Nada Al-Qadi has not yet lost hope in her mission to secure the right to undertake the official steps toward becoming a woman. Despite the religious impediments and medical complications that stand in her way, her mission is nonetheless in line with local civil society organizations that support those with “troubled sexual identities” in Egypt.
Al-Qadi’s reasons for wanting to undergo sexual reassignment surgery are myriad; she hopes to be able to erase the final vestiges of manhood that “Omar” left on her life. As she undergoes hormone therapy to assume the sex she has always believed to be hers, she is also researching opportunities to seek asylum somewhere through civil society organizations.
Within a relatively short period of time, Al-Qadi, who is nineteen years old and works as a freelance artist, was registered in a program undertaken by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) to support transgender people. The program is primarily specialized in providing legal aid to transexuals, and reporting their cases to other organizations specialized in LGBT rights.
“I communicate with some organizations in Egypt and abroad to support my case, and sometimes I get promises of opportunities to seek asylum. My main objective is to undergo full sexual reassignment, whether in Egypt or abroad,” Al-Qadi says.
The idea of seeking asylum was not a priority for her at the beginning, but increasing pressures prompted her to consider emigrating. Key among these were the intransigence she faced from Al-Azhar and the Doctors’ Syndicate—the two entities authorized to issue a permit for sexual reassignment surgery in Egypt—in addition to the constant harassment she faces in her school environment and social circles.
Hers is one among many paths chosen by transexuals in Egypt, in efforts to defend their cause. Some resort to gender rights organizations to defend their rights and help them to assimilate within society. Others create their own subcultures, characterized by their secrecy and privacy, in which people usually approach each other through social media. Others still, who are more fortunate, were given the opportunity to restart their lives in more liberal and accepting societies.
There are no official organizations specialized in supporting transexuals in Egypt, although a few NGOs have adopted the cause from a legal and psychological standpoint, classifying their cases under gender issues. This is the type of support that Dalia Abdel Hamid, Gender and Women’s Rights Officer at EIPR, through the specialized program for transexuals that Al-Qadi referred to.
Abdel Hamid tells Raseef22 that only a relatively small segment of this community takes recourse to rights organizations to help them with therapy and issues relating to sexual reassignment surgery, and on occasion with official paperwork. The organization also defends them during the security campaigns undertaken by the Egyptian police force against known homosexual gathering points.
She explains that the authorities do not distinguish between homosexuals and transexuals during such campaigns, and despite there being no official punishment for practicing homosexuality, police often arrest them on charges of “committing acts of vice” and “inciting debauchery”. Abdel Hamid notes that about 200 young men were arrested under such pretexts during various raids between 2013 and 2016.
She adds that EIPR’s work is restricted to documenting violations that transexuals are subjected to at police stations, and connecting the victims to specialized physiatrists to follow up on their cases. She further notes that some organizations hesitate to work with cases from this segment, due to the social taboo associated with it and the constant onslaught leveled by the media and the state.
The Egyptian state’s refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of transexualism was manifested in the banning of Republic of Konthika, the first Egyptian film dealing with the issue of transexuals. The censorship authority justified its decision by claiming that this phenomenon does not exist in Egypt.
Yet, there are those working in civil society who are not mired by the fear of the taboo that Abdel Hamid describes. According to Sara Al-Gohary, a researcher at the Nedal Center for Rights and Freedoms, this segment of society constitutes a large group that exists most visibly in a parallel online world.
Al-Gohary explains that there are several apps allowing LGBT people to meet, such as Grindr, through which transexuals can find each other. However, some have been breached by the Egyptian security apparatus, with the objective of capturing “sexual networks” in the act.
Operating on a more clandestine basis than the meeting aps, a secret Facebook group called TRANS gathers about 200 people with gender identity issues to interact over issues related to their identities. Yet, as with many such groups, despite its seeming openness to world issues and knowledge, it is nonetheless quite solipsistic. Outsiders are allowed in with great difficulty, out of the fear of disclosure, or that they will be blackmailed for their activities. This fear was evident in the few meetings we had with some of the group members, during which their anxiety over the article topic alone was visible.
Al-Gohary does not consider herself an LGBT rights activists, so much as she believes she is defending the rights of her friends. This cemented her idea of establishing an official platform for transexuals, under the name Ego. Having chosen this name for her organization, she has applied for a permit at the Ministry of Social Solidarity, but awaits the officiation of the organization.
“The hardships my friends face with Al-Azhar and the Doctors’ Syndicate in designating their sexual identities and issuing the official papers, as well as their defamation in the legal system and the media, were the reasons that prompted me to launch the new association, to support trans people through a legitimate entity that is recognized by the state,” she says.
The types of activities offered within the group includes providing medical and psychological counsel, as well as advice over how to confront the harassment faced by the trans community. This is provided through closed sessions or online, Al-Gohary explains to Raseef22.
