“Everyone has a story, but as I hear more I find it hard to relate. I lied when I said I was born in the wrong body. I don’t always like my body or that I have love handles. I don’t always like that as a woman I have fewer options than men, even men that aren’t as smart as I am. But I never feel like my body is a trap. If anything, I feel like my love is a trap” (Farizan, 2014, p. 143).
This was such a heartbreaking story to read, especially because it rings with so much honesty and truth. I’ve always known that the LGBT community faces unspeakable discrimination in other parts of the world, but I’d never stopped much to really think about how hard things must be for under-represented groups in other countries. I think it’s very easy to get wrapped up in our own American bubble, forgetting about the hardships that women and minorities (such as the LGBT community) face in other cultures.For all of our grievances in the United States, I do think it’s important to remember that, all things considered, we live a very privileged lifestyle when compared to other cultures. Sprinkled throughout this novel are tragic instances of discrimination, reflective of a culture that can, at times, be both beautiful and cruel.
The story focuses on seventeen year old Sahar, who is hopelessly in love with her best friend Nasrin. There are, unfortunately, many problems with this, however: Nasrin and Sahar are both girls, and they live in a society where being gay is not only seen as a sin, but is also completely illegal. For years, the two have been forced to hide their relationship from the world, but have remained relatively content keeping their love a secret. This changes when Nasrin’s parents force her into an engagement with a wealthy doctor against her will. Because adultery and homosexuality are crimes punishable by death in their country, Nasrin and Sahar know that their days together are coming to an abrupt end. When Sahar meets her cousin’s transgender friend Parveen, however, she forms an idea. While being gay is illegal and sinful in her country, being transgender is viewed as a legitimate illness that can be treated for free by the government. Sahar is then faced with an impossible choice: to give up the girl she loves forever, or to become a man and sacrifice her true self. It’s an impossible, tragic dilemma, and one that sheds light on a reality for many members of the LGBT community in Iran.
Let me begin this review with a disclaimer. I am American with German heritage, and therefore cannot claim to know the slightest thing about Iranian culture, though I have always been curious. Therefore, my views are necessarily going to be skewed due to my own personal experiences. My initial reaction to this story, as with all stories that showcase injustice, was complete and utter heartbreak. Sahar and Nasrin may be fictional characters, but their dilemma is one that many real people have faced. I’m not under any false assumption that our country is perfect when it comes to the LGBT community (or any minority community, for that matter); in fact, we have a very long way to go before normalized discrimination is a thing of the past. That being said, the fact that it is not illegal to be gay in this country is a wonderful thing, as it lets members of the LGBT community love openly without fearing for their lives. I can’t imagine facing the choices that Sahar and Nasrin must deal with in this novel, especially not at age seventeen or eighteen. I’m twenty-three now, and would have a hard time choosing between a life of safety and a life of freedom with the person I love; it’s a choice that nobody should ever have to make.
Oddly enough, however, there were parts of the Iranian culture that seemed almost more progressive than our own. In America, I feel as though being gay is accepted infinitely more than being transgender. In the culture presented in the novel, however, being transgender (or “transsexual,” as the novel refers to it) is seen as an illness that can be treated at no cost to the individual. While this is wonderful for those looking to have the reassignment surgery, I believe it is also legal and accepted for the wrong reasons. Calling transgenderism an “illness” bothers me a bit, as it implies (at least to me) that you are sick if you believe you were born in the wrong body. Of course, I don’t have a better term for it, but I did find it interesting that the Iranian culture views it with slightly more of an open mind than we do (though there are still those who do not accept transgender individuals), especially since being gay is considered a cardinal sin in Iranian society.
It was also interesting to see the characters in the book comment on this; sometimes, they admire and envy Western society, but they also pity us at times. There is a point in the novel where one of the characters laments that Americans cannot have the reassignment surgery done for free, and are thankful to be able to get it done at no cost to them. At the same time, many of the characters comment upon the “luxury of the West,” sometimes wishing they too could choose to be whatever and whoever they want to be without consequence (p. 195). There is also a moment in which Nasrin is almost arrested for showing her elbows, leading to a tense moment in which neither her nor Sahar are sure if they will make it out safely. Such things would never happen in the United States, though we do live in a world where rape victims can be blamed for what they wore or how intoxicated they were at the time. This novel presents the idea that there is no such thing as a perfect culture, and that we all tend to see the grass as being greener on the other side at times.
As I said before, I (like many others in America) feel as though I have been sheltered from the experiences of other cultures, and while I cannot attest to the accuracy of this portrayal of Iranian culture, this novel did help to open my mind to what daily life might be like in other countries. It was eye-opening to be able to step into the shoes of a young woman who is only a few years younger than myself, but who lives in a culture that is vastly different from my own. In truth, not everything in Sahar’s society was negative, as most Western media will have us believe. There were several kind, open-minded, sympathetic characters in the novel, including a police officer who helps to protect Sahar’s gay cousin Ali (throughout most of the novel, at least). Religion was actually portrayed in an extremely realistic manner, as the novel showed glimpses of characters who were both extremely devout, and characters who did not actively practice religion; not everyone is painted with the same stereotypical brush. The novel also showcases an Iranian wedding ceremony, ripe with tradition and beautiful symbolism. Unfortunately, there also appears to be a great deal of sexism and prejudice against those who are different, which I suppose exists in every culture (including our own). I applaud Farizan’s ability to highlight this unique culture without sugar-coating some of the injustices faced by those within it; she gives a very realistic portrayal of a society that not many Westerners (myself included) have taken the time to understand.
Overall, I found it to be extremely intriguing and thought-provoking to leave my world behind and step into another, if only for a short period of time. I have lived in America my entire life, and have never thought to venture out and experience other cultures; this novel allowed me to do so in a safe and attainable way. As an ally to the LGBT community, this novel also opened my eyes to the massive amount of work that still needs to be done worldwide to help normalize and decriminalize the LGBT community. It is my sincere belief that nobody should ever be punished or persecuted because of who they love, and I long to see a world in which being gay is viewed as being no different than having brown hair or blue eyes; it’s just one of many traits that can describe a human being. I believe this novel is very deserving of its Lambda award, as it reminds us all that equality is worth fighting for, if only so that our children never have to make the impossible choices that the characters in this story (and countless real people all over the world) have had to make. If you’re in the market for a new and unique experience, I invite you to step outside of your comfort zone and give this book a try; I promise you it’s worth the read!
Farizan, S. (2014). If You Could Be Mine. New York, NY: Algonquin Young Readers.