Sex Change in Cairo: Gender and Islamic Law
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In 1982 Sayyid cAbd Allah, a 19-year-old student of medicine at al-Azhar, Cairo's Islamic University, contacted a psychologist complaining that he was suffering from extreme depression, and asked for psychological treatment. The psychologist, Salwa Jirjis Labib examined him and discovered that he suffered from a disturbance of his sexual identity, or more precisely, psychological hermaphroditism [al-khunutha an-nafsiya]. She treated him for three years, making all possible effort to restore a male sexual identity to him, but eventually she had to give up. She explained the failure as inevitable in cases like this where treatment is begun after puberty. Salwa Jirjis then referred him to the surgeon cIzzat cAsham Allah Jibra'il, to have sex-change surgery performed.
Given the seriousness of the operation, Jibra'il referred Sayyid cAbd Allah to another psychologist, Hani Najib. Najib soon reached the same diagnosis and agreed that surgery would be the best course. He therefore set out to prepare the patient for it. For a year Sayyid cAbd Allah was treated with female hormones, while experimenting with dressing up like a woman and living with the other sex. This stage lasted for about a year, whereupon Sayyid cAbd Allah signed a request to have the surgery performed. This was done on January 29, 1988. The surgeon cIzzat cAsham Allah Jibra'il removed the penis and created a new urinal orifice and an artificial vagina. This is the standard procedure in sex-change operations. The operation went well; Sayyid cAbd Allah soon recovered. According to his psychologist Salwa Jirjis he took the name Sally and today lives happily and satisfied with her female identity.
The story could end here, but it does not. What Sally soon found out was that this operation was not just a personal matter, but involved a number of authorities, apart from arousing a huge interest in the media and the population at large. It could be most interesting to interview Sally about her childhood, the time at the al-Azhar, and so forth. This is not what I am going to do. This study will focus on the reactions in the media and among religious authorities, primarily the Mufti of the Republic, Sayyid Tantawi.
The phenomenon of sex-change operations is a rather complex one, and I must confess that I am myself at a loss as to what to think of it. This study, then, is not trying to depict the ulama as adverse to a beneficial and, in any event, inevitable modernization. It assumes, however, that responses to a sex-change operation are bound to be strong in a society which has traditionally been characterized by a clear separation of the sexes, an issue which is again at the top of the agenda due to the Islamic awakening taking place in these years. Sally is neither the first nor the latest person to have undergone such an operation, but she is by far the most famous: few people in Egypt who occasionally read a newspaper have never heard about Sally. What was so special about Sally? In order to answer this question, this study will follow the events, analyze the themes of the public debate, and, finally consider the fatwa by the Mufti in some detail. The material used will be the Egyptian press, the report of the Public Prosecutor, and the fatwa which I have copied from the Dar al?Ifta records.
The first thing that happened after the operation was that the Dean of the Medical Faculty refused to admit Sally for the final exams. At the same time, he refused to transfer her to the Medical Faculty for girls (absolutely separated from that of the boys, and situated in another part of town). Realizing that she would need official recognition of her new sex and name, Sally applied to the Administration of Civil Matters [ Maslahat al-Ahwal al-Madaniya] to have her name changed from Sayyid Muhammad cAbd Allah to Sally Muhammad cAbd Allah.
News about the operation broke on April 4, 1988. In an interview with al-Ahram Sally talked about her difficulties at al-Azhar which dated back long before the operation: "it is strange that they still want to punish me, now that I have actually become a woman,—as if I committed a crime at the moment I entered the operating room. Responding to this remark, al-Azhar issued a declaration stating that it had set up a special committee for the investigation of the case, and when, a couple of months before the operation, the committee had examined Sayyid(performing among other things an ultra?sound examination of the prostata) it had come to the conclusion that he was one hundred percent male, both outwardly and inwardly. After the operation Sally had refused to be examined by the committee again. Sally herself, who looked sexily out to the reader holding a pair of sunglasses to her mouth, saw no reason why she should suffer yet another examination: she confirmed that although she had known about her female identity for long, it was only now she had become "a cheerful girl", and she was planning to marry soon and would wear the veil.
