Canada almost deported Iranian midwife over imprecise translation of a female body part

August 10, 2018

By Adrian Humphreys, Montreal Gazette |

The inability of an interpreter at a refugee hearing to precisely translate the medical term for a part of the female anatomy almost had serious repercussions for an Iranian woman claiming asylum.

Nastran Yeganeh was a licensed midwife for 25 years in Iran who said she performed “virginity restoration surgery” by stitching together a membrane that partially closes the opening of the vagina, which has traditionally been taken as a mark of virginity. After conducting the taboo surgery in 2016, her work was discovered by one patient’s family, bringing death threats from an irate brother, she said.

Allegedly facing the death penalty after the patient’s family complained to authorities, she sought refugee protection in Canada.

An adjudicator with the Immigration and Refugee Board, in an attempt to gauge her credibility, asked at her hearing what the “technical, anatomical term” for the membrane was, looking for her to identify it as the hymen.

Testifying in Farsi through an interpreter, the word “hymen” was not spoken. Instead, according to a transcript of the hearing, the interpreter used the words “virginity curtain” and “virginity tissue.”

The IRB rejected Yeganeh’s claim for refugee protection, saying her inability to name the hymen was evidence her entire story was fabricated.

Ali Ghanbarpour-Dizboni, an associate professor at the Royal Military College of Canada who specializes in Middle East politics and who is fluent in Farsi, told the National Post that “virginity curtain” is simply a literal translation of the Farsi words for the hymen.

Had the IRB’s decision stood, the claimant and her daughter would have been sent back to Iran. Her appeal to the Federal Court of Canada, however, overturned the decision and sends her back for a new refugee hearing.

What’s known as hymenoplasty in English is considered a clandestine procedure in sexually conservative Iran. Yeganeh said she only did the surgery twice. During her second operation, in 2016, her patient said she was nervous and Yeganeh, who secretly considered herself a Christian, calmed her with a parable from the Bible.

After surgery, the patient called Yeganeh, warning her that her family discovered what she had done. The brother of the patient went to her clinic and told staff he wanted to kill Yeganeh, the IRB heard. The brother then went to her home and confronted her husband.

After she left for Canada, Yeganeh said, her husband was summoned to a courthouse in Tehran where he was met by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an ideological security force, who demanded to know where his wife was. Her husband asked what she was accused of and was told she had converted to Christianity, proselytized and was facing a death penalty.

Because of the translator at the IRB hearing not naming “the relevant anatomy,” the IRB adjudicator ruled she “has never performed a hymenoplasty.”

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