In Egypt, transgender activist fights battle on many fronts

KAIRO – Malak el-Kashif left home seven years ago on her birthday. When she went into an uncertain future, she was undressed and poorly armed because of the weather – aside from makeup, a few women’s accessories, and 50 Egyptian pounds (about $ 6 at the time).

“I was scared, but I didn’t hesitate,” she said. “There were no other solutions.”

That night, el-Kashif identified himself as a 13-year-old boy. Since then, she has been perhaps the most pronounced transgender activist in Egypt.

It is a label that means waging war on multiple fronts in a largely conservative and patriarchal society.

“If you declare that you are different, you should prepare for war. A big war, ”she said. “Society will stomp on you and treat you as if you were the enemy.”

She was outlawed by her family and despised by some who accuse her of manipulating God’s creation. She has been attacked by others who have been scandalized by her activism for LGBTQ rights. Legally, she still has a man’s ID.

Malak el-Kashif shows her identity card, which was not changed after her transfer to Cairo, Egypt.Nariman El-Mofty / AP

None of this has prevented them from publicly campaigning for transgender rights. She appeared on a television show in a blonde wig – which she now sees as a dreadful fashion faux pas. On her Facebook page, she campaigned for transgender people, recorded their transition and published photos with a rainbow background. She scolds homophobia, sexual harassment, bullying and patriarchy.

“If I wanted to hide, I would have hidden and just stayed with my parents and would not have become a transsexual.” [person] and saved it all for me. … it’s just not me, not Malak, “she said.” Malak is someone else. “

The official transition in Egypt can be complex. It includes medical tests, two years of psychological treatment, and approvals from medical specialists and religious authorities. Success is far from assured.

Osama Abdel-Hay, head of the “Gender Correction” committee of the medical syndicate, said that a priest had sat on the committee with specialists. He had stopped attending the meetings and the committee’s work had been interrupted for years, he said. “He did not support the committee’s decisions,” he said, refusing to go into detail.

Abdel-Hay said he did not remember how many transgender people were approved. His assistant scribbled on a piece of paper that summarized the committee’s work between 2014 and 2017: 87 admissions for “physical” reasons, but zero for “gender identity disorder”. Thirty-one were left unsolved.

Now, under a new system, the medical committee sends the cases it has approved to the Islamic Research Academy in Al-Azhar. Two of the three cases sent to religious scholars were rejected. The licensed man cited a fertility disorder.

“I think they are sensitive to changing gender because they don’t want to change God’s creation,” he said, referring to the religious establishment in Egypt. The syndicate that oversees the committee does not want to conflict with Al-Azhar on the matter, he said, but added, “If there were no religious opinion in the process, approvals would have been faster.”

Abdel-Hady Zarei, chairman of the Fatwa Committee in Al-Azhar, said there could not be a single religious opinion for the cases. Instead, everyone must be studied by a group of religious scholars who hear from medical professionals. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, he said, adding that the issue is “in the hands of specialists because they are the experts”.

The surgery must be beneficial or prevent harm, he said. There may be a consensus that “one case will lead to a correction” while another “is only a tendency or a desire towards the opposite sex”.

Nazeer Ayad, Secretary General of the Islamic Research Academy, told The Associated Press that “changing or correcting gender” is only allowed in “exceptional cases”, such as when gender cannot be determined as male or female.

“It’s a medical problem,” he said. “The academy and Sharia scholars make their decision based on what doctors say.”

The Egyptian transgender woman and activist Malak el-Kashif put makeup on in her bedroom in Cairo, Egypt.Nariman El-Mofty / AP

El-Kashif said that she never received an answer to her case. She was diagnosed with a “gender identity disorder,” she said. The term has been replaced in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic guide with “gender dysphoria” – a conflict between the assigned gender at birth and that with which a person identifies, which can lead to significant stress.

A permit would have allowed her to perform the operations in a public hospital, which paved the way for her ID card to be changed.

She argued that the decision should be purely medical.

“When you get sick, do you see a doctor or a sheikh? A doctor, ”she said. “When a woman is born, does she go to the hospital or the mosque? The hospital.”

