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Weaving Ethical Concerns and Aesthetic Aspirations: Fatwas and Nose Jobs in Iran

[Scene from Shahrdari Street in Tehran in August 2012. Image by Kamyar Adl via Flickr] [Scene from Shahrdari Street in Tehran in August 2012. Image by Kamyar Adl via Flickr]

Iran has recently been labeled the nose job capital of the world; a fact that comes as a surprise to those who get caught up on the Islamic Republic’s strict and serious image. As opposed to what one might imagine, no sort of governmental or Islamic legal permission is required to access cosmetic surgery services throughout the country. However, that is not to say that Islamic law has nothing to say about the matter. Quite the contrary, religious leaders have found it necessary to engage with the issue of cosmetic surgery, particularly because the practice is common among religious men and women in addition to secular individuals.

Although believers not institutionally forced to be concerned with, seek to know, or even comply with the fatwas (legal opinions) of religious leaders, a growing number of voluntarily submitted questions with regard to ethical ways to undergo cosmetic surgery is producing a batch of new Islamic legal literature and understanding on the subject.

Islamic law is often seen as inflexible; a monolithic rigidity that also extends to the life it finds in the everyday routine of those who care about and, in different capacities, strive to follow it. There are, however, a number of ambiguities, ambivalences, and microprocesses that render the articulations of Islamic law far from being monotonous and isolated. The case of nose jobs in Shi’a majority Iran is particularly instructive in this regard.

So how do religious authorities and their pious followers engage with the very much “of this world” practice of altering one’s physical appearance? For those who want to stay true their religious sensibilities, even cosmetic decisions should not contradict their marja‘’s fatwas. Marja’ taqlids or “sources of emulation” are those scholars with the highest level of religious authority in modern Shi‘i Islam (or more accurately Usuli Twelver Shi‘ism). Individuals who lack the required expertise in Islamic law to evaluate the legality of a certain behavior are supposed to follow and seek guidance from their marja‘. The interaction between marja‘s and their followers can be carried out in several ways: through a marja‘'s books and manuals; in-person appointments; phone calls; or more recently, visiting and interacting with the marja‘'s website.

The marja‘s have been quite active regarding the novel cases and unprecedented complexities that new medical technologies have brought to the country. Many of the marja‘s have been referred to regarding the permissibility within Islamic law of certain medical procedures (such as assisted reproductive technologies) and have issued so many fatwas in this regard that some of them have published volumes particularly dealing with medical themes. Shi‘i fatwas have accordingly not missed the nose job as a topic of adjudication and an object of reflection.

The fatwas of the Shi‘i marja‘s who have followers in Iran regarding cosmetic surgery are far from homogenous and monolithic. For some, cosmetic surgery is simply not permissible, as beauty is not a sufficient reason for undergoing surgery (such as the late Ayatollah Bahjat and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei). For many others cosmetic surgery in itself is not prohibited and is acceptable under certain conditions.

Some scholars agree that if there is a “rational justification” or “necessity” for cosmetic surgery, the surgery is permissible (such as Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani and Ayatollah Nouri Hamedani). While other marja‘s have issued fatwas that are mainly about the probability and possibility of “danger” in undertaking cosmetic surgery, declaring that if according to the learned opinion of an expert doctor the surgery has a high chance of danger for the patient, the surgery is not permissible (such as Ayatollah Fazele Lankarani and Ayatollah Saneei).

For many of them cosmetic surgery in itself is not prohibited, but if the process of surgery might involve another prohibited element (such as the looking at or the touching the patient by a doctor of the opposite sex) then the surgery is forbidden–unless the patient is in the condition of “danger or loss.” The diversity of learned opinions is clear.

But what does “rational justification,” “loss,” or “danger” mean? Who will decide on their meaning? What qualifies someone as “expert doctor”? The few sentences of a fatwa can hardly be sufficient to deal with the complexities of the quotidian details of the followers’ lives. This vagueness or insufficiency, however, seems less a matter of failure and more of intended built-in ambiguity, leaving the responsibility and freedom up to the follower. This aspect of responsibility-freedom in Shi‘i Islamic law is captured within the concept of “discerning the applicability” or tashkhis-i mesdagh.

The rubric refers to the idea that the authority of the marja‘ comes from his expertise in perusing the authenticity and content of historically transmitted religious narratives and his logical capacity to derive meaning and infer ruling out of them. But the marja‘ does not have any authority to determine whether, in this or that particular juncture of life, a specific ruling applies or not.

For instance, the marja‘ might issue a fatwa that if a piece of music has the particular characteristic of “having ghena” then that music is prohibited. But it is out of the authoritative realm of the marja’ to say whether Beatles’ “Hey Jude” or Beethtoven’s 5th Symphony are a case of ghena and thus prohibited music or not. This is the domain of follower. Similarly, it is the responsibility-freedom of the follower who wants to subject his or her nose to cosmetic surgery to navigate possible meanings of “rational justification,” “loss,” or “danger”.

This is a responsibility-freedom that is defined for the follower in Shia’ Islamic law where the interpretive space that can often be found in the wording of a fatwa of a marja‘ provides the opportunity for the follower to, all the while submitting his or herself to the Islamic legal and ethical framework, readjust the framework according to his or her understanding, needs, or even wishes.

The interpretative space thus opened can be navigated in different settings and with different interlocutors. The process can be mainly individual where the person would reflect on the meaning and applicability of a fatwa and would act based on it. But it can also be practiced in the form of negotiation. The individual might actually go to an office of his or her marja‘ to tell his or her particular story, and to discuss or negotiate (often with a senior student or representative of the marja‘ and not the marja‘ himself) on the issue of applicability of the relevant fatwa to his or her case.

Where a role has been given to doctors in fatwas, the negotiation procedure would occur between the doctor and the patient/follower. The awfully short and ambiguous “necessity,” for instance, that has been imposed as a condition of permissibility of a nose job by some marja‘s might be exposed to persistent reflection, discussion and negotiation between the individual’s ethical concerns and aesthetic aspirations, as well as the doctor’s medical expertise and possibly religious sensitivity.

This feature of Shi‘i Islamic law–“discerning applicability”–as reflected upon and practiced in Iran by followers of marja‘s indicates the significance of ambivalences, contradictions and uncertainties that the individual has to grapple with in different occasions, here in a cosmetic-pious occasion. It also helps us to tease out just how theocratic country with a rigid and pious reputation can also top the charts for nose jobs worldwide.

 

For further reference:

Tehran Burea, “The beauty obsession feeding Iran’s voracious cosmetic surgery industry,” The Guardian, 1 March 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2013/mar/01/beauty-obsession-iran-cosmetic-surgery.

Deni, Kirkova, “Iran is the nose job capital of the world with seven times more procedures than the U.S. – but rise in unlicensed surgeons poses huge risk,” Daily Mail, 4 March 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2287961/Iran-named-nose-job-capital-world-SEVEN-times-rhinoplasty-operations-U-S-Iranian-women-strive-western-doll-face.html

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