Malak al-Kashef has finally said goodbye to her previous life as Abdelrahman, the male body that was her prison for the first 19 years of her life. After a series of sex reassignment surgeries, she has declared victory over patriarchal norms, abandoned a manhood that had crippled her all her life, and is now proud to stand in front of the mirror and be a “full-fledged female.” Gone are persecution fears, paranoia, and shame.
Now remains her final battle to change her gender marker on ID documents.
Ms. al-Kashef’s case is well-known in Egypt. Her story was chronicled in detail on social media platforms and updates of its unfolding often went viral. The LGBTQ community deem her rights legitimate and even constitutional, but today Ms. al-Khalef finds herself on her own claiming those rights and facing an adversary no other than the state itself.
In an interview with “Daraj,” she recounts her story’s latest developments and the battle ahead of her to prove her gender.
This 19-year-old’s journey to find her real identity has been rife with traumatic experiences all along. She was only 13 when she came clean to her parents about not feeling in harmony with her male body. To rebel against it, she left home in search of the girl inside her. And for a long time, she lived as just an “ordinary girl” having to struggle with family, society and the authorities in order to prove her identity. Until one day, she landed in jail and became the first transgender woman detained in the all-male Tora prison. This made her an icon for the LGBTQ community. She spent four months in that jail, on the grounds of joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and inciting violence against state institutions. Her arrest provoked a controversy about the appropriate place of detention for a woman whose ID marks as male. Eventually, Malak was put in solitary confinement to protect her from sexual abuse.
A Legacy of Bullying
She remembers the first day she decided to test the waters with society. Back then, “Abdelrahman” used makeup to exteriorise the female inside. But once at school, that female was subjected to physical violence and bullying. “That day,” she recalls, “I was beaten up and called names by 42 classmates. A year later, my parents checked me into a mental institution where I was incarcerated for 20 days without any medical reason. Eventually, however, I did what I wanted and returned to the life I have always wanted.”
Financial independence was her main goal. The surgical procedure is costly and replete with bureaucratic requirements and social hurdles. After the successful surgery, Malak could not change her name and gender marker on her ID documents. The only paper she had was a government hospital report about her estrogen dominance which necessitated the sex change surgery.
The prison experience
Malak’s friends were worried about her. International organizations condemned her imprisonment. But Malak herself went through a wide range of emotions in solitary confinement where she spent 120 days: “At the all-male Tora prison, I was deprived of daily outdoor exercises. My visits were limited to a maximum of 20 minutes. The days needed to be filled. So I sang, danced, painted and chanted slogans. And even though I sometimes felt angry and cried, I knew with certainty that, being the first woman in Tora prison and the first transgender woman in a political case in the country’s history, I was paving the road for others.” She adds: “I’m willing to use my voice for the sake of my cause, even if I had to sacrifice my life.”
A gigantic mountain of ignorance
She admits the situation of sexual minorities is very challenging in convervative Egypt: “Our traditions are old, rooted in thousands of years of never being questioned or developed. Our people refuse any improvement or change in society or authority.” The LGBTQ situation here is completely different than, say, Lebanon or Tunisia who show more flexibility in dealing with the issue. They establish associations to defend homosexuals and transgenders. In Egypt, they torture, bully, and shame LGBTQ people and those who defend them.” There are no official organizations devoted to sexual minorities. Only a few social insitutions take up the cause every now and then from a legal and psychological perspective. Ms. al-Kashef highlights that “Tunisia and Lebanon are reaping the fruits of a history of freedom movements. There is no comparison with Egypt. At least their governments are willing to discuss the issue. Egypt deprives you of the chance to do that.” Malak is fascinated that in Tunisia, one of the presidential candidates was openly gay: “[Mounir Baatour’s] candidacy is very positive in itself, despite the fact that he turned out to be a harrasser and so does not represent our community at all.” A gay candidate for the Egyptian elections is something Malak thinks we will never witness: “How can a country allow for different sexual oritentations to run for elections when it still defends rapists and harrassers and blames their actions on the victim’s ‘sexy’ clothes?”
Malak compares the situation to a gigantic ice mountain of ignorance that she is willing to begin to chip away at, by taking new steps to make the voices of the trans community heard, “through establishing associations and conducting awareness campaigns to educate people about gender and sexual diversity.” The local media, Malak complains, often defame LGBTQ people and dissemate intolerance and hate speech. However, it is possible to work with other media outlets that are more neutral.
Since she took up the trans cause, Malak’s life has never been the same. On an emotional level, she had to deal with people who asked her to let go of the dream of serving transgenders. Others fear being seen with her in public. But many relationships also proved to be genuine; friends who, away from fame and spotlights, support Malak in her battle. Perhaps the highest emotional price she had to pay for her cause, however, is being excommunicated by her family, except for her mother who still calls and meets from time to time.
Ms. al-Kashef has an otherwise busy life. She works as a writer and blogger, and is a very active feminist and an advocate for transgender causes, always participating in events and raising awareness. Seeking asylum in the West is a road many take to escape harassment in Egypt and find a safe community. Malak refuses to take that route: “I will not leave this country until cases of transgender abuse become, as per Article 53 of the Consitution, considered as sexual discrimination crimes adequately punishable,” she says.
Article 53 of the Egyptian constitution states that: “All citizens are equal before the Law. They are equal in rights, freedoms and general duties, without discrimination based on religion, belief, sex, origin, race, color, language, disability, social class, political or geographic affiliation or any other reason. Discrimination and incitement to hatred is a crime punishable by Law. The state shall take necessary measures for eliminating all forms of discrimination, and the Law shall regulate creating an independent commission for this purpose.” However, this article remains largely unimplemented, especially in religion, sex, or racism-related cases.
Ms. al-Kashef believes that she has won her latest battle to prove that transgender people exist: “My victory highlights the political and social role that transgender people can play. It shows that we are capable of winning this battle. I helped society and the authorities to know more about us, thus opening the door for transgender people’s explicit and brave participation in the civil movement. I was a passcard for both parties.”