Arab Women Changing Their Sex

Yemeni woman Nabeela Masaad after becoming a man

Report by Iqbal Tamimi

Nabeela Masaad, a Yemeni woman who was married for three years to her husband Ahmad, had a lump in her sexual organs and experienced recurrent pains. One day her husband took her to hospital to be examined by Dr Ali Altohami. After examination, Ahmad finds out that he was married to a man for the past three years. 

Nabeela went through sex correction surgery and became a man called Nabeel, who starts his life with much happiness and joy as this report by Alsaeeda Channel shows the change from a woman having to wear the full black cover from head to toes and women’s shoes, to a man tucking in his traditional male head band and wearing men’s flat sandals, shaking the hand of the ex-husband who became the new friend  wishing his ex-wife all the best.

But not many stories have such happy ending in the Arab, mostly Islamic, region. It is difficult to feel isolated, confused and suffer identity loss if you were born with gender related abnormalities in a male dominated society or a totally segregated society such as Saudi Arabia, where you have hardly spent time with people from the other gender other than very close family members. It is difficult when the body carries the emotions, desires and feelings of another gender while the person is forced to be with, act and behave like an individual of another sex group. Bullied to ‘man up’ when being with males or told to stop being boyish when being with females; having to deal with psychological stress and suffering Gender Identity Disorder which is met with total denial by almost everybody, even by some doctors as this case reveals

Most individuals who suffer unidentified gender because of genital abnormalities since birth in the Arab region, are considered females and dressed and treated by their families as girls. When they grow older they are treated with suspicion as if they are males intruding on women’s zone. Most mothers and Muslim Sheiks warn young women from uncovering their hair or taking off their long cloaks or show their bare legs in the presence of those women, especially at beauty galas and weddings, where women enjoy the liberty of competing to wear and look their best in an all women zone. And while women born with sexual organs abnormalities are treated with inferiority and contempt, women who were subjected to sexual organs mutilations are treated with respect, even though both categories were not responsible for suffering the deformation of their sexual organs.

Sara Rifai after becoming Yosif Rifai and his old UAE driving licence showing he was a woman by the name of Sara Noor Ahmed Rifai

Trans-genderism in Islamic countries

Trans-genderism is banned in Islamic countries of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Somalia, Mauritania, Yemen, Iran and United Arab Emirates, because it is generally associated with homosexuality, which is punishable with imprisonment, corporal and capital punishments. But sex correction operations are allowed by the law in many countries. In Iran where sex correction operations are 7 times as much as in European countries; the costs of surgeries are covered by the state as this report produced by AlArabiya TV channel shows:

The Head of Identifying and Correcting Gender Centre at King Abdul Aziz University Hospital in Jeddah, Professor Yasser Saleh Jamal, operated on 450 cases in Saudi Arabia to correct their gender. Three of them were of women who undergone the surgery after being married. On average, he corrected the gender of 50 individuals each year for the past 30 years. But many more are still on the waiting list, because of the limited number of surgeons available to deal with this branch of medicine which is not favoured by medical specialists in Saudi Arabia and considered a taboo.

Those women experienced problems with their husbands following their marriages. Before changing their sex, they filed for divorce, then visited the Centre requesting medical consultation and underwent extensive medical tests to find out that they were actually males. After that they undergone sex correction surgery and now they are living normal lives as men.

Professor Yasser Saleh Jamal

In 2004, Dr Jamal operated on five sisters in Saudi Arabia. Their ages ranged between 19 and 38. All five of them became men. After changing their gender, they moved to another district to start fresh lives.

Even though the Saudi law allows “gender correction” operations after a series of tests, the law bans sex change operations for transsexuals.

Males lead more comfortable lives than females after sex change surgery

Dr Jamal revealed that the Saudi women who underwent surgery to correct their sex and became men are more receptive to the change and lead a much comfortable life after the operations than the males who changed their sex to become women. Their families as well rejected the idea of turning a man to a woman but were happy for changing a woman to a man. 

Such reaction is expected, considering the vast difference of freedoms males enjoy compared to the difficult life style women lead in Saudi Arabia, and the amount of chores a man can do to serve the family outside home compared with the limitations on women’s mobility and need for a male guardian.

Women in Saudi Arabia need a male guardian or a chaperon at all times, regardless of their age, education, or social status. They have to be accompanied by men to approve everything from pursuing education to consulting a doctor or undergo a medical operation. Consequently, many Saudi women victims of domestic violence could not break the cycle by complaining to the authorities because they have to be accompanied by their male guardians even when filing the complaint at the police station. In most cases the complaint happens to be against the abusive guardian himself.

There is another important reason why some male guardians would not approve the sex change operation for their sisters. According to Islamic inheritance law, a female’s share of inheritance is half that amount given to her brother should one of their parents dies. Most brothers do not want another brother in the family; they would rather have a sister whose share is considerably less.

In 2004, a Saudi man who had a sex-change operation had to fight to save the fortune he inherited from his wealthy father, as (her) relatives insist that, under Islamic law, as a woman she is entitled to inherit only half as much as what she would be entitles to as a man.

