Gazing over the screen of her personal computer is a blond woman with blue eyes, sipping her coffee in a European-style house. The 27-year-old has a calm demeanor, concealing the years of struggle she endured before she could transform into the person she is today.
Zeva Guorani was born a boy, and despite the leaps that have been made in science and human rights—particularly transgender rights—in the northern hemisphere, Guorani spent most of her life unable to reap those gains.
Hers was the fate of the thousands of transgender individuals living in the Middle East, and in particular in Syria. For them, the departure from convention has left them vulnerable to violent practices and persecution. Guorani’s case was no different.
Guorani recalls having always been attracted to toys and clothes made for little girls when she was younger, and how she found joy in spending time with members of the (ostensibly) opposite sex.
Her childhood was marked by a sense of inner chaos and fear around her family and peers. Her parents worried that their child’s behavior was the result of an extreme response to the surrounding environment.
At that stage, Guorani began to feel detached from her own body, which later developed into something akin to an obsession, leading up to the point where she would make the decision to undergo sexual reassignment.
Various risks made her hesitate at first, such as the lack of social security and the ongoing war in Syria, as well as the lack of personal and social freedoms. Moreover, the dominance of Islamist and paramilitary groups on the northern Kurdish areas in which Guorani resided, was another major obstacle to the decision.
Military Barriers and Gender-Based Violence
When speaking about her life prior to sexual reassignment, Guorani turns reticent. She refuses to give her previous full name, or the name of her old hometown. She does not wish to stir the memory of her fellow townspeople, and subject her family to the harassment that she bore the brunt of.
She recalls an incident prior to her reassignment surgery, when she was crossing a northern military barrier in Syria while traveling from Damascus.
Guorani’s effeminate voice and appearance made her a target for sexual harassment and assault at the hands of the guards at the barrier.
There was no distinction in the treatment she received by the Syrian regime forces, the Islamist parties, the Free Syrian Army, or the Islamic State. Though they were vexed by her sexual identity at the time, nonetheless, according to her, she aroused their instincts.
“These are the very same people who view those who are sexually other than them with hatred and discrimination, and condemn anyone who questions their customs and traditions,” she continues.
For Zeva Guorani, the struggles of being trans were compounded by living in war-torn Syria.
'A revolt against my own body and against society'... a Syrian trans woman describes her journey.
The Trans Community
In a psychiatric center in the city of Gaziantep in Turkey, psychiatrist Jalal Noufal defines transgender or transexual individuals as those who suffer from gender dysphoria; i.e. those who feel that they were born into the body of the opposite sex to the one with which they identify.
The solution, in his opinion, is to harmonize between the physical appearance and the gender the individual identifies with.
Noufal adds that trans individuals are often susceptible to suicidal tendencies, many of them living in isolation due to social pressure and lack of acceptance of their sexual identities. They often find difficulty balancing between the lifestyle expected of them and the gender they intrinsically identify with.
He further notes that many individuals who suffer from gender dysphoria resort to overworking themselves to distract themselves, and avoid thinking of their condition.
“Rehabilitation into their new identities often helps in coping with the memories, which often cause psychological pressure and disturbance, and require a certain type of psychological treatment to be overcome,” he notes.
Guorani was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and after several failed attempts to reconcile her sense of incongruity between her physical body and her personal identity, the only solution was sexual reassignment surgery. Guorani underwent a psychological evaluation prior to the surgery, as required by most countries prior to the surgery, including Turkey and Lebanon.
Moreover, despite the universally accepted definition of gender dysphoria as a legitimate condition, the stereotypes continue to hang over members of the trans community. Guorani is particularly troubled by their depiction in the media as individuals devoid of life and dreams, with no aspirations beyond their sex and physical image.
“What we endure on a psychological level is enough, without adding to it the suffering at the hands of society, family, and religion. I don’t want to be in constant conflict with society, I simply want us to be accepted as regular people, and not be treated as mentally ill."
Being Trans Among Militants
In facing the sexual violence and persecution prior to the reassignment process, Guorani found support in a few friends and peers in an international organization in which she was employed. However, this did not prevent the threats that she says she received from Islamist fundamentalists.
She adds that she began the reassignment process in Turkey, before she was forced to leave to Europe to complete the process due to the ongoing threats she faced.
Guorani likes to describe the process she underwent as her own personal revolution over her own body and society, in order to achieve symmetry between her mind and body.
In Search of Normalcy
Guorani refused to cut off all ties with memories of her previous life, and has instead focused on making the most of a life she had been deprived of for a long time.
She seeks love, stability, and working for a cause she cares about. She now lives in Toronto, Canada, having applied for asylum at the UNHCR in Turkey, based on the threats directed at her due to her sexual identity.
Just a few small details distinguish her from most other women, such as her inability to menstruate or become pregnant, which she jokes makes life easier, as she does not have to deal with the pain that comes with both.
“I am on hormone therapy to compensate for my low estrogen levels. Sometimes it feels as though I am going through my true puberty all over again,” she says.
Though she dreams of eventually starting a family and having children, this remains a dream, at least until science develops to the point where it becomes a possibility.