These efforts are not surprising in a country where, according to the UN's report in 2021, women are still treated as second-class citizens, both legally and by society. In such cultural conditions, a male child with a female identity is a disgrace to most families. Most transgender women are at risk of being rejected from family and society or getting killed by their fathers if they reveal their female identity. Even wearing clothes that do not match the gender they were assigned at birth can be considered fraud and lead to imprisonment.
Baran, Haleh, and Maki are three transgender women who fled from Iran to Turkey to save their own lives. Turkish law does not grant refugees the right to stay and settle in Turkey long term and obtain Turkish citizenship, but the government allows them to wait for a third country to accept their request.
Haleh, 30 years old, has taken seven years to have her resettlement processed, and she finally moved to Canada in October 2021. Maki, 23 years old, and Baran, 33 years old, have been waiting for five years.
For most LGBTQ refugees in Turkey, which is hosting 4 million asylum seekers, the largest number in the world, the situation is the same. They are living in limbo and hoping for the day they can be welcomed into a country to call home, which may be tomorrow or many years in the future. Even though Turkish law supports transgender rights, the culture in many places in Turkey, especially in small cities where the government settles LGBTQ refugees, doesn’t accept them. They have repeatedly experienced physical and psychological abuse in the places they have been given refuge. According to a study by the Turkish transgender association Pink Life, transgender people in Turkey frequently face violent attacks that go unpunished. Most have experienced people spitting on them, have been cursed at and bullied in the street, and have even gotten violently expelled from restaurants and bars.
A group of 10- to 14-year-old boys follow us across the street, the youngest ones shouting, "big brother, big brother" in Turkish, the oldest ones asking, "how much?" The others are laughing. We are four women walking down the street at 10:00 pm. My transgender women friends quicken their steps without turning their heads and cross to the other side of the street. I look at the boys, whose laughter has filled the street. They are pointing at us. Sellers come out of their shops and accompany the boys in laughter. The women turn down the first side alley, and the boys cross the street to follow us. I stand in the main street and shout at them with all my might. We don't understand each other's language. Now the shopkeepers stop laughing. One of them comes forward and approaches me to the point where I can smell his breath. "What is the problem?" he asks me with hate and anger.
This experience of violence is only a single example of those I witnessed on the streets of Turkey. But other examples are worse. Reports are released every year about the murder of transgender women in Turkey. One of the most intensely violent examples of mistreatment of these refugees was reported on the Iran International news website in October 2020. Four Iranian transgender asylum seekers in Turkey were forced to remain silent by police after being beaten by staff at a café. The sexual violence that transgender women suffer both in Iran as well as in Turkey is innumerable. They usually do not walk alone on the streets and are afraid to report violence to the police because of their inferior position in society.
As of 10 September 2018, UNHCR stopped registering foreigners wishing to apply for international protection in Turkey. UNHCR also stopped carrying out mandated Refugee Status Determination procedures, and under the Ministry of the Interior, the Directorate General of Migration Management (DGMM) took responsibility for registering and processing international protection applications. When the Turkish government took over from the UN with relation to the refugees, the UN provided personal information about the refugees, including name, address, religion, and other details to the Turkish government. This means the UN broke the agreement they had with the refugees about not sharing their information with a third party without their permission at the time of registration.
That was the moment when the refugees in Turkey became invisible to the great political powers. The LGBTQ refugees have asked for protection in a country where the president announced in a public speech in February 2021 that LGBTQ people do not exist in Turkey. This declaration resembles the famous speech by Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who emphasized that there is no homosexuality in Iran. Accordingly, when the existence of LGBTQ people is denied from the highest position in the country, can we expect their rights to be protected?
Rejection by Family
International law in Turkey allows transgender women to dress as they wish and to be present in society with a female appearance, even though their refugee ID card shows the male gender. Therefore, many transgender women undergo facial cosmetic surgery and breast-enhancement procedures after registering their asylum applications in Turkey. After these physical changes, they have no option to go back to their homeland and nowhere else to go other than Turkey. These surgeries help them to align their appearance with their female identity.
Haleh revealed her female identity after moving to Turkey. “People's behaviour with me has changed in a positive way since I had plastic surgery. Now they treat me as a woman, not as a man, and I can also work in a women's salon without being rejected because of my appearance,” she says. According to Haleh, women in her family accepted her change with open hearts, but it took her father some years to be ready to talk to her again. “He still calls me by the name given to me at birth, which I do not mind anymore. At least I can do a video call with him, but he has never come to Turkey to visit me.”
Seven years after Haleh left to seek refuge, it is still not easy for her to recount the event that caused her to leave. “When I was 20 years old, I met a guy who was much older than me. He supported me financially, and I was interested in him at the beginning of our relationship. But after a while, his behaviour changed, and I decided to end the relationship. This decision made him very angry, and he threatened that he would tell my father that he had a relationship with me. So, I had to have sex with him against my will.” She tells this story with a trembling voice. After many months of sexual abuse, he took her to a place where a group of his friends raped her, and that was the moment that she decided to flee from Iran and go to Turkey.
