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Egyptian actor's support for transgender son unveils a long road ahead for Arab trans rights Open in fullscreen

Danya Hajjaji

Egyptian actor's support for transgender son unveils a long road ahead for Arab trans rights

Egyptian actor Hisham Selim and his son Noor discussed their experiences on Deutsche Welle. [Youtube]

Date of publication: 19 May, 2020

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When a prominent Egyptian actor came forward as the parent of a trans son, Arab LGBTQ+ activists said a long-overdue conversation had begun, but not without its flaws.
"My daughter Noura became my son Noor," announced prominent Egyptian actor Hisham Selim during a televised interview on 3 May.

"Your son Noor? How come?" asked the interviewer.

Candid with a soupçon of apprehension, Selim discussed Noor's transition, which he said was in its beginning phases. He also touched upon the difficulties his son faced when seeking to change his identification documents to reflect his gender identity, a significant issue among Egypt's trans community.

"Since I am his father, I have to help him so that he can attain the life he wants," said the 62-year-old actor.

The announcement emitted shockwaves across conservative Egypt and further radiated to other Arab countries. That a famed Egyptian father would openly support his transgender child was until then virtually unheard of, much less broadcast on television.

As expected, Selim's announcement was met with both praise and condemnation on social media. While many expressed admiration at the actor's support for his son, others viewed it as an affront to religious and traditional sensibilities.

On 5 May, father and son appeared on 'Jaafar Talk', an Arabic-language Deutsche Welle show. Both candidly discussed their relationship, Hisham's path to parental acceptance, and Noor's journey from suicidal ideation to self-love.

The announcement by actor Hisham Selim emitted shockwaves across conservative Egypt and further radiated to other Arab countries

Though the Selims' interview initiated an important conversation, some LGBTQ+ activists - who initially celebrated Hisham's first announcement - saw systemic issues unravel.

A particular let-down emerged for many when Hisham Selim was asked whether he would accept a child who underwent a male to female transition.

"It would surely be much harder, because in the society we live in, [...] the vision is that a male is a male, he has a better status," answered Selim. "He is the backbone of the family and its future."

"When I thought about it, I said to myself that the case would have been much different if I had a male child who transitioned into a female," he added.

Egyptian trans activist Malak Al-Kashef has praised Selim's announcement of Noor, hailing it as a "remarkable step and development for transgender people".

However, she clarified to The New Arab that though trans men may find comfort in Selim's statements, trans women may be more reluctant to view him as a beacon of family acceptance.

"As a trans woman, if I wanted my family to accept me, and I wanted to show them that there are people that accept their children, I don't think I would send them Hisham Selim's video," she said. "He expresses their same way of thinking, that the man has a higher position in society."

In Egypt, Al-Kashef said, a person assigned male at birth who transitions to female is viewed as "waiving many privileges" and "inferior".

"But of course, we cannot deny that trans men face real suffering, even if it is likely that society is quicker to accept them," she added.

Ibrahim, an Egyptian LGBTQ+ activist who operates the online campaign 'Solidarity with Egypt LGBT', said he found Selim's admission to be disappointing, as trans women "suffer the most" in the country due to perceptions of transitioning from male to female being "degrading".

"I don't think Hisham Selim is a supporter of the community," he said. "He is a father who supports his son, and it just so happens that his son is a trans man."

Ibrahim also noted the relative privilege factoring into Hisham and Noor Selim's experience, referring specifically to a part in the Deutsche Welle interview where Hisham - a powerful, wealthy and well-respected actor - mentioned pulling some strings to help Noor obtain his proper identity documents.

"It's not the struggle that every Egyptian family would go through, because they are very privileged," added Ibrahim.

Egypt does not explicitly criminalise sexual or gender identities, but that has not stopped President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's forces from cracking down on the country's LGBTQ+ community under vague morality laws.

Though the interview initiated an important conversation, some LGBTQ+ activists - who initially celebrated Hisham's first announcement - saw systemic issues unravel

Cairo-based rights group Bedaya recorded 92 arrests of LGBTQ+ people in 2019, more than two thirds of which it said were random street arrests with "no legal basis [...] other than the individual discretion of the police officers".

Gay dating apps such as Grindr have also become minefields of undercover police officers conducting sting operations to lure and entrap LGBTQ+ Egyptians.

"It's mainly hunting, that's what the government is doing," said Ibrahim.

Transitioning from one gender to another is legal in Egypt, though the process is notoriously bureaucratic and the ends are often unachievable.

According to a 2019 report by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC, the Egyptian Medical Syndicate in 2013 released a code of ethics that recognised "gender identity disorder" as a medical condition, thereby allowing gender reassignment surgery.

Read more: Coronavirus: Lebanon's LGBT+ community is locked down and unprotected

However, surgical procedures and medical transitions are subject to unanimous approval by a special committee, which include a geneticist, an endocrinologist, two psychiatrists, and a representative from Cairo's Islamic Al-Azhar University.

The process takes months - if not years - to complete, if at all. Transgender Egyptians who manage to undergo the necessary procedures usually end up with another roadblock: changing their identification documents.

Without ID papers accurately reflecting their gender, they often end up barred from social opportunities such as employment.

