Less free as a transgender in Sweden than in Iran

The author and film director Ramesh Safavi was born as a boy in Iran. She lives in Stockholm after having undergone sex reassignment therapy. The author and critic Lina Kalmteg has interviewed her about writing and being trans gender in Iran and about life in exile.

November 29 2018 Text: Lina Kalmteg Translation from Swedish: Christina Cullhed

If Ramesh Safavi had stayed in her country Iran she had probably never made her debut as a writer. She has written her three novels in Sweden where she has been free to do so. “If I were to go back to Iran they would arrest me,” she says.

But let’s take it from the beginning. Ramesh Safavi, ever since she was a little boy in Iran in the middle of the 1970s, has always loved to read. This she tells me when we meet at a café in Södermalm in Stockholm. At home they had a big library and her father and elder sister, who were both communists, supplied her with children’s books about Stalin and Lenin. Already when she was ten she devoured books by the British writers Daphne du Maurier and Jane Austen 
Her writing too began early. When she was six she wrote her first book with pictures about a chicken that didn’t have any friends. “My sister still has that book” she says and laughs.

As a teenager she wrote a few longer texts before she began to study film at the university in Teheran and she also directed a few short films; some of these have been shown at film festivals around the world.
However, Ramesh Safavi, who at the time was a man, found that as a boy she had difficulties expressing herself; she had always felt like a girl. And since she did not want to work with people she decided to try a less social kind of work and instead write film scripts. She depicted social problems in the Iranian society, portrayed prostitutes, transgender persons and homosexuals—topics that were regarded as highly controversial. “I often heard that the script is fine but that ‘we can’t do anything with it; the regime would never accept it.’”

Ramesh Safavi suffered several setbacks, often felt disillusioned, and had difficulties with her gender identity. Finally, when she was thirty-one, she decided to have gender reassignment surgery in order to go from being a man to being a woman. Ramesh explains that in Iran this is not unusual. The regime can even encourage it as a ‘cure’ for homosexuality, which is illegal. In other words, if homosexuals change their gender the regime does not need to face the ‘problem’ of homosexuality.
“But it was actually after my operation that the real problems started because I could not get a job. I was still in the process of switching gender and I sounded like a boy and probably looked like a transperson.”

However, it was not that she looked like a transperson that made Ramesh Safavi flee. It was instead that the regime began to harass her for political reasons, for example, that she let people who were sought after by the police, or who had been hurt during various political demonstrations, seek refuge in her home. 
“One night several men arrived and one of them was severely hurt. They stayed until the situation had calmed down A few days later the police came to my home; they arrested me and kept me imprisoned for eight days. They wanted me to explain why I had let the men in and I told them the truth: that the man could have died and that I just wanted to help him.”

As a result Ramesh Safavi was kept under even stricter surveillance. The police were highly suspicious about her working for the BBC in Iran. It didn’t help that she was not a political journalist but a film critic. And of course, that her family were communists did not make things any better. The police took her computer, she had difficulties getting a job and keeping it, and she felt more and more unsafe. Finally, her friends started to advise her to leave the country.
“However, I still wanted to be a writer, but the things I wanted to write about were illegal and I couldn’t earn any money from it.”

So, in 2011, Ramesh Safavi came as a refugee to Sweden. While waiting for her permission to stay she immediately began to write about things that she formerly could not write about such as the difficulties experienced by homosexuals in Iran. She found a Persian publisher in Great Britain who published her first book called Metamorphisis, a story about two friends, a young gay boy and a trans-girl, who try to live their lives in Iran. The next book was Mangoabout four girls who flee from Iran to seek a better life in Europe. “To a great extent this is my own story,” she says. 
Her third and latest novel The Black Side of the Winteris about a family who, after the revolution in Iran, lose everything. She has also written a play for Riksteatern (the National Touring Theatre) called Mörkervägen 13about five girls who are seeking asylum in Sweden and who are staying at the same asylum accommodation. In the gripping short story “Janusansiktet,” published here on The Dissident Blogin 2012, she narrates a story about what it is like being a homosexual and transperson in Iran. 
I ask whether she would have ever been able to write her books if she had stayed in Iran? “No, if I had stayed there I would at best have been allowed to work as somebody’s secretary.” 

But what does she think would happen if she were to return to Iran after having published these works? “I would be arrested.” So, I ask, does this mean that you can never return to Iran? “I can never return,” she says, “Strangely enough I do not feel at home in Iran and I do not feel at home in Sweden—I don’t know where I belong. What is more, it is becoming more and more difficult to write about Iran when I don’t live there any longer—I no longer know what kinds of problems people are struggling with on a daily basis.” 
So would she say that it is more difficult being a woman writer in Iran than a male writer? “It is hard to say since I have not been published in Iran, but generally it has become much harder to be a writer there since the censorship laws have become much harsher. Just being a woman in Iran is difficult; the regime wants to force women to stay in their homes and even if women study hard it is still the men who get the jobs. But Iranian women show a lot of strength. It is the women who are behind almost all the major movements and protests.”

Ramesh Safavi, who is now forty-seven years of age, wants to stay in her new homeland and continue to write. As a writer she feels free here in Sweden, even though she also notes that not even in Sweden is it possible to be totally free. For example, it is harder to critique religions such as Islam here.
And she feels less free as a transgender person in Sweden than in Iran. In Iran, since the Government has encouraged it, many have undergone gender reassignment surgery so most people are familiar with this feature. In Sweden though this surgery is more unusual. Ramesh Safavi says that she has been harassed both verbally and physically when she has been out on the town in Stockholm. She has also noted that when she is engaged in various cultural projects in Stockholm there is always an emphasis on her as a transgender person.
“I do regret that I told people in various contexts that I am a transgender person. I would prefer to be merely regarded as a woman and a writer from Iran. I notice the need here to categorize me first and foremost as a transgender writer and this disappoints me.”

Ramesh Safavi still writes in Persian but her goal in future is to write more in English or Swedish in order to reach a broader audience. Despite having written her books in Sweden and having them published in Britain Ramesh Safavi’s books have nevertheless reached many readers in Iran. She finds that many people appreciate her books. “They copy my books and spread them and comment on them in social media: the Internet is a great enemy of the Iranian regime.” 
Ramesh Safavi does not believe there is any added risk of punishment awaiting those who read her books. Among the eighty million inhabitants in the country many are of course critical of the regime. “And it is impossible to arrest them all.”
In the newspapers in Iran, however, no one ever writes about Ramesh Safavi’s books; there she does not exist at all she claims. I ask her whether she believes that her books can help to implement any change. “I do not believe that a writer’s or any other artist’s duty is to change things political. But I do believe that if I can get people to start thinking and reflecting about certain issues then I can feel very satisfied—then I have won.”