El-Kashif grew up in a religious, traditional household in which she memorized parts of the Koran. In a house where “a man is a man and a woman is a woman”, she enjoyed more freedom as a boy than her sisters or the girls in her neighborhood.

The benefits didn’t matter. After playing with two friends and making clothes for dolls, the then 9-year-old explained to her mother: “I’m not a boy. I’m a girl. “She was banished to her room. When her father arrived, he hit her,” she said.

The worst came next. She called it “my fight with the mirror” phase. Years of question Who am I? If I’m a boy, why do I think so? If I’m a girl, why do I look like me?

“This was the most difficult period ever, more difficult than confronting society, more difficult than prison,” she said. “It was a big fight that nobody could protect me from.”

She aggravated her dilemma and did not have the vocabulary to explain her situation. That changed when her sister said the actress in a movie she saw was transgender. She started to research.

She experimented with makeup and set up fake identities online. On her birthday, she received an ultimatum: follow the rules or go. “I chose the harder option.”

El-Kashif’s mother declined to comment on this story.

The Egyptian transgender woman and activist Malak el-Kashif smokes a cigarette on the balcony of her apartment in Cairo, Egypt.Nariman El-Mofty / AP

Sometimes el-Kashif slept in a park or stayed up all night. For money she swept hair in a salon or wiped stairs.

El-Kashif’s battles are engraved on her slim body. The scars under her top date from the time she threw herself from the fifth floor. Those on her arm remind her that she cut herself with razors more times than she can count.

Then there are the invisible wounds that record life in need and defiance.

It’s the day she went out in a black wig and pink shoes. She said her father and brother found her and ripped her clothes off her body when they brought her home. There is the fear that she will die alone and the feeling that when she looked at her mother did not see her child but a “freak”.

In a moment of reconciliation, el-Kashif published a picture of silver socks and a pink watch on Facebook. “My mother brought this to me and said she felt like she was giving me birth. … I am very happy, the happiest person in the world, ”she wrote. The relationship is complicated with ups and downs.

El-Kashif interrupts her narrative of painful life events with jokes and sarcastic comments. While she talks, she smokes heavily, fidgets or plays with her hair – which she had colored red and often wears a matching lipstick.

“She is traumatized. This is (what happens) if you overthrow the temple, ”said Mozn Hassan, a leading feminist activist and friend of el-Kashif. “These people, for whom Malak is an example, are constantly experiencing multi-faceted violence and exclusion.”

Reda al-Danbouki, Executive Director of the Women’s Center for Counseling and Legal Awareness, said: “Most transsexuals (here) prefer to remain silent so that they can retain even a small part of their rights. They don’t want a confrontation with society beyond what happens to their families. “El-Kashif” shocked the patriarchy. “

El-Kashif’s activism goes beyond advocacy from the LGBTQ community. She was arrested last year after calling for protests after a fatal train crash because she saw it as government negligence. She was locked up in a men’s prison. The arrest, her third, sparked an outcry when activists and rights groups feared for her safety, particularly due to her gender identity. She said she was kept in solitary confinement.

Hassan said the pressure on the authorities at the time had increased to isolate them from male prisoners in order to avoid their possible violence.

After her release, el-Kashif filed a lawsuit demanding special locations for the detention of transgender people in prisons and police stations.

Now she lives in a sparsely furnished apartment. One of the drawings in her room shows bare legs, one tied by an iron ball. A note on the mirror grimly reminds: “Leave chemistry. Otherwise, it will do what it did before, ”an indication of anti-depressant abuse.

Everyday life can be difficult. On a trip to a bank, an employee said he had to call the police to witness a transaction because their ID showed a teenager.

Just before her birthday last year, el-Kashif published a picture of herself in which she wrote that she had completed her gender reassignment surgery.

“Today is the day I defeated society,” she wrote. “From that day on, there is only Malak.”

It was flooded with thousands of messages. Some congratulated her; many insulted them.

The comments ranged from “Pray to God to heal you” or “You have lost in this life and in the afterlife” to “If you were my son, I would have set you on fire.”

But other encounters made her feel like she made a difference.

A mother came up to her in a hospital and said that after hearing the story of el-Kashif, she sought medical help for her daughter. Another time, a transgender man stopped her to let her know, “For me, you are resistance.”

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