Sally's provocative behavior and the grave accusations of al-Azhar together created a stir in the media which was to last for months. Clearly, al-Azhar maintained, she had committed a crime; or rather, he had, for far from changing a sex the doctor had in fact mutilated a man whose motives, it was suggested, were of the basest sexual nature: by claiming himself a woman, Sayyid was trying to have legitimate sexual intercourse with another man.
Having received a number of complaints about the operation, the representative of the Doctors' Syndicate [ Niqabat al-Atba] in Giza, Doctor Husam ad-Din Khatib, examined the case and summoned the surgeon, Jibra'il, the anesthetist, Ramzi Michel Jadd, and the psychologist to discuss the case with three doctors appointed by the Syndicate. The Syndicate, it must be said, has since 1984 been dominated by the Islamic movement. The three doctors agreed that the surgeon had committed a serious medical error by not confirming the presence of a disease before operating.
The Doctors' Syndicate found support in the declaration from the committee of the Azhar University. Presumably aggrieved at the discovery that such an operation had been performed on one of its students, the committee handed over its findings to the Doctors' Syndicate in order that it examine the case and hold the surgeon responsible. The Azhar committee and the Doctors' Syndicate were in agreement that a grave error had been committed; the right procedure would have been to stop the hormonal treatment and continue with a purely psychological cure.
On May 14, 1988, the Doctors' Syndicate sent a letter to the Mufti of the Republic, Sayyid Tantawi, asking him for a fatwa on the matter. His fatwa, which is reproduced below, concluded that if the doctor testified that this was the only cure against the disease, then this treatment was permissible. It must, however, never be performed at the mere wish of a man to become a woman, or vice versa. This fatwa was not quite to the point, since it evaded the question of whether the diagnosis of psychological hermaphroditism was acceptable from the point of view of Islamic law. Consequently, opponents of the operation interpreted it as supporting their cause, because it condemned sex-change operations performed simply at the wish of the patient. On the other hand, Sally's party (and, eventually, the Public Prosecutor) saw it as supportive of their position, because it placed the final decision with the medical doctor.
On June 12, 1988, al-Azhar took the case to court, claiming that the surgeon was liable to punishment for inflicting a permanent disease upon the patient, according to § 240 in the penal code. The Public Prosecutor [ an-Niyaba al-cAmma] carried out an investigation.
The Public Prosecutor summoned Fakhri Salih, the medical examiner. Salih consulted the relevant scientific literature on the subject, as well as the Medical Counselor for the Hospital Sector. They agreed that while, from a purely physical point of view, Sayyid cAbd Allah had been a man, psychologically speaking he was not; the diagnosis of psychological hermaphroditism had been accurate, and it was correct that after puberty this disease is only curable by means of a surgical operation. The surgeon had been following the rules of his profession, consulting relevant specialists, and the operation had been performed properly. He had not inflicted any permanent physical disablement on the patient. The patient could be regarded [ yuctabar] as a female, although lacking uterus, ovary and menstruation. Finally, he examined Sally on September 12 and concluded that the anus had not been recently nor continously used for sodomy [ liwatan].
The Doctors' Syndicate did not accept the findings of the medical examiner, but insisted that the surgeon had operated on a man who was as much a man as any man. A meeting was held where they exchanged views on the matter. Shortly before that, on November 11, the Doctors' Syndicate gave a press conference where it stated that the operation was not a matter only for specialists, but had been a case of public morals and therefore of public interest. It was an assault on the principles, values, ethics and religion of Egyptian society. Consequently, the Syndicate deleted cIzzat cAsham Allah Jibra'il from its membership records, and the anesthetist Ramzi Jadd was fined £E 300 for his participation in the operation.
On December 29, 1988, the Public Prosecutor acquitted the surgeon cAsham Allah Jibra'il of the charge of inflicting a permanent disease. The final report confirmed that the operation had been performed properly according to the standards of these operations. Almost a year passed before he closed the Sally case in October 1989, and in November Sally finally received the certificate stating that she was a woman, almost two years after the operation. Her grievances did not end here, however, for al-Azhar still would not recognize her as a woman and admit her to the Medical Faculty for girls. It took another charge and another one and a half years before the Administrative Court repealed the Azhar decision of expelling Sally and allowed her to enter any university she might wish in order to pass her final exams.
