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Syrian children play in Al-Azraq, Jordan, on April 30, 2015. (Jordan Pix/Getty Images)


Taboos about homosexuality complicate transgender options in the Middle East

By Zainab Salbi on January 25, 2016

Meet Wael, a slight, handsome 21-year-old Jordanian man with a funky haircut. Wael has fallen in love with women throughout his life. He wants to get married but is not interested in having children. He wants to be a singer. All of his dreams seem attainable except for one: Wael is technically a woman, a secret no one knows except his family, and he wants to change that.

In Jordan, as in most of the Middle East, there are no rigid gender roles assigned to kids up to age 6 or so. There is no strict enforcement of pink dresses for girls and blue outfits for boys. Kids are not coded by color, and cross-dressing is tolerated in early childhood. My own cousin dressed her boy as a girl until he was 7 years old. There are lots of photos of Saddam Hussein as a child with rabbit tails and earrings in his pierced ears. Some families do that to their boys (prized for being male) to protect them from the evil eye or the envy of neighbors. Some parents do it because they wanted one gender or the other, so allowed themselves to pretend until their child grew up and formed his or her own identity. And some, as in the case of Wael, do it in response to the child’s desire. Such fluid treatment of gender in childhood is not controversial in the region.

So when Wael wanted to dress like a boy, play like boys and with boys, no one in his moderately religious family questioned it. Even his school understood and respected his desire to be called Wael instead of Waem, his legal, female name. But that story of tolerance became a story of love and pain as Wael grew older, and insisted that people treat him as the man he knows himself to be. Neighbors and some extended family gossiped, people started accusing Wael’s parents of not raising him well. But his parents loved him unwaveringly and respected his desire to be a he. Wael’s pain was clear to them, as the gossip around them intensified and they found themselves stuck between love for their child, societal pressure and fear that they may be doing something against God’s will.

Transgender is more acceptable than homosexuality in the Middle East. The first is seen as God’s will and the latter as a human choice against God’s will — a sin. The culture views it as a biological matter: in order for Wael to have a sex-change operation to complete his transition to manhood, there must be biological proof, based on chromosome counts, to show that he has more male hormones than female ones. If the test proves otherwise, Wael cannot gain permission from the religious establishment to have a sex change operation.

Their own religious beliefs aside, Wael’s family lacks the means to pay for such an expensive operation. Wael’s brother and two sisters cry as they talk of their love for him, how they want their sibling to be happy, even as they pray that they are not committing a sin by condoning gender reassignment. They see Wael as both sister and brother. “When it comes to women matters, we talk to him as our sister and when it comes to man’s matters, we talk to him as our brother,” one sister, who wears the headscarf, explains as she cries.

Their tears are particularly intense these days: after much effort to get the funds necessary to do the first test for the sex-change operations, the hormone result revealed that Wael does not have the required imbalance. Wael is devastated and so is the family. “I give it to you straight: I am a man in every single definition of the word. What the test says is irrelevant. I am a man from inside out and I want to be fully a man!” he says. In between her tears, his sister agrees: “I know he is. I just hope we are not upsetting God with our support to his wishes.”

Wael is determined to try again, to find an understanding doctor and obtain permission from a religious figure willing to approve the sex change. Doctors in the Middle East tread around this subject carefully. They fear for their safety if they are viewed as supporting homosexuality, so they go out of their way to produce scientific proof. While supporting the person who wants to go through the operation, they feel compelled to educate the public about the psychological dimension of gender identity, all while avoiding Islam’s homosexuality taboo.

Until a courageous doctor is found, an understanding and supportive religious cleric is identified, and financial means are secured, Wael will be trapped in the body of a woman. The love of his family is supportive indeed. But his pain and theirs will make Wael’s journey an arduous one.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit

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