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Iranian Queer and Trans Refugees: Process, Policies, Politics

May 11, 2017

As a physiology major at San Francisco State University, Sima Shakhsari was headed to medical school. That was, until they took an elective course on women and politics of citizenship, which sparked their interest in the field of gender, women, and sexuality studies. Instead of enrolling in medical school, they did social justice work through the nonprofit organization, San Francisco Women Against Rape (SFWAR). After several years of working at SFWAR, Shakhsari earned their master’s degree in women’s studies at San Francisco State University, followed by a PhD in anthropology at Stanford University. After teaching at the University of Houston, Wellesley College, and the University of Pennsylvania, they came to the University of Minnesota last fall and joined the faculty of  Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. At UMN, Professor Shakhsari teaches courses about sexuality, including the Politics of Sex, Transnational Feminist Theories, Immigration and Sexuality, an Introduction to LGBTQ studies.

Shakhsari’s research and work focuses on Iranian queer and transgender refugee applicants in Turkey and the policies and disparities they face when applying for asylum in other countries. This work is largely inspired by a haunting story they learned as a graduate student conducting ethnographic and field work research in Toronto. Shakhsari learned of an Iranian trans woman who earned asylum status in Canada after a long struggle, inspiring news reports and documentaries. Her experience was widely celebrated—yet no one talked about the fact that the woman committed suicide after settling in Canada. Shakhsari remembers thinking that it was a “horrible dismissal,” which is what prompted them to examine factors that contribute to her current research, such as trans deaths, the politics of life and death, which lives are deemed worth saving, and which lives are considered disposable.

Shakhsari has been studying the experiences of queer and trans refugee applicants in Turkey since 2008. Without permission to legally work, all refugee applicants must find ways to support themselves financially until they are considered a “real” refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the “third country of asylum,” such as the USA, Canada, Australia, and some European countries. Refugee applicants are sent to satellite cities (that is, away from the primary metropolitan areas of Istanbul, Ankara, and port cities), effectively being cut off from transportation routes into Europe. Queer and trans refugee applicants typically wait three years in Turkey before they’re assigned to a third country of asylum.

The asylum process is especially strenuous for queer and trans refugee applicants, who face homophobia and transphobia from the Turkish police and the local townspeople. With the help of a group of queer and trans refugee applicants in Turkey, in 2009 Shakhsari developed a network to support the queer and trans refugees who could not afford a Turkish identity card (kimlik) that is required for limited health-care services. This work notably differed from charity work since it was provided by people from within the group and not by outside, disconnected sources. Individuals in the network did not question others’ refugee status or gender identity.

Shakhsari has faced some challenges in their work, including being relatively new to the Twin Cities area, and the uncertainty of leaving the country during the current political state. Being queer and Iranian, Shakhsari is concerned about traveling and about the negative impact that not being able to leave the country will have on their work, pointing out that their research greatly relies on active engagement in their subjects’ lives.

In addition to their current research, Shakhsari has previously critically explored “how Iranian bloggers in the diaspora participate in politics of homeland, and how projects of democratization through the internet normalize particular sex and gender subjectivities.” This work prompted Shakhsari to write a manuscript titled Blogging in Times of War: Civil Society, Gender, and Sexuality in Weblogistan. The manuscript includes information of the Iranian blogosphere, cyber governmentality, neoliberal entrepreneurship, and heteronormative and homonormative discourses, and is currently in its final editing stages.