Feature By Olivia Cuthbert
Photographed by Najed Al Taher
Art direction & Styling: Yousef Al Taher
Trans model Safi Ali was shut in a room and suffered years of abuse growing up in Kuwait. Now she is inspiring others to overcome the social and psychological hurdles that kept her feeling caged and frightened for so long.
“Please read my sexual assault survival story. It’s my 28th birthday… I feel it’s the right time.” Isolating herself for 10 days in February 2019, Safi Ali wrote out her ordeal and posted it on Instagram.
Anxiety gripped her, but minutes later comments flashed up under the posts. “Stay strong”, “So proud of you baby”, “Happy birthday beautiful, you are shining so bright.”
Exhaling slowly, Safi relaxed. Years ago, in Kuwait, the internet had filled her with dread. It was a place to be outed, and in conservative Kuwaiti society that was a frightening and potentially dangerous prospect. “In our culture it’s always about people talking – what are they going to say – or post online.”
But the internet and social media was also a vital link to the outside world and places where diverse gender identities could be openly expressed. “Speaking to friends overseas and seeing how it is abroad, you feel there’s hope.”
Aged 16, some of her classmates shared photos of her “looking feminine.” Leaving school later, she saw her cousin waiting outside in his car. “He held up the phone and asked is this you?” Safi recalls. After that she always felt tense, wary that at any moment a damaging post could appear online.
She hardly dared dream then that she’d ever leave Kuwait and move to New York, where she now lives on the Lower East Side with two flatmates, as she pursues her modelling career.
Last September, she secured her first runway show during New York Fashion Week, modelling for Vfiles: Yellow Label at the Barclay Centre. “I went to castings all week and stood in line for five or six hours, then someone just came along and picked me.”
Walking down the catwalk in the beam of bright lights, with thousands of eyes on her, was “magical,” – the fulfilment of a lifelong dream. The casting agents told Safi they found her look interesting. “Perhaps it’s my Middle Eastern features.”
Now she’s busy seeking out the next opportunity to share her image, and the story behind it, with a wider audience, inspiring other survivors with her new-found voice and a confidence that’s come from “living freely, being myself.”
“Mostly they smile and say hi or offer a compliment.”
Moving to New York in 2017, Safi found it a struggle. Making the decision to leave was the easy part – she already had a 10-year visa from a previous visit. After a cursory goodbye to her family she left. “My best friend took me to the airport – he was my biggest inspiration and ally – my friends were my family growing up.”
Arriving in the city she dreamed of living in, Safi felt lonely and unsettled but after a few months she made friends and engaged with the LGBT scene around Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I feel very welcomed here. It’s diverse and open, you can go anywhere, be whoever you want in public.”
Mostly, she’s met with acceptance. People are beginning to understand genders better, Safi says. “I can be on the subway and people look at me weirdly if I’m wearing party clothes, but mostly they smile and say hi or offer a compliment.”
On a night out her look is “edgy.” Typically, she’ll go for a short skirt and fishnet tights, or a fitted jacket over leggings. “I wear a lot of shiny stuff, sometimes leather or latex – the make-up too is really bold.” By day, she’s most comfortable in skinny jeans, t-shirt and a jacket. “I look and feel feminine in it.”
Men in bars often take her slim frame and delicate features for a woman’s, but she usually mentions that she’s transgender. After hearing stories and reading about the violence inflicted on trans people, she prefers to avoid confusion. “I mention it early, even on dating apps.”
Most people don’t have a problem with her gender or sexuality, but there are times when she hears remarks like “trans people aren’t real,” and “there are only two genders.” In the past she has received hate posts on Instagram, or via direct messages on social media, but she refuses to pay attention. “I just delete them and move on.”
Occasionally it spills into the streets. She recalls one incident when a man was shouting homophobic remarks at a gay couple holding hands in Brooklyn, NYC. “Then he turned to me and told me to stay away too.”
At times she feels that it’s more than isolated incidents and there is an undercurrent of transphobic feeling in broader American society. The fatal shooting of three transgender women within a matter of days in May 2019, coincided with changes at the political level following US President Donald Trump’s decision to roll back LGBT rights on healthcare and homeless services.
According to figures released by Human Rights Campaign, the largest US advocacy group for LGBT people, at least 26 transgender women were reported killed in 2018 and 29 in 2017. Safi believes there is still a strong tendency towards victim shaming when a transgender person is assaulted, something she’s familiar with from her own experience of sexual violence in Kuwait.
“I was watched and controlled all the time”
On her birthday Instagram posts, Safi revealed that she was just six when her ordeal began. Her brother, eight years older than Safi, continued to sexually assault her until she was 15 or 16. “I was confused, scared, anxious, lonely, shy, weird, awkward, weak,” she writes.