This is the story of Sally. Let us now take a closer look at some of the themes discussed in the Egyptian press. The first thing to be noted is that differences in the press treatment did not strictly follow along political lines, and that I have only come across one single comment on the case made by a woman. Both governmental and oppositional newspapers were bringing critical and supportive comments; they were informing about the development of the case, but many of them also became the vehicles of a heated debate between partisans and opponents of the operation, even if the opponents were almost invariably in the majority. I did not, however, find any positive evaluation of the operation in any Islamic newspaper.
What we have seen in the debate and in the legal proceedings is a struggle over Sally's sex. Everybody seems to agree that she cannot decide this on her own—it is a public issue. The psychologists say that she is now a woman, but used to suffer from psychological hermaphroditism, whereas al-Azhar and its supporters maintain that she is a man, and has always been one. Al-Azhar does not accept a psychological diagnosis and insists that the body cannot lie: every individual has a true sex which can be discovered by close examination. This is one of the basic dividing lines in the case, and it is by no means new: from the Islamic camp, psychology is often suspected of being a Western science bent on changing the mores of Egyptian society. As a professor of psychology succinctly remarked, "the case is not a new one, but it highlights a new concept [that of psychological hermaphroditism] and thus raises an important issue: which should hold the primary position, the soul or the body?"
To the Azhar professor of physiology it raises no such question, but rather another, practical one: "which medical, moral or legal means may be applied to prevent a repetition of a tragedy which has caused so much confusion [ balbala] in the population?" He goes on to state that there was nothing 'transsexual' about the case, which was simply a question of 'sodomistic inclinations'. 'Transsexual' is the diagnosis used to legitimize operations transforming men into artificial women in order to satisfy their abominable sexual demands. Research has established, however, that their mental state is due to failures in their upbringing, mainly caused by parents who spoiled them too much and gave them little discipline, or even gave their boy a girl's name, or their girl a boy's. This is all perverse, and will lead to perverse results. The important thing, then, is to defend Egyptian values, principles and religion against any deviation [inhiraf] leading to perversity. To sum up: Sayyid was a man and whatever inclinations he may have had were not inborn, but acquired. By acquiescing in the operation, the doctors had departed from medical grounds and had simply given in to Sayyid's perversities.
According to the Azhar view, God has created mankind in pairs and His Revelation makes it clear that the distinction between the sexes (as well as the one between believer and unbeliever) is the fundamental distinction whereupon society is founded. Their interaction may pose a threat to the social order, and this threat (which mainly emanates from the woman) must be contained. In this, the Azharis are to a large degree in accordance with earlier Muslim societies, to whom the male-female distinction was so crucial that hermaphrodites posed a dilemma of some seriousness, as can be witnessed from the number of discussions on the status of the hermaphrodite found in Medieval Muslim legal literature. Paula Sanders has recently analyzed this material and has dubbed the very elaborate legal prescriptions laid down for the exact determination of a sex a form of gendering the ungendered body; that is, attributing a sex to a body which did not posses only one sex, simply for the sake of preserving a binary system:
If medieval Muslim jurists had an overriding anxiety, it was not any of the particular concerns-incest taboos, modesty, segregation, or even hierarchy-that organized their negotiation of gender, but maintaining the gendered integrity of their world as a whole. Their received view of the world was as a place with only two sexes, male and female... A person with ambiguous genitalia or with no apparent sex might have been a biological reality, but it had no gender and, therefore, no point of entry into the social world: it was unsocialized.
