"Guardian Angel" of Gulf Transsexuals

Inter Press Service News Agency

Transsexuals in the Gulf call Bahraini lawyer Fawziya Janahi "guardian angel". She is the Arab world's only female lawyer who takes up cases on behalf of clients who want to change their sex. Janahi's clients want legal permission to undergo sex change operations. While the law is quite straightforward on this in Bahrain, the lawyer says it is more difficult in other countries in the region.

"But that wouldn't stop me from helping transgendered trapped in their bodies," she says. "I'm ready to challenge the odds!"

Janahi, 47, spoke with IPS's Suad Hamada about her unusual practice, her future and hopes of greater acceptance of transgendered/transsexuals in Gulf societies. Excerpts from the interview.

IPS: How did you become a lawyer for the transgendered?

FAWZIYA JANAHI: I had a transgendered roommate, who studied with me in university in Egypt. I felt her agony and difficulty in accepting herself as a woman. When she approached me in 2001 to defend her I didn’t hesitate. In 2005, she won the case and was officially declared a man. My female roommate is now a happily married man who got a chance for a new beginning.

IPS: Did you think there would be others who would come to you?

FJ: I didn't think there could be many people who had the courage to pursue long lawsuits. I got really recognised after my second case - when the female "Zainab" turned into a male, "Hussain". This person was courageous and confident enough to attract media attention throughout his legal battle that ended in 2008.

Now I'm overloaded with cases from all over the Gulf. I take up all those who seriously seek sex-change operations.

IPS: How do you figure they are serious?

FJ: I don't take up a case unless s/he presents me with at least a two-year evaluation by a psychiatrist proving that a sex-change operation is the only solution for their sexual identity disorders.

IPS: What is the legal process?

FJ: The court should be provided with evidences that this person cannot continue with her/his gender and has to undergo a sex-change operation.

This process takes years - my first case took five years. After that if the client goes through with the operation to become a transsexual, then we have to apply with the government to change their sex in the official papers, such as ID card and passport.

IPS: How do you feel being the only woman in the region to take up such career?

FJ: I’m the only lawyer, whether male or female, right now to specialise in legal assistance for the transgendered. I feel proud, but more than that defending people whose sexual identity differs from the one at birth has become a calling. I know that if I stop, most lawyers won't as they don't want to confront conservatives who are the majority amongst Arabs. There was one male Arab lawyer before me who took up some cases but he quit after these were rejected by the court.

IPS: Has it been difficult for you? Would you give up?

FJ: In a website of Kuwaiti transsexuals, I have been named "The Guardian Angel" - so how can I give up. Our society rejects anything new and progressive. The idea of allowing women to work was a big taboo, but people accepted this after some Arab women withstood the pressures and criticisms. I'm optimistic things will change especially after a Saudi conservative and psychiatrist, Dr Tariq Al Habib, defended on his popular TV show the right of the transgendered to go with sex change operations.

It was difficult personally. I received many rejections from my family but after years of discussion they started to be supportive. But I cannot say the same about the outside world as many religious scholars are against and fighting me.

IPS: You don’t fear them, especially in the religion-oriented societies of the Arab world?

FJ: I'm a lawyer so I can defend myself as everything I'm doing is according to laws and their rejections wouldn’t affect me, especially in Bahrain as the government has been very supportive in my last two cases.

IPS: Are you receiving the same support in other Arab countries?

FJ: Unfortunately no. I’m planning to defend at least 10 cases in one Gulf country, and there the situation is tough as the government is in conflict with its powerful parliament. Its MPs (members of parliament) are hardliners and against transsexuals.

While meeting my clients there I am accompanied by journalists. The meetings are in flats in the presence of journalists in case of a police raid as part of efforts to implement a new decent law act that fights vice, homosexuality and transsexuals.

IPS: Transgendered who approach you are females who want to be males or the opposite?

FJ: I receive both (types), but strangely a majority of the cases are males who want to become females and they face rejection from their families because they don't want to accept them as women.

IPS: What have you gained by specialising in defending transgendered?

FJ: Financially nothing. I want society to realise that they suffer from physical problems that could end only if they change their sex. They aren't pretending or need therapy; they are just looking for acceptance and understanding.

IPS: Where do you see yourself 20 years from now?

FJ: As a woman who has made good contributions in helping transgndered as I hope there will be legislations giving them the right to change their sex without legal hassles.

Oct 31, 2009; Inter Press Service News Agency; By Suad Hamada