Throughout the process of transitioning, transgender Egyptians have faced harassment and disrespect by staff at medical and state establishments.

Al-Kashef, 20, has experienced the brunt of the state's poor treatment of its transgender constituents. Al-Kashef began transitioning in 2017 and has publicly documented her struggles on social media.

Egypt does not explicitly criminalise sexual or gender identities, but that has not stopped President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's forces from cracking down on the country's LGBTQ+ community under vague morality laws

Last year, Al-Kashef - who has also advocated for broader social and economic rights in Egypt - was one of dozens arrested over calls to protest following a February 2019 train crash in Cairo that killed at least 25 people. In March 2019, Al-Kashef, then 19 years old, was forcibly disappeared by security forces from her family home in Giza.

She was later sentenced to pre-trial detention over charges of "aiding a terrorist organization" and "using social media to commit a crime".

Al-Kashef's sentence included weeks in solitary confinement at Cairo's notorious all-male Tora prison in Cairo, despite possessing medical documentation that demonstrated she was undergoing gender affirmation procedures.

At one point, medical staff at a government hospital subjected Al-Kashef to sexual harassment and assault, including a forced anal examination, a practice the United Nations said amounts to torture.

Al-Kashef was released in August 2019, after over 120 days in detention. She still does not possess proper identification documents.

Blueprint or case study?

Hisham Selim's interviews have been a subject of debate amid Arab LGBTQ+ communities beyond Egypt.

In Lebanon, transgender activist Naya was initially pleasantly surprised by Selim's announcement, hoping it would change discriminatory attitudes towards trans communities across the Arab world.

That is, until the Deutsche Welle interview.

Naya said Selim may have provided a boost for general acceptance of the trans community, but has also pandered to a "false image" of the concepts of masculinity and femininity.

"It made things more difficult for trans women, whom society still views as having abandoned the high status of 'manhood' and lowered themselves to the status of women," she told The New Arab.

Read more: 'We are here': The LGBT activists on the frontline of Iraq's revolution

Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Lebanese LGBTQ+ organisation Helem, said Selim's announcement was an "incredibly landmark moment" because of "what it has revealed".

"The social context in the Middle East is so unforgiving for women, that it almost seems like somebody transitioning from female to male is a step up in society," Zeidan told The New Arab

"This fundamentally highlights trans rights and the trans movement as a feminist issue," he added.

Zeidan noted that unlike western countries, where progress for LGBTQ+ communities began with gay rights movements, the Arab world's model seems to be inverted.

"Conversations around trans bodies are maybe the breakthrough that we need to have a conversation about gender, sexuality and bodies in general," said Zeidan. "This forces us to reconsider whether the trajectory of LGBT rights is necessarily the same everywhere."

In Lebanon, Helem has held over 60 workshops aimed at homophobes in the past two years.

The social context in the Middle East is so unforgiving for women, that it almost seems like somebody transitioning from female to male is a step up in society
-Tarek Zeidan, executive director of Lebanese LGBTQ+ organisation Helem

One trend the organisation has noted among the workshops' participants - which include Lebanese nationals and refugees from Syria and Iraq - is a greater tolerance towards gender transitions than same-sex orientations.

Despite this, Zeidan said, Helem's research found trans women in Lebanon remain the most vulnerable to violence, exploitation and trafficking.

Though Lebanon is widely perceived as one of the few tolerant and progressive countries in the Arab world, activists say there is still a long way to go.

Like Egypt, Lebanon does not explicitly criminalise LGBTQ+ identities. However, the community is not afforded active protection from discrimination and attacks.

Naya told The New Arab her community faces repression and discrimination at "all levels", including in legal, social, cultural and health sectors.

Helem has found that over 60 percent of violence and arrests against the LGBTQ+ community in 2019 were carried out against trans women.

In a similar vein to Egypt, Lebanon's trans community also faces an uphill battle when seeking to transition.

There are thousands of Noors out there right now, and they are struggling because of Covid-19, systemic inequality and violence

Aside from the process' bureaucracy, trans people can be barred from transitioning if they are in a perceived heterosexual marriage or have children, in a bid to prevent same-sex marriages and parenting, Zeidan told The New Arab. They are also required to undergo sterilisation prior to transitioning.

Additionally, gender affirming surgery is expensive, leading less fortunate trans people to risk botched procedures by cheaper clandestine means.

New identification documents are also near-impossible to obtain and entail legal battles. Lebanon has only seen "one or two" successes in its history, according to Zeidan.

Without matching identification, trans people are unable to seek employment, social security or health insurance.

Naya told The New Arab such issues were exacerbated during Lebanon's Covid-19 outbreak, which saw the trans community encountering difficulties in securing food, rent money and hygienic supplies.

"The repression against [trans people] did not allow them to prepare for quarantine," she said.

Zeidan praised Noor Selim as a "remarkable person", while specifying his case was not unique.

"There are thousands of Noors out there right now, and they are struggling because of Covid-19, systemic inequality and violence," Zeidan told The New Arab.

"They are equally worthy and equally in need of the same kind of attention and support," he added. "So let's start this conversation and let's take it head on."

Danya Hajjaji is a journalist for The New Arab.

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