Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Physics @ Harvard --> transgender in Iran

Anne Dalke's picture wasn't particularly easy to get Afsaneh Najamabi to our class this morning. I was rear-ended (by a heedless youth) as I left my neighborhood; the traffic into center city was dreadful....

but what a pay-off! I want to record here, for myself and for anyone else who finds it useful, what most interested me in this morning's session:

On getting a B.A. and M.A. in physics:

  • "the major decisions in life are made non-rationally" (on deciding to major in physics because of a crush on a high-school teacher)
  • the development of a growing split between activist interests and academic science: "my dream changed--I thought I could change the world"
  • the priorities of developing/third world/southern countries are very science-centered; there is a strong push to be educated (in order to improve one's social status); it is thought that science, especially, "will make it possible for us to catch up"
  • the sense of "out-of-placeness" as a woman did not occur in segregated pre-university-level Iranian schools, but in a U.S. graduate program
  • "I rarely thought of myself as a woman"

On "The Truth of Sex":

  • the narrative framing of the story of increasing #s of transsexual surgeries in Iran was worrisome
  • was it the result of the ban on homosexuality (sodomy is illegal, & the sanction is capital punishment; sex between women--known as "rubbing"--has less harsh punishment)
  • how does the state- and religious-supported criminality affect sexual consciousness/subjectivity?
  • looking at transsexual autobiographies: when do folks stop worrying about being homosexual and realize that they are transsexual? under what circumstances does the shift occur?
  • how do transitions occur, in a culture where the public appearance of gender is state-sanctioned and insistently binary?
  • the g&l community is not being railroaded into transitioning; new spaces are opening
  • medical authorities are concerned to separate illegal/religiously sanctioned homosexuality from legal and religiously accepted transsexuality
  • the process is known as "filtering" out the non-true transsexuals
  • concerns about separation and purity have led to the building of a wall that is porous
  • this produces a "frontierland" that is populated by all sorts
  • once transsexuality is certified/permitted, it is not required; folks do not have to follow through w/ bodily changes (i.e.: with a certificate, a female-body person can live as a man)
  • nobody is fixed in these subject positions; people can change their minds
  • very strict rules are intended to make it too risky to transgress
  • four adult males with virtuous and just reputations are needed as witnesses to the act
  • "witnessing" means testifying that a thread cannot be passed between the two bodies in question
  • Odile: "then the witnesses must be participating" (most amazing moment of the class for me--talk about participant observation! talk about observation changing what is observed...!)
  • on a national scale, there is a "don't ask/don't tell" policy
  • what is the social climate? F to M is more acceptable; M to F is shameful
  • practicing Muslims want a religously sanctioned body
  • "once I was diagnosed as afflicted with transexuality, I could finally have sex with my girlfriend without feeling guilty"
  • cf. legality of intersex, and the legality of intersex surgeries, to "disambiguate ambiguous bodies"
  • classic Iranian thought about hermaphrodites was that "every created body has a true sex, but only God knows what it is"
  • there are "ritual solutions" (for example, in public prayers, some one who is intersexed will occupy the boundary between male and females)
  • once amibiguity was tolerated; now there are medical "solutions"
  • why is anal penetration the most shameful act? (because a threat to the sanctity of the powerful male body?)
  • the extent of social abjection is too extreme for this explanation to suffice
Anne Dalke's picture

"Dark Matter: A Tale of Power and Intrigue in the Lab..."

The NYTimes today featured a new film based on the actions of a physics graduate student who in 1991--outraged that his thesis had been passed over for a prize--killed five people and paralyzed one before taking his own life. Much there about the culture of the physics lab, and of the cross-cultural minefield needing to be negotiated by students who come from other cultures (like China) to be educated in the U.S. See here</a>--> good preparation for the gothic melodrama to come!