Sarkhat Untha/A Female’s Cry is an Egyptian TV series made for Cable TV that first aired in 2007. It has not received much by way of LGBTIQ-friendly media attention. Perhaps, the “I” in LGBTIQ has never been anything but tokenistic, or perhaps, at some stage, activists dropped the “I” and the “Q” out of LGBTIQ, citing irreconcilable political differences in their dogged pursuit of inclusion in hegemonic normativities.
Frankly, the “I” is extremely important in any discussion on gender and sexual diversity that is to take place in the Arab world, and particularly in the Egyptian context. Detractors often taunt gender and/or sexual minority persons with claims that their way of being, desiring and acting are contrary to the natural. Religious discourse wields great power and exerts tremendous influence over people’s lives, and I’ve often heard religious devotees desperately point out that God doesn’t make mistakes and that “He” made men and women to be together. The biology of intersex categorically frustrates this simplistic worldview, which holds many LGBTIQ people hostage (religious or otherwise). When they factor the existence of intersexuality, with its own set of variances, LGBTIQ believers can tell other believers “you’re wrong. God doesn’t just make male and female people, God makes all sorts of human beings who confound this general rule.”
According to seasoned scholar, Paula Sanders, Muslim exegetes from the medieval period allowed an intersex person to reach a certain maturity before designating them with a sex identifier (male or female). What this meant, was that an individual whose biological sex could not be discerned at birth, was raised without designation until such time that the person was able to decide on whether to live as man or woman. Until they reach this particular maturity, it was decreed that they should pray in front of the women but behind the men, in a kind of no-man’s land liminality (no pun intended). Sanders is critical of the notion that a person still had to choose either a male of female designation, when the intersex body confounds and explodes this binary. While the biological ambiguity was noted and accommodated by these scholars, it was not intended to last a life time, how else were you going to arrange worldly affairs like marriage and inheritance? My understanding is that the exegetes saw gender (in instances of genital ambiguity) as not residing specifically in the body, but in the roo7 (the soul or spirit) of an individual. They were about a thousand years too early for the neither/nor queer morphology in which you are neither man nor woman or are either man or woman. That does not mean that the system did not produce exclusions (i.e. individuals who could not be accounted for systemically, like we have now with homosexuals who want to marry), it most certainly did, but it shows evidence of theological accommodations of people who existed outside the simplistic purview of the male/man and female/woman.
Thank you for bearing with me through my devotion to scholarship, back to popular culture. Popular Culture is where this struggle is at. Sarkhat Untha made it possible for millions of viewers across the entire globe to learn of and think about the difference between transgender and intersex, as doctors try to figure out which one of the two the main protagonist, Afifi, is. Night after night the spectacle of Afifi’s life would unfold, while a global Arab audience was consuming with tremendous curiosity. How many people were persuaded to empathize with an intersex child, who through no fault of her own was born with ambiguous genitalia; and who was socialized as male, after the midwife designated “his” sex according to the father’s wishes? I can’t think of anything more integral to initiating a discussion on homosexuality and transgenderism than intersexuality. What better way to re-educate ourselves about the gender and sexual continuum than this, where TV becomes pedagogy?
Still, the TV series has several dark sides, most important of which is the story of the real person on whom it was based without permission. Sally Mohamad Abd Allah sued the producers for stealing the details of Afifi’s plot line from her autobiography with the same title as the series. Abd Allah was a medical student at al-Azhar, while Afifi studied psychology at university. Both undergo a surgical procedure and subsequent gender transformation, which results in their expulsion from university prior to issuance of their degrees. Both become professional dancers and are attacked and vilified. Abd Allah should have been compensated by the producers who stole her life story and simply capitalized on her suffering.
Since her surgical procedure in 1988, Abd Allah has managed to obtain a court order permitting her to return to al-Azhar to complete her medical degree as a woman. She has also appeared on a number of television talk shows, but you know how poor the quality of journalism is on that level of mass media. For example, Sally appears alongside an intersex Lebanese woman, Antonila, on Wafa al-Kilany’s talk show al-Hakam, and you can watch an excerpt without subtitles here. You can see the prurience with which the typical talk show host from our region pursues LGBTIQ guests on their talk shows. They are interested in our most intimate and mundane details. When did we fall in love? What did we wear? And all those value judgements flying out across the globe, determining how we’re not quite human. It seems, for now, the subject under exploration in mass media, still reduces us to spectacles. We sacrifice something of our dignity and right to privacy (which is not a Western concept, please) when we come out publically to talk about gender and sexual diversity on our television and radio networks.
It won’t always be this way and I won’t leave you on this miserable note. So, I found something slightly less miserable to end on. I really did appreciate Amr Ellissy’s episode on Transgender and Transsexual persons for his program Be Wudooh, which aired in October 2014. Dr. Ellissy, however, still cowers to the conventional explanations when dealing with Sandy Ahmad’s Transgenderism, citing that her transition began after she had been sexually assaulted. It probably began with pre-historic fish that change biological sex in the course of their lifetime, but any way. Sandy Ahmad is a soft-spoken, articulate young woman and has created a facebook page quietly seeking to confound what we think we know about gender and sexual minority persons and the place of the sacred in their lives. There is still a great deal of confusion publically speaking over the differences between intersex and transsexuality, as is evident in the beginning of Ellissy’s episode, which is all the more reason why we need to be having these uncomfortable conversations until they cease to be uncomfortable.
I know why you are still here. Before you say something, I just want you to know that I know. I taught students like you. I have not just read what you read, I taught it. Intersex and Transgender are categories of a western scientific taxonomy that should not and cannot be imposed as an ideal of classification elsewhere in the world. Ok, got it, thank you.