Facing Mirrors: A Film about Transgender Rights in Iran

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Written by Ariana Habibi

On February 22, 2019, The Program in Iranian Studies at the MacMillan Center hosted a screening of ​Facing Mirrors (آینه های روبرو)​ , an Iranian drama film centered upon transgender rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, for the Yale​ student body.

Directed by Negar Azarbayjani and released in 2011, ​Facing Mirrors​ focuses on two people—Rana and Adineh (Eddie)—who, after crossing paths unexpectedly, become integral to each others’ achievement of freedom. Rana, in order to support her family, must defy the gendered norms and expectations imposed on her by society; Eddie, in order to support his own identity as a transgender man, must defy the gendered norms and expectations imposed on him by his family.

One’s sexual identity is comprised of two elements—one acquired and the other non-acquired. While “sex” refers to the biological factors that distinguish males and females from one other, “gender” refers to the social roles that individuals play in any given identification framework within which they interact. Although the United States has a tendency to confound issues of trans- and homosexuality, these issues remain decidedly distinct in Iran. This separation is what allows Iran to be among the most progressive in the world in regard to transgender people, in spite of its government notoriety for its mistreatment of homosexual people.

Since the Iranian legal system is based on Islamic jurisprudence, religious leaders hold influential roles in establishing and interpreting the law. Prior to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the issue of transgender identity had never been formally addressed by the Iranian government. Following the ascension of the Islamic regime, specifically after a ​fatwa​ delivered by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1987, transgender individuals became officially recognized by the government, and were permitted to undergo sex reassignment surgery. As a result of this, sex change is both lawful and legal in modern-day Iran. Sex reassignment surgery is commonplace and conducted very openly; Iran altogether carries out some of the greatest number of sex reassignment operations throughout the world. The government contributes up to half the financial cost of the operation, and issues new birth certificates to recognize and reflect the sex change. 

However, in spite of the government’s apparent approval of transgender issues, transgender people continue to face maltreatment and discrimination from a more personal scale. Transgender people in Iran encounter day-to-day harassment, and find it very difficult to obtain work. Similarly, many have their identities demeaned and disregarded by their own family members—not unlike Eddie’s experience in ​Facing Mirrors​. To an extent, the situation of transgender rights in Iran is almost converse to the situation in the United States: the government is encouraging the people to become more tolerant, as opposed to the people pushing the government to tolerance. 

It is plausible that Azarbayjani produced ​Facing Mirrors​ both for the pure art of film and for the truth of its message. Where news and politics breed sentiments of animosity and deepen the divide between Iran and the United States, art bridges the gap. By packaging a relevant social concern within an intelligible circumstance, ​Facing Mirrors​ calls upon the audience’s universal senses of humanity: for the Iranian people to accept and understand the transgender community, for the international community to accept and understand Iran.

In 2012, ​Facing Mirrors ​received the “Best First Feature” award at San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the first and oldest LGBT film festival in the world.