Those familiar with the issue of transgender rights in the Muslim countries know how difficult it has been. Whereas a gay man or woman might be able to hide their sexual orientation, many of them even marrying the members of the opposite sex, transgender individuals generally don’t have that privilege and are often in legal limbos, their lives totally not here or there.
Since the 1980s, however, trans activists have been at it in the Muslim World. Some are in the political arena, others end up being forced to stand up for their rights, and there are those in academia and who are changing the minds of the intellectuals. But, regardless of how they get there, some of these individuals are affecting change in their societies.
Egypt: Sally Mursi
In 1988, Sally Mursi sent a shockwave through the Muslim World when she changed her sex from male to female in Egypt. The case led to such a crisis in the country that the Grand Mufti was asked to decide on it. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, the Grand Mufti, released a fatwa, making it spiritually legal for a transgendered individual to change to his or her appropriate gender. At the time, Mursi was about to go into her fourth year as a medical student at Al-Azhar. The school rejected her, but the court sided with her twice when she sued them. She’s still fighting to return to Al-Azhar, although it’s now just about making a point, as she has moved on to being a dancer. Although she had been victorious, Mursi remains to face challenges in her country, crediting much of that to being the most recognized trans person.
Jordan: Yasmene Jabar
Yasmene Jabar was born in the United States. By the time she was a teenager she had made the decision to transition to her real gender, to being a female. She did. She got married three times. Her current marriage, to a Jordanian Muslim, led her to move to his country. Moving to a country in the Middle East didn’t stop her activist mind, and soon she was becoming a local personality. In 2005, she organized the world’s first conference on transgender issues in the region. Today, she goes back and forth between Jordan and the U.S., and her activism didn’t stop. She plans to use her life in acting, hoping to dispel myths through entertainment.
Iran: Fatemeh Javaheri
As a professor of sociology, Javaheri often writes about issues relating to transgender people and participates in conferences all over the world on the subject. In 2010 a study she conduced was published in the Iranian Studies journal. In it, Javaheri discusses how, despite the legal protection of transgender people being in place in Iran, individual transsexuals face both private and public challenges. Iran has recognized transgender people in the early 1980s when it allowed them to change their sex officially, change their names, and live out their appropriate genders. Today, it’s only behind Thailand as the country with the most sex change operations.
Bangladesh: Pinky Sikder
Last year, in a triumphant case, the transgender community in Bangladesh was able to win the right to a “third gender” status in their conservative Muslim country. The hijra community was once believed to be demigods, and to this day all over South Asia people seek their blessings as they are believed to bring fertility and fortune. Pinky Sikder is one of the activists in the country that has been fighting for more inclusive laws in the country. She’s with the Badhan Hijra Sangha, a non-profit organization that was instrumental to the court case that changed their lives last November. The gender status is important in Bangladesh because it affects education, medical, and habitation benefits.
Turkey: Demet Demir
When she was born, Demet Demir’s parents named their child “Ramadan,” after the holy month. From a young age, politics just seemed to attract her as fire attracts the moth. She was young, political and transgender––all in a country that still did not want to deal with any of those identities. She had been arrested, assaulted, and insulted over the years. But Demir has also had the privilege to be part of the change in her society. She’s one of the most well known LGBT figures in Turkey today. She fought for her right to change her gender on her legal documents, fought for rights to work, and fought for the right to run for political posts. In Turkish, her chosen name “Demet Demir” means “Shock Iron,” a name she has most certainly lived up to.
Afdhere Jama is the author of Queer Jihad: LGBT Muslims on Coming Out, Activism, and the Faith. He lives in the United States.