the current situation regarding sexual reassignment surgery in Iran is posed from a complex stance in which this procedure is not uniquely Islamic or even religious, but rather stems from a larger history of medical sciences and constructions of homosexuality and gender “confusion” as pathology. […] While the filmmaker is implicitly critical of the drastic sexual reassignment surgeries condoned by the Iranian state, she is clearly hesitant to portray this as a solely Iranian issue.


With Be Like Others, Eshagian bucks the trend, taking a more thoughtful and subtle approach to her subjects and showing their decision-making process as appropriately complicated. And through this nuanced approach to critique, a condemnation of forced sexual reassignment surgery emerges.

The point about enforced surgery is absolutely crucial. It must be remembered that not all TS/TG people consider surgery to be something they want or need to undergo. And, to my mind, it’s those members of my community, those who do not self-identify squarely within the rigid binary gender model, who are most vulnerable under a system which reinforces the “complicity of the medical professionals who perform this surgery and the religious clerics who prescribe it as a treatment for what they perceive as a kind of illness”.


The film airs on HBO on June 24. Given that my coal-powered antique television only has about 3.5 terrestrial channels, I’m hoping for a DVD release sometime after that.


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