I once saw a Turkish singer I didn’t recognize in a videocassette belonging to Esther, my parents’ neighbor in Bat Yam. The diva stepped onto the stage, opened with the adhan, the muezzin call to prayer, and women in the audience, most with head coverings, shed a tear of excitement.
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Everything looked strange to me: the woman making the call to prayer, the use of that call to open a pop song, the singer’s grotesque dress, and of course her manly voice. That’s how I learned in the 1990s that Bulent Ersoy, one of Turkey’s most popular singers, was a transsexual.
Ersoy, who was born in Istanbul in 1952, started her career as a male actor and singer of Turkish classical music. At the end of the ‘70s her gender lines began to blur. Then Ersoy had a sex-change operation in London in 1980, but the military government that took over in a coup that year wasn’t too fond of minorities, especially gender minorities. She was forced to stop performing.
Still, she fought to be recognized as a woman, and in 1988 received a pink ID card, as opposed to blue for men. She also kept her first name, Bulent, a man’s name.
She later became one of Turkey’s most popular singers, while making sure to cause a scandal every now and then. She sang the adhan on her 1995 album, angering Muslim clerics. Another time she announced her solidarity with the Kurdish people. And she married a man 20 years her junior.
Not too surprisingly, her countrymen love to make jokes about her, but there’s no disputing their admiration for her singing in the Turkish classical style.
So Ersoy hasn’t encountered too many hurdles. After all, Turkey has a long history of men appearing in women’s clothes, dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Even in the 20th century the most admired singer was Zeki Muren, who would appear in women’s clothes. He helped pave the way for Ersoy.
Muren and Ersoy represent the continuity of Ottoman tradition and the change in popular culture stemming from the penetration of Western culture.
But there’s a huge gap between society’s treatment of a famous transgender person like Ersoy and those lacking her celebrity glow. Though Turkey hosted its first transsexual beauty pageant this year, not every employer would be willing to hire a contestant.
With no recourse to laws against gender-based discrimination, many transsexuals turn to prostitution. Moreover, hate crimes and so-called honor killings aren’t rare in Turkey, and violence against the transgender community is routine. Since 2002, over 70 transgender people have been murdered.
Yes, the situation is dire for transsexuals in the Muslim world. While homosexuality is forbidden in many countries such as Egypt and Iran, sexual-reassignment operations are legal, and in some cases the authorities even encourage and subsidize them. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1983 permitting sex-change operations in cases of “diagnosed transsexuality.”
But this approach is meant to protect the social order, not make it easier for people who feel like strangers in their own bodies. As seen in the 2008 Iranian documentary “Be Like Others,” these operations are sometimes pushed on people.
Such was the case with a 24-year-old man who was forced to undergo a sex change because he was gay and loved to dress in women’s clothes. In another case, one man in a gay couple was forced to undergo the operation.
Moreover, most countries do not officially recognize transsexuals’ sex changes, such as in Morocco, where belly dancer Noor Talbi has fought for years to have the authorities change the designation on her ID card to female.
“A little piece of paper that’s just four centimeters, is this going to make me a real woman?” she told The Associated Press last month. “I am 1.85 meters of woman and my body explodes with femininity.”
Talbi was born in the southern resort town of Agadir and grew up in Casablanca. She was an athletic boy who won medals in the hurdles but even then loved belly dancing and performing at family occasions. When Talbi was 18 he left Morocco. He had sexual reassignment surgery in 2004, then returned to the country as a woman.
A decade later, Talbi is considered Morocco’s best belly dancer. She teaches the art in the United States and elsewhere. She appears at gala events; for example, she performed a year ago at the wedding of Vladimir Putin’s daughter.
Women in every way
Confident of her position and talent, Talbi doesn’t hesitate to oppose Morocco’s conservative powers who battle both the phenomenon she represents and dancing in general. In 2013, when the Moroccan Interior Ministry canceled the Marrakesh belly-dancing festival out of fear for the lives of the Israeli participants, Talbi criticized the decision.
She said the people who threatened to demonstrate against the festival detested the arts. She praised the Israeli dancer Simona Guzman, a participant at the event, and called her a friend.
Ironically, Morocco is famous in the annals of gender history. Casablanca was the main base for sex-change operations by Dr. Georges Burou from the '50s to the ‘70s. Throughout history, a culture developed in Morocco in which men performed songs and dances dressed in women’s clothes, though these influences are less relevant today in the daily lives of transgenders.
The admiration for Talbi may appear to signal openness and acceptance; as long as the glamorous star appears on stage, everything is fine. But for the common transgender person, it’s no admittance.
And it appears Talbi and Ersoy constantly feel the need to justify their existence and pay the price of their gender identity. They portray themselves as women in every way. They are aloof from the gay and transgender community. They neglect their sisters in battle, and they stress their religious faith.
Just a few days ago, Ersoy declared she would will her assets to the Religious Affairs Ministry and other religious organizations. It’s as if she were more Muslim than the mufti.