Perhaps nothing more accurately illustrates the public stance towards the transgender community in the Gulf states than an interview with Kuwaiti actress Zahrah al Kharji. In July 2019, journalist Amal Atif interviewed al Kharji for Alrai Media, a daily Kuwaiti newspaper. The interview highlighted al Kharji’s latest career updates and upcoming roles in both TV drama and theatre. In it, she enthusiastically said that if she was offered a man’s role, she would unhesitantly choose to be a “sexual transformer.” According to her, there are certain social issues that need to be highlighted through art, including that of “sexual transformers.” She emphasized she would approach these characters as “diseased,” whether that disease is “physical or mental.”
“This issue needs to be treated in an accurately scientific manner, especially considering some cases existing as a result of inappropriate raising [of children],” al Kharji said. “For example, raising a boy among other girls. This may initiate a feeling within him that he is a female and should act accordingly… from these events, it is possible to produce a TV drama that addresses this case objectively.”
Every once in a while, social media apps in the Gulf flood with angry headlines and comments addressing transgender people in the same manner al Kharji did in her interview — they must be “hidden,” “diagnosed,” and “treated.” The mere existence of transgender people, whether in public or private, are grounds enough for their condemnation and criminalization (socially, politically and even medically). From demands to arrest a transgender woman heading inside a mall in Saudi Arabia in 2017 to Maha Almutairi getting arrested in 2019 for her public Snapchat account, it is clear that the presence of transgender people in these states imposes a threat targeting core social values. And similar to the way “threats” are dealt with, transgender people are “dealt with” by social exclusion, individual and police violence, policies and practitioners preventing them from transitioning, and laws criminalizing them.
In an attempt to document an experience that is denied and being intentionally erased by policies and individuals alike, I asked 15 transgender people from different towns and cities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to share certain elements of how they navigate their trans-ness in the Gulf. From religion and families to laws and traditions, they address the obstacles they face in coming out and (medically) transitioning.
One might assume that religion is the obvious obstacle preventing transgender people in these countries from coming out. After all, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are predominantly Muslim countries. Ibn Abbas, one of the prophet’s companions, said “Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) cursed those men who are in the similitude (assume the manners) of women and those women who are in the similitude (assume the manners) of men.” There are others statements indicating that “imitating the other sex” is worthy of punishment and criminalization.
But one cannot only look to religious texts for the causes of stigmatization or criminalization; the different legal systems that govern these countries also plays a major role. Saudi Arabia is the only one of the above mentioned countries that bases its legal system on Sharia, which is derived from the Qura’an and Hadith. Though much of UAE law aligns with Sharia, it is also influenced by the British civil law system. And, Kuwait is entirely built based on the French civil law system.
The next assumption one might jump into is that those legal systems further from Sharia would be less likely to criminalize transgender people under charges of “imitating the opposite sex,” but again, the opposite is true. Such laws stem not from religious obligations necessarily, but from the need to maintain and feed the patriarchy of these countries, which depends on gender binarism and oppression. To achieve this end, the system crafts laws and regulations that criminalizes any identity that is not considered cisgender in the name of preserving “public decency” and “morality.”
One of the main reasons preventing Arwa*, a 17-year-old transgender woman from Kuwait, from coming out is the law’s inability to protect her; instead, it demonizes and criminalizes her. She said, “My family would kill me in cold blood if they knew. Society loathes us. Law doesn’t do us justice.” And by law, she was addressing Kuwait’s Article 198. Article 198 is also an obstacle for Yaseen*, a 17-year-old Kuwaiti transgender man who is in transition. He says that “it incites (society) against us.” Though he is out to his close friends, his family is still unaware.
Article 198 is an amendment to preexisting public decency laws. Kuwait’s National Assembly passed it in May 2007. It states that whoever “(imitates) the opposite sex in any way” would face a year in prison and/or a fine of approximately 1000 Kuwaiti dinars (approximately $3600). In 2012, Human Rights Watch released “‘They Hunt Us Down for Fun’: Discrimination and Police Violence Against Transgender Women in Kuwait,” a report documenting the condition of Kuwait’s transgender community before and after the passage of Article 198. It is a crucial read to understand how the authority’s abuse of power when it comes to the most marginalized communities is in fact a reflection of the larger community’s beliefs and behavior towards them.
Despite the country’s criminalization of trans people, the Ministry of Health of Kuwait recognizes “gender identity disorder” as a medical condition. This means that citizens should get diagnosis and treatments of this so-called disorder.
In contrast, the UAE prohibits “the imitation of the opposite sex” under only one condition: if men use it to get access to spaces that are designated for women-only. Article 359 states that “any male disguised in a female apparel and enters in this disguise a place reserved for women or where entry is forbidden, at that time, for other than women” could be punished with up to one-year of prison and a fine of up to 10,000 dirhams (approximately $2700).
Although there is no other explicit article criminalizing transgender people in the UAE, Hamid* doesn’t think that he’ll ever come out. Hamid is an 18-year-old transgender man from Dubai, UAE. One of the main reasons he hasn’t come out is “society’s unacceptance.” He, like many other transgender people in the Gulf, are constrained by society’s transphobia. And although Article 359 is the only one in UAE’s legal system, this didn’t prevent regular arrests of transgender people.