One is reminded of the Azhar reaction to Sally: she could not continue with the male students, nor could she be transferred to the girls' department. Like the hermaphrodite, she is "gendered", and as we saw, she cannot understand what is the problem now that she is clearly a woman: the way she sees it she "went from the world of men to the world of women." To al-Azhar, however, she had already been gendered as a man, according to a mixture of the old juridical techniques and modern medical ones, both focusing on the body and denying the possibility of a psychological hermaphroditism. She had been a man and was still a man, but now less so, because she had been bereft of her male sexual organs and been attributed with artificial (and imperfect) female ones. She was not a full man, definitely not a woman and not a true hermaphrodite. What was she then? One or two people argued that she had become a eunuch, an interesting idea considering that eunuchs were in medieval Islamic societies precisely the persons who were permitted to travel between the men's and the women's spheres and often were in charge of the Harem. Consequently, if Sally was a eunuch she would be allowed to enter both the male and the female Medical Faculty. Eunuchs were, however, not supposed to dress up like women. Azhar took a much more negative stand: Sally was fundamentally a khawwal, that is an effeminate man who is willing to play a passive, female role in sexual intercourse with other men, a well-known term of abuse in Egypt denoting the lowest and most despicable kind of manliness. The operation had turned this khawwal (who was still a man) into an artificial woman. This was the opposite of gendering: the surgeon had ungendered a gendered body, and this new ungendered body was of a new type altogether, betwixt and between, equally unacceptable in the girls' and in the boys' Medical Faculty, because it really had no point of re-entry into social life. In an article in Rose al-Yussuf, cAbd Allah Mabruk an-Najjar, teacher of Islamic law at al-Azhar, sets out to do what a medieval Islamic legal scholar ( faqih) would have done: discussing the rules for this new case in relation to engagement, marriage and so forth. Moreover, an-Najjar lists a number of reasons why Sally (or rather: Sayyid) is liable to punishment from the point of view of Islamic law: firstly, he made himself a hermaphrodite (and hermaphroditism is punishable, because it leads to the abominable crime of homosexuality, which is "the worst crime in which a society can become entangled"). Secondly, he made a doctor of the type who is craving for fame mutilate him so that he became a deformed man,—and mutilation of oneself is a crime according to Islamic law. Finally, this deformation was made not in order that he could beget children, which is the proper context of sexual desire,—but solely in order to indulge in sexual acts, and such a marriage for sexual pleasure( zawaj mutca) is also illegal. There are thus plenty of reasons why he should be punished from an Islamic point of view.
It is my impression that the Sally case provided an opportunity for so-called "moderates" on the Islamic wing to enhance their Islamic credentials by opposing the operation in an agitated fashion. This is most characteristic of the comments made by these teachers at al-Azhar who fought to defend Azhar's position and wanted Sally punished. This, I believe, is the main reason why the Sally case became such a hot issue compared to other sex-change operations. Another reason is Sally's age: she was no longer a minor. As argued by the Public Prosecutor, Sayyid had been a grown-up student who had made a decision for himself after a considerable period of reflection. To the Azhar conservatives, far from being an argument, this was an aggravating circumstance: Sayyid had made a deliberate choice on an issue where there ought to be no choice at all.
To the Islamic movement and its press, the case looked a little different. First of all, there was nothing very surprising about it: sex-change operations were bound to happen sooner or later, given the direction in which Egyptian society is moving. The details of the case were of relatively minor interest since there would be little point in just blaming Sally or her doctor, blamable though they might be. To the Islamists, Sally was but a symptom of all the evils of Egyptian society today, a society which to the more radical Islamic wing is simply anti-Islamic [ jahili]. The Islamic press was therefore much less preoccupied with the Sally case as such, but occasionally it referred to "the age of Sally". Why is Sally an apt symbol of the evils of society? Because she literally embodies all its evils. Consider the case from an Islamist point of view: a fundamental difference between Islamic society and other, especially Western societies, is the attitude to the sexes. While Islamic society, in accordance with the Koran, maintains the fundamental difference and complementarity of the sexes, this natural difference is blurred and denied in the West. There, men have become effeminate and women masculine, due to the mixing [ ikhtilat] of the sexes in schools, work and society at large, not to mention in the Western indulgence in illicit sex. By contrast, in the virtuous Islamic society, men's and women's worlds are separate, and strict rules regulate their co-existence. The most important contacts between men and women take place inside the family, and the only way of relating properly to a person of the other sex with whom one does not share blood is through marriage. Outside these legal ways of interrelation there are a number of illicit ways, the most grave of these being fornication [ zina], a key concept of the Islamic movement's diagnosis of Egyptian society, since it is not normally punished in Egypt, though being one of the five principal punishments [ hudud] mentioned in the Koran.
