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Transsexuals in the Middle East Await the Wave of Change

by Suad Hamada
Bahrain

Hell is what most Arabs think of when the word “transsexual” comes into any conversation since many mistake it with homosexuality, which is a sin in Islam. Most transsexuals prefer to remain anonymous since in some Arab countries they could face jail sentences for dressing or acting like the opposite sex. Many, especially men who feel trapped in the body of a woman, keep their problems hidden to avoid being punished or killed by their families. It is far easier for a woman to have a sex change to become a man than visa-versa. A man who becomes a woman is seen to have dishonored the family.

For 34 years, Bahraini Hussain Rabai felt trapped in a female body. In 2008, the courts officially declared him a man by approving his name change in official documents, from Zainab to Hussain, following sex correction surgery in 2007.

Partially blind, Hussain is luckier than most – he was married this year and happy to finally become a man. “I think my wife married me because of my honesty. I told her and her family about my past and my keenness to lead my life as a complete man.”

Transsexuals in Bahrain face the burden of social misconceptions and rejection, but they fare much better than those in Kuwait who face legal sanctions and maltreatment in the prison system. According to the Qatari newspaper Al Raya, the government has allocated two million Kuwaiti dinars to combat homosexuality and transsexuals, especially those demanding the formation of a society to defend their rights. Kuwait also passed a decency law punishing transsexuals and homosexuals to a one-year jail sentence and US$3,500 fine. A group of transsexuals signed a petition to the Kuwaiti Parliament seeking public recognition and cancellation of the law after 12 of them were maltreated in detention. Arrested for wearing female clothes, the prisoners were physically and psychologically abused by guards who shaved their long hair.

In a conservative state such as Saudi Arabia, only sex correction operations are allowed. According to Saudi Daily, around 600 surgeries were conducted from 2001 to 2007, and though these individuals were accepted by the government, they are still being rejected by society and find it difficult to fit in.

It might sound tough for transsexuals here, but there is more hope now than ever before of improved rights. With more public awareness through the Internet and newspapers, transsexuals have found a voice and have begun to demand respect and recognition.

Created in 2006 by Salim, a Kuwaiti man who identifies as a woman, the Arabic-language blog Transhelp is just one example of a growing community of support. Since its launch three years ago, the blog has attracted 120,000 members and has had over 200 million hits. Called a “guardian angel” by many of Transhelp’s members, Bahraini lawyer Fawziya Janahi has dedicated her career to helping transsexuals across the Arab world and says she is the first lawyer in the region to specialize in sex change cases.

Janahi became well known in 2005 when she won her first sex change case for a Bahraini transsexual and Hussain Rabai’s case in 2008. She mostly represents clients who want a sex change operation, and who need permission from the court for the surgery. The operations are mainly performed in Thailand and other East Asian countries. In the two cases that she’s won, she also sued the health ministry and passport department to change the official documents of her clients from female to male.

“I ask all my clients to go to psychiatrists to evaluate if their feelings can be corrected [without surgery] or not,” she explains. The young lawyer says that she only takes cases after a full psychiatric evaluation and only after therapy has failed. She has a heavy caseload with clients in Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where she has 50 cases alone.

“Facing criticism isn’t something that I fear – if one of my clients is emotionally a woman trapped in a man’s body or visa-versa and psychiatrists can’t help, then I will.” She also doesn’t worry about religious objections as she feels that if psychiatrists give her the green light to defend their patients, then scholars shouldn’t object.

Conservative Saudi professor and psychologist Dr Tariq Al Habeeb agrees. “Gender isn’t determined only by the genital organs, but how individuals think of themselves.” He says that since religious scholars accept sex correction operations when an individual is born with both genital organs, they should also accept operations for transsexuals who feel trapped in their physical bodies.

“I urge society to open up,” he says. “A man who has felt like a woman since childhood is a woman trapped in the body of a man and urgently needs a sex change operation.”

It took Hussain more than 30 years to convince his family to go on with his surgery and even now not all of his relatives are supportive. With Janahi’s help Hussain won the support of Bahrain’s newspapers to raise funds for his surgery, even though he was unemployed for a full year afterward until the courts recognized him as a man. But his case is simple compared to a friend. “My friend’s agony is harming him – he cannot stay in his body, but he doesn’t have the courage to face the rejection of his family,” Hussain explains.

Yet the wave of change seems like it’s finally coming to the Middle East – just ten years back no one dared debate the rights of transsexuals, let alone acknowledge them publicly. Many transsexuals are not ashamed of their situations and are fighting to be accepted in society by talking to the press or even contacting Human Rights Watch. Many ordinary people have started watching TV programs on the plight of transsexuals, no longer switching the channel fearing punishment from God.

“When I look back to what I went through to become a man,” recalls Hussain, “I remember how I lived with identity crisis all my life.”

And this is what keeps Dr Tariq and Fawziya Janahi going despite heavy criticism. “I’m happy to have found my mission in life,” says Janahi. “I’m proud to be called the first Arab and Muslim lawyer to defend transsexuals.”

This article was updated on September 4, 2009. We regret the error and appreciate the astute observations of our readers. – Ed.



About the Author
Suad Hamada has been a journalist in Bahrain since 1997. Her writing focuses on politics and women’s empowerment in both Bahrain and the larger Arab region. She has participated in national campaigns for the elimination of discrimination against Bahraini women, seeking to give them a voice in a society – that while liberal in comparison to its neighbors – still marginalizes and oppresses its female citizens.

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