Saudi Arabia has no codified law against transgender people. Instead, people look to Absul ibn Baz’s fatwa when discussing transitioning. Ibn Baz was an Islamic scholar and the mufti of Saudi Arabia from 1993 until his death in 1999, who issued fatwas on all aspects of life, including legal ones. He said that,“No one can change Allah’s creation from male to female, or vice versa,” and that if someone feels within themselves that they belong to “the sex other than the visible one, [it’s] not an excuse to change someone’s sex. It’s only following the devil’s in changing Allah’s creation.” He did, however, state that medical transitioning is religiously allowed for intersex people. Though statements from ibn Baz are generally held to the highest of standards, this fatwa is generally dismissed by the general public because it supports, in part, changing “Allah’s creation.” The fatwa suggests that there is a possibility of an existence that doesn’t align with the (cis) gender binary. It shows an understanding that the body doesn’t define gender identity.
The public’s miseducation on and confusion between gender identity and sexual identity is a reason of frustration that dissuades many transgender people, including Abdulaziz*, from coming out. Abdulaziz is a 21-year-old transgender man from Saudi Arabia. He hasn’t come out because of “people’s and society’s views towards transgender people, and their confusion between being transgender and being homosexual.” Although views on transitioning are somewhat hazy and have not been incorporated into or codified under Sharia, homosexuality has. It’s been ruled illegal.
Finally, like the UAE, Saudi police arrests transgender people for violating “public morality,” regardless of the nonexistence of any laws prohibiting them. The issue is not the laws against transgender people, but the arbitrariness of their implementation. There are no parameters or specific descriptions of what a person “imitating the opposite sex” or “violating public morality” looks like. The parameters, therefore, are defined and interpreted according to the police or judge, who often abuse their power.
This arbitrariness is why Noura*, a 22-year old transgender woman from Saudi, is in constant fear about coming out publicly. She is afraid of “being reported and libeled.” She hasn’t come out because anyone could report her for violating “public decency.” Depending on how spread the case, the more severe the punishment and conviction the accused person could receive.
The process of transitioning is not fixed or singularly defined, and every trans person has their own definition and journey with it. This section, however, covers the experiences of trans individuals with “medical transitioning”, which involves a series of procedures including gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy, and a discussion of the accessibility of these procedures in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
In 2014, the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia announced that gender reassignment surgery (GRS) would become a right for every citizen as part of their access to free health care. The decision to undertake this procedure is not the person’s decision alone, but also has to be approved by “health experts” and the person’s family. This authorization creates new barriers for transgender individuals whose families may not approve of their case or who do not have “severe enough” cases for them to access such care that is mainly decided by health officials.
Noura is still undergoing transitioning. She uses the internet and different pharmacies to acquire hormonal injections. According to her, accessing these medical services requires going through an unnecessarily complicated process of being diagnosed by psychologists of gender dysmorphia and being deferred to receive the proper treatment. Noura is working through the public healthcare system. Accessing these services through private clinics is also possible, but it is still very limited and only available in major cities and at expensive rates.
Issues of access to healthcare, and the difference between public and private care systems, are places where disparities in wealth and class appear. These disparities cause further barriers for transgender people coming out and transitioning. This applies not only to Saudi and other Gulf States, but also globally. Samir*, a 31-year-old trans man from Saudi, medically transitioned in the UK when he was there to pursue his studies. According to him, the services in Saudi are limited to diagnosis and mental and psychological therapy. Transitioning “further” through surgery and/or hormones is not easily accessed and remains unavailable to most.
UAE also allows GRSs to its citizens under its public health care system to help them with conditions of gender dysphoria. Similar to Saudi, continuation and access to these treatments and services is decided thoroughly by a specialized “health commission,” and the parameters set by this commission varies from individual to individual. Hamid had to take sessions with a psychologist in a private clinic to get a proper diagnosis of gender dysmorphia. Opening a file costs him 600 dirhams, around $160. Each session costs him 350 dirhams, around $95, or more, depending on the case. According to Hamid, he was grateful to be able to afford these sessions. But he had to end them soon for family concerns, who were the main providers of the costs of these sessions.
Despite the country’s criminalization of trans people, the Ministry of Health of Kuwait recognizes “gender identity disorder” as a medical condition. This means that citizens should get diagnosis and treatments of this so-called disorder. However, many trans people in Kuwait are only aware of hormones as an offered service, with no assistance with surgical procedures. Because of this, many trans youth in Kuwait find themselves unable to access the resources that do exist, and end up denying their identities because of criminalizing laws and family pressure.
Though these Health Ministries acknowledge and treat gender dysmorphia in writing, access to these services and the actual practice of procedures and treatments is still extremely limited. This is what is needed for the trans community in these countries and across the Gulf. This should also take into account where and to whom these services are exclusively provided for.
There is no one experience that encapsulates all stories of trans people in the Gulf. From class and wealth to geography and upbringing, various factors shape the trans experience in the Gulf when it comes to coming out and transitioning. Additionally, institutional legislations and criminalization play the main role in shaping the experiences of trans people beyond their personal lives and close communities; they shape how the public perceive, interact, and eventually demonize their identities. Documenting these experiences is crucial, not for the sake of humanizing the trans community, but to highlight the lives and experiences of people who are being intentionally erased from family trees, public spaces, and even public institutions.
* Names of interviewees have been changed for their safety.