'The person in the mirror was not me': Emirati tells of gender struggle from childhood to adulthood

'I would chop off my hair to make a beard', says Ali, who is fighting for legal acknowledgment of his identity as a man

Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates - 13AUG2018 - Nasser in a discussion in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath / The National (to go with Shareena story)
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It may feel like a cliche in transgender debate, but Ali always felt trapped in a body that was not his. 

Born a girl in an Emirati family, Ali was not to escape that feeling until he underwent reassignment surgery 30 years later.

When he was growing up in Abu Dhabi, his family made him wear dresses in which he says he never felt comfortable. Jeans and shorts were always a more natural fit.

“I only discovered what I always knew when I saw pictures of me as a child. In all the pictures I was either playing football or with toy aeroplanes.

“My family kept forcing me to wear dresses but it was so uncomfortable.”

While many little girls dream of ponies and unicorns, Ali longed for a beard.

“Puberty was the hardest period for me because I always imagined that I would grow up and have a beard or broader shoulders,” he says.

“My dream was that my reproductive organs would change but it was always the opposite – the female features in my body would develop. I would chop off my hair and stick it on my face to make a beard.”

He made his first suicide attempt when he hit puberty. This was the first of several such incidents during his struggle with what is now diagnosed by a government hospital in Abu Dhabi as ­gender dysphoria.

"I thought something was wrong with me. I kept asking myself: 'Why was I like that? Why am I so different?'.

“I hated looking in the mirror because I couldn’t stand what I saw. The person looking back at me, was not me.”

Ali’s family resisted, believing it was against the country’s culture and traditions.

“They were worried about what people would say. They kept trying to force me to be female when I was not.”

In his teens, Ali was made to wear an abaya and shayla.

He began seeking professional help when he was 14. In the following years more than a dozen doctors said Ali suffered from gender dysphoria.

However, a medical committee convened by a UAE court disagreed.

"I finally understood what was wrong with me and the solution for the suffering I was in," he says.

Ali and Salem, who he met through their lawyer, both had lengthy gender-reassignment operations abroad.

When they recovered, each returned to the UAE determined to seek legal recognition that they are now men.

But the legal process was not straightforward, neither were, according to them, judges' and officials' attitudes.


Read more:

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Lawyers back changes in UAE law to allow gender reassignment surgery


“They would stand up and yell that we were homosexuals wanting to ruin the reputation of the country.

“But I will fight and keep trying,” Ali says.

Ali dresses as a woman by day and, to his knowledge, his colleagues are none the wiser.

“At work I pretend to be a woman and after work I am me – a man.

“I worry that I’ll lose my job if my employer finds out. I worry that I’ll be stopped by a police patrol. My features have changed so much that I don’t look like the person on my driver’s licence, but I’m not concerned about what people will say. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Ali's driver's licence picture is of an uncomfortable-looking young girl wearing a headscarf. "That's how I looked before and I hated it," Ali says.

“I just want society to understand that this is a disease. I have medical reports that prove that. I’m not playing. It wasn’t something I decided on a whim, or overnight.

“I know that the day will come when the country and society will understand and accept transgender people. It has happened in Bahrain and I’m sure it will happen here.

“They have accepted many things. There were certain diseases that people were ashamed of. People with disabilities were shut away and hidden but are now part of society. I’m the same case, I had a disease, so why won’t they accept us?”

Gender reassignment surgery is irreversible.

“If we lose our appeal, we will keep filing cases. What else can I do?” he says.

“Do they want me to leave my country? I refuse to do that.”