From the age of nine, she remembers sneaking into the bathroom to experiment with her mother’s make-up, gazing at her face in the mirror before scrubbing it off again. At home alone, she’d try her mother’s high heels. “I think since I was a child I always wanted to be a girl,” Safi says. Her parents tried to make her play with masculine toys but she preferred Disney princesses and spending time with her female cousins. “I felt I belonged with them and we had similar interests.”
In school, she was bullied constantly and comments from the other children quickly filtered back to her parents. “They heard that people were calling me and my friends gays. That’s when the problems happened,” she told My.Kali.
Her family tried to keep her at home, away from the friends she had found acceptance with, and the judgemental gaze of neighbours. On one occasion, they refused to let her attend a family wedding. “I was watched and controlled all the time,” she says.
Even the choice of degree – Business Marketing – was made for her. Safi wanted to study in New York, but her parents insisted she enroll at the American University of the Middle East closer to home.
Any indication of femininity – growing her nails, plucking her eyebrows, removing body hair – would bring a fresh wave of restrictions. “Growing my hair was the main problem with my father, and not only he hit me but threatened to kick me out of the house and cut out my monthly allowance” In the worst moments, Safi’s father would hit her.
Banished to her room one summer, being brought food by the housekeeper, she whiled away the hours watching TV and listening to Arabic and Western music on her computer. “When things were particularly bad, I’d go to Twitter and check Lady Gaga’s feed. She is the biggest inspiration and strength in my life especially in the darkest times, with her art, music and inclusivity of the LGBTQ community”.
She and her friends would watch clips of Bassem Feghali, a Lebanese drag queen, and she remembers how inspired they felt by his “bold, confident persona.”
For a while, they had challenged the conservative sensibilities of their city. “We used to wear exotic things sometimes and walk around.” Until 2007, there was a branch of Starbucks in Kuwait City frequented by members of the LGBT community so they started going regularly, sometimes wearing make-up, inspired by all the people there who were brave enough to be themselves.
Then the Kuwaiti government expanded the law on public immorality, which outlawed “imitating the appearance of a member of the opposite sex.” A wave of arrests followed. “It was horrible,” Safi shudders. One of her best friends was jailed, and some described being beaten and abused in prison. Many fled the country, others went into hiding, concealing their gender identity in public.
Laws on homosexuality in Kuwait are more vague. While it is not specifically outlawed, article 193 of the Kuwait Penal Code, which allows up to seven years’ imprisonment for “debauchery”, is often used to prosecute LGBT people in the country.
Sharing her story
In Los Angeles, Safi became friends with American actress and activist Rose McGowan. “We met at an after party and bonded when I told her I’m from Kuwait.” McGowan told Safi that she’d been to Kuwait and found it challenging. After that they swapped stories and McGowan encouraged Safi to share her experience with the Rose Army, a movement set up to provide mutual support for survivors of sexual assault.
McGowan catches up with Safi when she visits New York. “She’s so understanding and helpful. Now I try to be there for other survivors. I got this from Rose – sharing the support.”
After posting her story on Instagram, some of Safi’s friends stopped hanging out with her. “Rose told me that some people will be like that, you just have to accept it. In some ways it’s a good thing – you find out who your real friends are.”
Her family hasn’t seen the posts. Only Safi’s mother knows about the ordeal with her brother but she has kept quiet “out for fear of my father and society and the shame it will bring.” Her family has no involvement in her life now. “I don’t speak to them. But they know that I’m in the US trying to figure my life out here.”
Her brother has tried to make contact but Safi is determined to block him from her future. Returning home recently to renew her passport, the trauma came flooding back. “I think it will haunt me forever but I’m trying my best to be strong.”
She draws hope from the progress being made by activists in the Middle East, with more people finding ways to speak up and claim visibility for LGBT rights across the region. “I think there will be a huge change in the near future… One day it might be fine to walk with your dress, makeup and heels on the streets without being shamed or arrested.”
For now, she doubts whether any Middle East fashion designers would work with a trans model. “Not while the law, religion and society is against us.” She dreams of one day working with Lebanese designers Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad as well as Western fashion houses, including Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang and Celine.
Safi draws inspiration from the revolutionary Marsha P Johnson as well as Andreja Pejiic, who was the first woman to walk the catwalk as a transgender model. Other well-known figures from the transgender community have given Safi hope over the years, including writer, television host and activist Janet Mock, actress and LGBT advocate Laverene Cox and the actor and model Indya Moore.
In New York, she sells clothes and other possessions to bolster her income and extend her stay in the city. Every day away from the past feels nourishing. People stop to embrace her on the street and say they’ve seen her on social media. Life now is “beautiful,” Safi says. “I’m more true, more alive than ever before.”