Sally's body, then, becomes the perfect symbol of what is wrong in our age, or even of what has happened to the body of believers, the umma: here we have a Muslim youth studying at the venerable Islamic Azhar university, who consults specialists of Western psychology (one of them being a woman) and is told to follow his perverse inclinations towards becoming a woman. Significantly, the names of the psychologist, the surgeon and the anesthetist reveal that they are Christians. The surgery (a technique imported from the West) is performed, and Sayyid changes his Muslim male name into a non-Muslim female one. And what comes out is neither male nor female, but something in between the two, a mix. Indeed, we live in "the age of Sally" [ fi casr Sali] where men and women are mixed in all sorts of ways, due to the Western corruption of Egypt: Sally is the literal embodiment of the Western castration of Muslim society and culture. The "age of Sally"?reaction considers Sally less of a criminal and more of a victim than does the Azhar reaction.
Immediately after news had broken about the operation, Egypt's muftis were asked for fatwas on the question. As we know, apart from the Mufti of the Republic, there are the president of al-Azhar's Fatwa Council [ Lajnat al-Fatwa] and the mufti of the High Council for Islamic Affairs [ al-Majlis al-Acla li sh-Shu'un al-Islamiya], who publish their fatwas in the periodicals of these two institutions. The two former were immediately consulted by the journalists, at a time when few details about Sally were known, and both answered that sex-change surgery could be performed if the medical experts assured that this was the only way whereby the patient might obtain his true sex. The mufti of the High Council, however, did not publish a fatwa until October l988, when he denounced the operation because it had transformed a man into something neither man nor woman, but much akin to a hermaphrodite, which was ironic since this was precisely the disease the doctor had purported to cure.
As mentioned above, the Mufti of the Republic was consulted by the Doctors' Syndicate in May l988 for a fatwa on the subject. Given the official inquiry, this fatwa is much longer and better argued. It is reproduced below from the records of the Mufti's Administration, the Dar al-Ifta:
To the honored general secretary of the Doctors' General Syndicate. This is an answer to the Syndicate's letter number 483 of May 14, 1988, asking for the opinion of religion on the matter of a student of medicine at the al-Azhar university, who has been subjected to a surgical operation (removing his male organs) in order to turn him into a girl.
We find that cUsama ibn Sharik tells: "A bedouin came to the Prophet and said, 'O, Messenger of God, can you cure?' And He said, 'Yes, for God did not send a disease without sending a cure for it, knowing it from His knowledge...'" This [ hadith] is told by Ahmad [ibn Hanbal]. There is another version: "Some bedouins said, 'O, Messenger of God, can you cure?'. And He said. 'Yes. God's servants can cure themselves, for God never gave a disease without providing a cure or a medicine for it, except for one disease.' They asked, 'O, Prophet of God, what disease is that?' He said, 'old age.'" This version is related by ibn Maja abu Da'ud, at-Tirmidhi, and others. ( Muntaqi l-Akhbar wa Sharhan nayl al-Awtar, v. 8, p. 200, and Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, by al-cAsqalani, v. 9, p. 273, in the chapter on those who imitate women).
As for the condemnation of those who by word and deed resemble women, it must he confined to one who does it deliberately [ tacahhada dhalika], while one who is like this out of a natural disposition must be ordered to abandon it, even if this can only be achieved step by step. Should he then not comply, but persist [in his manners], the blame shall include him, as well— especially if he displays any pleasure in doing so.
The person who is by nature a hermaphrodite[ mukhannath khalqi] is not to be blamed. This is based on [the consideration that] if he is not capable of abandoning the female, swinging his hips in walking and speaking in a feminine way, after having been subjected to treatment against it, [he is at least willing to accept that] it is still possible for him to abandon it, if only gradually. But if he gives up the cure with no good excuse, then he deserves blame.
