'I Just Don’t Want to Be Hurt'

Egypt Locking Up Transgender Women in Men's Prisons

Egypt takes pride in an actor winning the Oscar for playing a queer icon, but makes life difficult for LGBTQ citizens – especially transgender ones

File photo: Egyptian men convicted for 'inciting debauchery' following their appearance in a video of an alleged same-sex wedding party leave the defendant's cage in a courtroom in Cairo, November 2014.
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File

For weeks now, the young Egyptian transgender woman Malak al-Kashef has been a focus on social media, and of human rights groups and Egyptian security services. In early March, Kashef published a post on her Facebook page calling on people to protest following the train wreck in Cairo in which dozens of people were killed.

Kashef wasn’t the only one to call on Egyptians to protest government negligence, nor was she the only one to be arrested. Demonstrators who took to the streets were forcefully dispersed, many were arrested and accused of disturbing the peace. An additional serious allegation was leveled at Kashef – that her Facebook post helped the Muslim Brotherhood, which is defined as a terror organization. From there the route to a military court was short. On Tuesday the court ordered that her 15-day detention be doubled for another 15 days behind bars.

>> Read more: 'A disgraceful disease': Egypt takes no prisoners in war against LGBT community | Analysis 

In the first few days Kashef was held, the authorities did not inform her parents or her lawyer and it was feared that she would simply be made to disappear or that she would be placed in a men’s prison, as her identity card still defines her as a male.

Only after a few days, due to the outcry over her arrest, did the authorities admit she was being held in isolation, but that no one would be allowed to visit Kashef to gauge the conditions of her confinement. Human rights groups in Egypt are certain that the real reason for her arrest is her decision to change her gender from woman to man in a country where the law does allow gender-reassignment surgery, which is paid for by the state, but the public and the government consider it immoral and an insult to the values of the society.

Gender reassignment surgery involves complicated procedures in Egypt and is almost impossible to have funded by the Health Ministry. Candidates must first undergo extensive psychological evaluations to ensure the procedure does not result in cognitive impairment. However finding a government psychiatrist who will agree to evaluate the patient is extremely difficult. Young Egyptian women have told the media in interviews that only one psychiatrist out of three or four agreed to speak to them and one of the women had to stay at a psychiatric hospital for observation that lasted several months.

Another young woman said that the government psychiatrist she turned to mocked her, asking “how did your parents let you get into this situation.” Wissam, a 20-year-old woman from Egypt told the Lebanese social justice website Raseef22 that she fled the mental hospital her parents had committed her to after she asked them to help her pay for gender reassignment.

She found shelter in her friends’ apartment but a few weeks later the police broke in and arrested her for prostitution. She told detectives everything that had happened to her, but as expected, they were not sympathetic and ordered Wissam be detained in a men’s prison for 45 days. “There were 52 men in the detention room who harassed me, touched my chest and tried to rape me. When I screamed to call the guards, the men silenced me and told the guards I had screamed because I saw a cockroach.”

Eventually her parents decided to help her and hired a lawyer who had her released from detention. Now she’s making every effort to conceal her female appearance and dreams of emigrating from Egypt to a country where she can live in safety. “I have no problem being alone or that no one will love me. I just don’t want anyone to hurt me,” Wissam says.

After psychological approval, if obtained, applicants must then turn to the Egyptian Medical Society for approval for the operation and hormonal treatment at government expense. The society has a special committee to deal with transgender people, one member of which is an expert on Islamic law.

But the committee hasn’t met for the past two years because the religious representative has refused to appear although the supreme religious authority, Al Azhar, has ruled that in special cases gender reassignment surgery can be performed because it is not against Muslim law. The committee’s approval is needed to officially change a person’s name. Without approval, transgender people run the risk of being charged with impersonation, as has happened to a few young women in the past. This is also what happened to Kashef, who underwent surgery at a private clinic at her own expense without the committee’s approval, and therefore cannot apply to the Interior Ministry to change her name.

The Egyptian government and Egyptian society have so far been unable to digest the phenomenon of the sexually "out of the ordinary." The law is clearer when it comes to gay people and does not out rightly prohibit it, but there is no law at all about transgender people, as if the phenomenon does not exist.

The paradox is that Egypt can on the one hand admire Rami Malek, the American actor whose parents are Egyptian, for winning an Oscar for his role in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and consider him Egyptian but happily forget that he played Freddie Mercury, who was gay. The Egyptian public and government went out of their way to celebrate the performance of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers near the Pyramids, but at the same time have the police check people’s bags at the entrance to ensure no gay pride flags would be brought in. Samar Al-Atrash, who attended the performance, tweeted that one of the policemen asked him: “Do you have flags?” When he asked what flags he was told “flags for gays are not permitted.” The flags, not the gays.