Moreover, just as social media has contributed to the facilitation of communication between trans individuals in Egypt, it has also been a major tool for connecting with associations concerned with trans issues across the Arab world. The most prominent of these is Bedayaa, which supports gender rights in all forms throughout the Nile Valley area (Egypt and Sudan). Another prominent organization is the Arab Trans Association, which aims to be a mouthpiece for Arab trans individuals to the world.
Raseef22’s attempts to get in touch with representatives from Bedayaa in Egypt were met with rejection on the basis of the media’s disrespect for the rights of transgender people, and its constant efforts to distort their image. Meanwhile, the spokesperson of the Arab Trans Association spoke to us on Facebook, on condition of anonymity.
The trials and tribulations of transexuals in Egypt
The spokesperson said that the association only provides moral support to participants by providing a platform to share their stories and the difficulties they face. It further advises them to be wary in their dealings with their community, as the majority of Arab societies reject trans people socially and legally, while transexualism is illegalized in certain countries, and could lead to death in others, such as Iraq and Syria, according to the spokesperson.
He further points out that the association does not encourage people to emigrate or seek asylum, but it simultaneously acknowledges that this may be their only option in light of their desire for a society that respects their individuality and grants them their rights. He moreover explains that they face challenges in migrating, as in many cases they begin hormone therapy of their own accord without medical supervision, and so their bodies gradually change, while their paperwork remains the same. Consequently, they are prevented from traveling because their outward appearance does not match the sex listed in their documents.
The association does not have any accurate data on the number of Egyptian participants in its activities, as many of them operate five or more social media accounts, the spokesperson says. They use these accounts to interact through websites and applications, with the purpose of evading security forces or harassers.
The association, like many others, suffers from restrictions imposed by police forces on those of differing sexual orientations, amid the lack of supporting organizations in the Arab world. The only possible is Lebanon, which may be the only Arab country that allows for the establishment of such entities. The Arab Trans Association relies primarily on sending complaints to the United Nations.
The number of associations representing trans people, or those who suffer from the effects of homophobia, vary inasmuch as they represent different segments of society. One example is the AUC LGBTQ+ group that was established in 2013 in the American University in Cairo (AUC) with the purpose of expressing their thoughts in an open environment. They hoped to create an organization that could serve as a platform for their concerns.
Sara Al-Gohary says that she organizes regular workshops with members of the association at AUC in the Cairo suburb of the Fifth Settlement. She says she aims to create an environment in which students can coexist without tensions there, especially as there are those who suffer from social bullying after their sexual identities become known.
Nada Al-Qadi is active in such activities and associations, viewing them as a means to vent and search for a welcoming place where she felt at home enough to express her struggles with society. From a more pragmatic standpoint, she awaits relief in the form of an escape, provided that one of the organizations makes good on their promises to facilitate her migration procedures.
Escape was the Only Answer
Unlike Al-Qadi, Carla Tharwat did not hang many hopes on rights organizations before she fled to Germany to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. She became Carla, after she was called Kirolos, and subsequently was able to issue new documents with her new identity, which facilitated the asylum procedures in Germany.
Carla, who is in her twenties, was born in the deeply conservative Sohag governorate in Upper Egypt, where custom and tradition reign supreme, and the concept of transexualism is not acknowledged in the collective conscious. When she was nineteen, her parents discovered her secret, forcing her to run away from her parents’ wrath and get married in another, more forgiving society.
After years of stability in her new life, and integrating to an existence that was relatively struggle-free, Tharwat tells Raseef22: “There is no basis for comparison between the rights of transexuals in Egypt and in Germany, or between human rights in general. Over here, we can leave with a semblance of humanity and coexistence with [people of] any status, even if they are different from us.”
Her advice to anyone who is going through the same circumstances she went through is clear; to search for a way out, and to have the surgery in another country. To her friend, she is a source of inspiration, living proof that escape and success in a new life is possible, as can be seen from their comments on her facebook. No longer is she phased by the threats she receives every now and then on her personal account.
Shoddy Medical Treatment
Financial circumstances carry a lot of weight in determining the fates of Egypt’s transexuals; those with means are blessed with better opportunities for travel. Meanwhile, those without search for seedy clinics, amid the crisis imposed by Al-Azhar and the Doctors’ Syndicate in issuing the correct permits for sexual reassignment surgery, according to Adel Ramadan, a researcher at EIPR.
The lawyer points out that these small clinics are known for failed attempts at sexual reassignment surgery, which end with the doctors being penalized for violating the syndicate’s by-laws. He blames the state for such procedures, as official intransigence forces people to resort to such unsavory means.
Ramadan concludes by referring to another major issue that transexuals face; the inability to secure new official documentation after the surgery, whereby judges’ positions on the matter vary according to their social and personal backgrounds.