Exclusive: Transgender Emiratis fight for recognition after reassignment surgery abroad

Ali and Salem believe 2016 change in the law should permit their legal change from women to men

Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates - 13AUG2018 - Nasser (R) discussing with Khalid in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath / The National (to go with Shareena story)
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Two Emiratis who have had gender reassignment surgery abroad say they will fight for the law to recognise they are men, after their attempt was thrown out by the courts.

"Ali" and "Salem" last year filed cases to have their legal documents changed from female to male, but in March a judge rejected their bid.

They underwent reassignment surgery last year but their passport and ID documents still identify them as women.

"We are not women. We never were," Ali told The National.

Both in their 30s, they had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria – a condition in which a person does not identify with their birth sex. A change in UAE law two years ago paved the way for gender reassignment surgery to be permitted.

Officials have always said the intention was to allow corrective surgery for those born with medical problems such as two reproductive organs. This is in contrast to elective surgery for people who feel they are of the opposite sex.

But Ali, Salem and their lawyer, Ali Al Mansouri, believe the wording of the law is on their side, or ambiguous at best.

The 2016 Medical Liability Law states: “Sex correction operations may be made according to the following controls: the person’s gender is obscure and it is not certain whether he is male or female; or the person has sexual and physical features inconsistent with his/her physiological, biological and genetic characteristics.”

Ali and Salem believe the second section extends to them and they say the law empowered them to make their decision.

“We only did the operation after the law came out,” Ali said.

But they now live in legal limbo. Living in the UAE with women’s documents and dressing as men is breaking the law. They wear abayas and shaylas by day and kanduras or casual clothes by night. They do their best to hide their masculine features and voices.

"Every day is a struggle and while I feel liberated after surgery, the court's decision is like a death sentence," Ali said.

“You don’t know what it’s like to always worry that the police will stop you while driving and ask to see your documents, or that a colleague at work reports you to CID.”


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Despite their concerns the courts made no attempt to pursue any criminal case against them, and they continue to work and live as they do.

Gender reassignment surgery is complex and recovery time takes many months.

For Ali and Salem it involved the removal of their breasts and uterus and development of male organs. One operation took more than 13 hours. They spent a total of more than Dh300,000 on the process.

"No sane person would do such operation if they had even the slightest doubt that they were male or female," Ali said.

"We have no regrets. It was the right decision. I couldn't go on living with myself if I hadn't done it. I wouldn't be alive today if my body had remained female."

The pair go to extensive lengths to look like women in public, but the hormones they have to take after surgery have further changed their features and deepened their voices.

“We shave our beards every day and I try to soften my voice, but it is very hard,” Salem said. “I’m always stopped at the airport and few people believe that I am the same person that my documents claim that I am.

“When I took them to court, the judge couldn’t believe that they were the same women mentioned in the court documents,” Mr Al Mansouri said. “‘These are men’, he told me.”

Ali said: “We have lived a life of struggle, first by being forced to be female when we are male, and now by having to pretend to be female when we are finally fully male.”

Friends and doctors have advised the two to consider living abroad, in countries where legally and socially they would be more easily accepted.

“The UAE is home. It is my country. I’ll never leave,” Ali said. “Several people have advised me to live in Europe or the US, and have told us that the UAE will never accept us, but I refuse to believe that.

“If they only knew how much we have suffered then they will understand, I am sure.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, February 23, 2016:    Emirati lawyer Ali Al Mansoori at his office in the Khalidiya area of Abu Dhabi on February 23, 2016. Christopher Pike / The National

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Lawyer Ali Al Mansouri said the wording of the law is open to interpretation. Christopher Pike / The National

The two said that they would continue to file cases until a court ruled in their favour.

"We will never give up," said Ali. "I believe that there is hope. I believe in humanity and I believe in the kindness of people. My country is one of the most tolerant in the world. They will accept us. We didn't commit a crime."

Ali had his procedure done in the US, while Salem went to Europe. They went armed with more than a dozen medical reports from hospitals such as Sheikh Khalifa Medical City and the American Centre for Psychiatry and Neurology.

The medical report from Sheikh Khalifa Medical City noted the need for immediate treatment of hormone therapy and surgery because any delay “will increase [Salem’s] suffering of an incompatible outer appearance, which will cause severe psychological damage”.

Dr Amin Al Amiri , assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Health and Prevention, last year said: "We want to clarify the difference between the terms 'sex change' and 'sex correction surgery', as sex change surgery remains illegal in the UAE."

Ali is already recognised as a man in Florida, where he had his surgery. In an attested and certified affidavit, his surgeon wrote: “I performed and completed sexual reassignment surgery on Ali.

“From a medical perspective, Ali is now male and the gender marker on all of Ali’s identity documents should now be changed to acknowledge this medical fact.”

The Ministry of Health said that it oversaw only procedures carried out by doctors in the UAE, and that sex-change operations would never be permitted here unless it was to correct a medical defect.

"So if the person has undergone a sex change operation outside the country, this would be under his or her own responsibility. And they have to assume responsibility for the consequences of this act, such as identity changes and the other official documents."