Saudi drama ‘Ayyam el-Sarab’

Sex correction operations in Saudi drama

Denying women access to sex correction operations by their guardians was tackled in the 200 episodes controversial Saudi drama ‘Ayyam el-Sarab’, or ‘The days of Mirage’. Produced by Hasan Asairi and aired on Saudi television channel mbc which is based in Dubai. The first episode was aired on the 19th of December 2009. 

‘Ayyam el-Sarab’ discussed a number of taboo issues in the Saudi society such as women carrying AIDS virus, male guardians’ conspiracies and tricks against women to deprive them of their rights and wealth, polygamy, corruption and gaps in the medical field that allows a doctor who runs his father’s hospital to do the impossible to deny his sister (who was actually a male) access to sex correction treatment, because he did not want a brother to share with him the wealth his father left behind including the grand private hospital he runs. So, he does his best to force marry her to someone from a lower social class, even though he knows about the results of her medical tests.


Changing sex and the military service

Arab families oppose sex change correction operations for other less obvious reasons. Sara Rifai was born to Egyptian parents as a hermaphrodite. She had male and female genitals, but she has chosen at 18 while living with her father and her step mother in UAE to become a male. She underwent six correction surgery and became a man called Yousif.

Yousif is now 34 years old but he is still suffering the consequences. He claims that his stepmother made his life a living hell because she wanted him to live his life as a woman to save her son, his half-brother, from having to serve the compulsory military service in Egypt, since according to law a lone son of the family is exempt from the military service. 

His step mother done the impossible to prevent Yousif from undergoing the sex change treatment and after the operation she did not give up either. She went as far as filing against him 18 complaints to the UAE authorities accusing him of false identity. He was arrested upon returning from a visit to Egypt at Abu Dhabi airport and was detained in prison several times. 

His step mother continued her attempts to seize his new passport that shows his gender is a male and his corrected Egyptian ID card showing that his gender was corrected to a male.

Based on his stepmother’s complaints, Yousif was detained a number of times in UAE before completing his full sexual transformation processes, during which the police had trouble of deciding in which prison he should be detained since he was in mid treatment phase, not a full man yet, nor a woman. UAE authorities detained him in a solitary confinement where no one can see him for days as he claims, “It was a very traumatic experience.” says Yousif.

‘My father failed twice in his attempts to restore my identity documents to its previous state as a female, and my stepmother blackmailed me and told me she would withdraw all her complaints to the authorities against me if I agree to sign a consent form allowing my father to reverse my identity to a woman, but I refused ” added Yousif who suffered total breakdown and deep depression and became suicidal in 2009. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical City to prevent him from harming himself.

Saudi Arabia prohibits sex-change operations as they are considered against Islam. Dr Jamal revealed that there are Saudi women who underwent the surgery in several countries outside Saudi Arabia for different reasons, including wanting to become men; as they pursue a greater share of the inheritance.

It is also a common practice by many Saudi guardians to force women to waive their rights of inherited properties and other rights including salaries to their male guardians in return of giving them consent to do things that are considered basic human rights, such as the permission to get married. The male guardian consent is a precondition to a legal marriage in Saudi Arabia regardless of women’s age. A son can give the permission to his widowed or divorced mother otherwise she can’t marry herself. Such restrictions and limitations on women’s rights might explain why some women would rather be men.

Dr Jamal who operated for 30 years on people who had the legal permission to change their sex revealed that the centre rejected the request of a number of women who wanted to change their sex. He sees changing one’s sex for no valid medical reason is wrong; because of its negative consequences including the psychological and social problems people have to deal with afterwards.

 ‘Those who undergo sex-change surgery suffer sexual identity loss’ says Dr Jamal. ‘They suffer rejection by their society and according to international statistics 60% of them commit suicide for social reasons’ he added. 

Many cases who undergone changing sex surgery outside Saudi Arabia, had to come to the Centre to issue an official document to prove that they undergone a ‘correction of sex’ operation, to be able to file for a new ID. Many requests were turned down because their operations were considered illegitimate and contradict the rules.

The Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia banns such operations in private hospitals, unless all tests results are approved and the operation aims at correcting the sex not changing it. This involves an examination by a medical committee, chromosomal testing, reproductive glands tests, and examination of the genital organs inside and outside the body. 


Practising female genital mutilation on new born babies deprive them of the chance to correct their sex forever 

In Assiut, the largest province of Upper Egypt, where consanguineous marriages and lack of awareness is widespread, a huge number of pseudo-hermaphrodite and other sex abnormalities among new born was recorded compared to other Egyptian cities. Some babies who are born with genital abnormalities lose their chances of correcting their sex when they become adults because of their parent’s ignorance says Dr Tariq Jammal, Manager of Microscopic Surgery Unit. 

Female genital mutilation is practiced in rural areas of Upper Egypt. ‘Parents circumcise their new-born baby girls by removing the organ which they think is her enlarged clitoris. By doing so, they are removing the buried penis by mistake and they realise their mistake when the child reaches puppetry and starts developing male characters such as male voice, facial hair and attraction to the other sex’ says Dr Jammal.

One wonders how far some Muslim women might go in order to gain freedoms that come naturally if they were born males. Would some give up on their gender identity to escape oppression and deprivation of rights in return of freedoms? 

Iqbal Tamimi is the director of Arab Women Media Watch Centre in the United Kingdom. She’s an award-winning journalist, campaigning for women’s rights and ethical journalism.

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