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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Kuwaiti Transsexual Petitions for Hope

La Times
By Diana Elias, Associated Press Writer

KUWAIT CITY — Her father and brothers beat her. The government suspended her from her job. A group of Muslim fundamentalists screamed abuse at her outside a courtroom.
Her crime: She was born a boy named Ahmed and is now a tall, 29-year-old woman who calls herself Amal — Hope. An overseas sex-change operation has done little to help Amal's struggle for official recognition as a woman in conservative Kuwait. One court ruled for her, another overturned that ruling and now she is going to the Court of Cassation, her last avenue of appeal. "People see me as a comic case," Amal said. "I wish they could look at me as a human being, someone who was born with a disease." Many Middle East countries refuse to recognize sex changes. Jordan, Lebanon and Syria do, but it takes complicated and lengthy court proceedings.
Only Iran and Egypt allow people to officially change their gender with relative ease. Amal says she has always felt and acted like a female. When she was little, she said, she loved to wear her mother's dresses and shoes. Her family humored her in childhood and even called her by a girl's name: Athari. On the first day of kindergarten, she said, the teacher called her Ahmed and she didn't respond. " 'My name is Athari,' I told her," she said. As she grew up, however, her family realized that it wasn't just a phase. Classmates noticed, and a neighbor sent his mother to ask for her hand in marriage.
Her father and two brothers, one of them her twin, beat her, locked her in the bathroom and forced her to spend many nights in the yard without dinner. "I couldn't be a man by force. It was out of my hands," she said. "It felt like living in a detention center."
Amal's father refused to be interviewed. His lawyer, Adel Abdul-Hadi, said it was "logically and religiously unacceptable for Ahmed to enter women's toilets and beauty shops," even after the operation. "I pity the young man now." During her interview, Amal wore a red skirt and matching tight-fitting blouse, and was fasting from dawn to dusk in observation of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
She refused to be identified by her surname or to be photographed, saying her life was in danger. She said she had attempted suicide three times. At 14, she swallowed all the pills in her family's medicine cabinet. Another time, she ended up in intensive care and her family didn't visit her, she said. At 17, she was kicked out of the house. On her own, now calling herself Amal, she found a secretarial job at the Ministry of Education. She wore jeans and hid her long hair under a baseball cap, but co-workers would open her office door "just to take a peek at me without saying anything," she said.
She couldn't go to the toilet because she didn't know whether to use the men's or women's room. Amal made extra money by designing women's and children's clothes, and selling paintings and home decorations. In 2001, at age 26, she had saved enough for an operation in Thailand.
Amal declined to discuss it, but claimed that her body was already "80% female" at birth. "I found out that my case is not unknown to medicine," Amal said. "My real problem is with the lack of understanding by society and my family." Last year, the Ministry of Education suspended Amal from her job until she works out her legal status. Kuwaiti women work, and unlike those in neighboring Saudi Arabia, they drive cars and can travel abroad without a male relative's permission.
The mixing of the sexes is largely frowned upon, however. Coeducation stops at kindergarten, and the idea of a sex-change operation is too much for many. In the newspaper Al-Rai Al-Amm, columnist Ali al-Fadhel wrote that just thinking about sex changes embarrasses him. But Amal is pressing her fight.
In April, a court upheld her right to register as female because the sex-change operation was a health matter that merited an exception to Sharia, or Islamic law. Gender is not "just … genitalia; it is also psychological feelings," the judges ruled. Last month, an appeals court overturned the ruling, saying God decides gender and humans have no right to change it. "Ahmed is still a man, and the operation he had does not change the way he was created, even if it changed the way he looks to others," said Mohammed al-Tabtabai, dean of Kuwait's Sharia College. The last time she went to court, she wore a veil and black cloak.
Outside the courtroom, fundamentalists tried to attack her, one of them screaming, "We will not let you be, you infidel," according to her lawyer, Adel al-Yehya. "I feel I am sitting in a cardboard box with one hole bringing me light," Amal said. "Either I get out of the box, or they close this hole."

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