As she explains, the first years of her life in Turkey weren't much brighter than her life in Iran, but she started working as a trainee in a hairdressing salon. After a while, she was able to do eyelash extensions and nails professionally. "I went through a lot of hardships to learn a profession from which I could make a living. Finding a job in the small town where Turkey settled us was not easy, either. There were not many job offers and there were not many people who would like to hire a transgender woman.”
Most Iranian transgender women, especially in conservative families and small cities, are at risk of being killed by their fathers if they reveal their female identity. In Iranian law, which follows Islamic law, fathers are considered guardians, and if they kill their own child, they will be exempt from the death penalty if they pay a fee to the government. Maki is one of the people at risk; she fled to Turkey in search of a safe place when she was only 17. "The first breath that I took when I realised I was in Turkey, after twenty minutes of non-stop running at the zero point of the Iran-Turkey border, was my first breath in life," she says. Maki was born into a traditional conservative Kurdish family in Iran. She had to run away from her father, who couldn't accept his child was a woman.
“I knew from a young age that I was different from the other boys, but I did not know that I was a transgender woman. I was 15 years old when one of my classmates asked me, ‘Do you want to be a girl too?’ I was scared and said no. The next day he invited me to his family’s house and showed me a BBC documentary about transgender people. I was very happy to see that there were other people like me in the world, and I gained the confidence to do makeup in friendly gatherings. A few months later, when my father was imprisoned, I changed my hair color and started dating boys.”
As Maki says, her uncles called her father in jail and told him that his son had become a prostitute. Her father called Maki’s mother from prison and told her that he would kill Maki when he came out of prison. A few months later, Maki's father was released from prison for his brother's funeral and returned to the village.
"When my father came back, he came to the house where I was gathered with the women of the family for the mourning ceremony. He took my cell phone and checked the pictures and videos. Then without saying a word, he started to beat me to death. The women of the family tried to save me from him, but he also punched and kicked them. Even his own mother." Tears well up in Maki’s eyes as she talks about that day.
Then she smiles as she talks about fleeing the village. “I managed to escape from the village with the help of some women in my family. After several months of displacement in different Iranian cities, while my uncles were looking for me to kill me on the orders of my father, I managed to enter Turkey with the help of a smuggler.” She adds, "I hope one day I will be able to properly thank the women who saved me and tell them I will never forget them. If it were not for their courage, I would not be alive."
Forced gender reassignment
The female identities of transgender women born in Iran are often accepted by the women of the family. Women relatives may not understand what it means to be transgender, but that does not affect their love for the transgender members of the family. “My mom knew that I was not a boy, but we didn’t talk about it. The night that the police arrested me because I wore women's clothes, she supported me and saved me from jail. She loved me as I am until the last day of her life,” Baran says.
She describes the horrible night that she spent in the men’s detention center. “They keep us in men’s detention centers, and this is a terrible experience. That night I was assaulted in my cell and begged one of the prison guards, who seemed to be a kind old man, to change my cell. He transferred me to a smaller cell with only one young male prisoner. As soon as I entered the cell, the guard started to beat the other prisoner and told him that he shouldn't even talk to me. The poor young boy laid against the wall until morning and did not even dare to move.”
Not all transgender people choose to transition. Those who do not want to or are not financially able to have this surgery are not even allowed to wear women's clothes. “Simply being transgender is a crime in Iran. The court can sentence us to years in prison for fraud. The judge's argument is that a man can only wear women's clothing for the purpose of fraud, and if she really has a female identity, she must prove this claim with surgery. The only way I could live in Iran with relative security was to undergo gender reassignment surgery. But I have no desire to have surgery,” Baran says.
Society and Islamic law treat transgender people as patients. Iran is one of the countries that still consider trans people as having a mental disorder. They are allowed to change their identity after having gender affirmation surgery. These surgeries cost thousands of dollars, and many individuals do not have this money or they are reluctant to undergo them due to the pain and lengthy healing required. Therefore, even if their family accepts them as they are, they must hide their identity from society.
Baran was born in an educated family and lost her father as a child. Her mother also passed away two years ago, and her sister is the only family member who supports her emotionally. She studied political science in university but has never been able to find a job in the patriarchal society of Iran. Therefore, she fled to Turkey, and she has been waiting for five years to be resettled in a third country – the US, Canada or Australia. Until then, she is allowed to stay in Turkey, but she is not allowed to leave the city without the permission of the police.
Most Iranian transgender women who have taken refuge in Turkey have to spend many years in their third and fourth decades waiting to start a new life in a third country. In this limbo, they cannot make long-term plans for their future, because they don't know when and where they will be able to build a life. They bravely leave behind their homeland, their male appearance, their loved ones, and their past to achieve the freedom of being themselves, as they are.