At-Tabari took it as an example that the Prophet (God bless him and grant him salvation) did not forbid the hermaphrodite from entering the women's quarters until he heard him giving a description of the woman in great detail. Then he prohibited it. This proves that no blame is on the hermaphrodite for simply being created that way.
That being so, the rulings derived from these and other noble hadiths on treatment grant permission to perform an operation changing a man into a woman, or vice versa, as long as a reliable doctor concludes that there are innate causes in the body itself, indicating a buried [ matmura] female nature, or a covered [ maghmura] male nature, because the operation will disclose these buried or covered organs, thereby curing a corporal disease which cannot be removed, except by this operation.
This is also dealt with in a hadith about cutting a vein, which is related through Jabir: "The Messenger of God sent a physician to abu ibn Kacb. The physician cut a vein and burned it." This hadith is related by Ahmad [ ibn Hanbal] and Muslim. What supports this view is what al-Qastallani and al-cAsqalani say in their commentaries on it: "This means that it is incumbent upon the hermaphrodite to remove the symptoms of femininity."
And this is further sustained by the author of Fath al-Bari who says "...having given him treatment in order to abandon it..." This is a clear proof that the duty prescribed for the hermaphrodite can take the form of a treatment. The operation is such a treatment, perhaps even the best treatment. This operation can not be granted at the mere wish to change sex with no clear and convincing corporal motives. In that case it would fall under that noble Hadith which al-Bukhari relates through Anas: "The Messenger of God cursed the hermaphrodites among the men and the over-masculine women, saying 'expel them from their houses', whereupon the Prophet himself (God bless him and grant him salvation) expelled one, and cUmar expelled another one." This Hadith is related by Ahmad and al?Bukhari.
To sum up: It is permissible to perform the operation in order to reveal what was hidden of male or female organs. Indeed, it is obligatory to do so on the grounds that it must be considered a treatment, when a trustworthy doctor advises it. It is, however, not permissible to do it at the mere wish to change sex from woman to man, or vice versa. Praise be to He who created, who is mighty and guiding. From what has been said the answer to what was in the question will be known. Praise be to God the most High.
This is a rather difficult fatwa, and so vague that both parties cited it in support of their position, as we have seen. In order to make sense of it, we shall divide it into sections.
The first part consists of various versions of a Hadith the meaning of which amounts to the observation that there is a cure for every disease, and consequently also for hermaphroditism. This is a standard introduction in Tantawi's medical fatwas: thus, for instance in the fatwa from 1989 on organ transplantation. It reveals his eagerness to support medical progress as long as it does not infringe on Islamic moral principles.
Next, Tantawi discusses those men who resemble women, that is hermaphrodites. Here he has consulted the various Hadiths on the subject, as they have been recorded and commented upon by the famous Egyptian Hadith scholar ibn Hajar al-cAsqalani (d. 1448). One particular Hadith is commented upon: it tells how a hermaphrodite at the conquest of Ta'if promised to lead one of the warriors to a lady who had four tyres of fat under her stomach and eight over her hips. When the Prophet heard about this offer he forbade his wives ever to let a hermaphrodite into their chambers. Following al-cAsqalani and at-Tabari (d. 923), Tantawi deduces that since there was nothing wrong with the hermaphrodite until it was discovered that he had been spying on the women, a hermaphrodite cannot be blamed for being created as such. There are two different types of hermaphrodites, those who are so by birth, and those who have acquired their manners. Both must be told to strive to free themselves from the hermaphroditism, even if this will be a slow process. They must not indulge in it.
Third, Tantawi concludes that hermaphroditism is something which must be cured, if possible, and if a doctor asserts that a surgical operation is the only way to do it, then he must go ahead and perform one, be it from man to woman, or vice versa. Here he makes an interesting remark: what the doctor should be looking for are a buried female or a covered male nature, which can then be brought to light by means of the surgery. This amounts to saying that every human being has one true sex which may be covered by limbs or organs belonging to the other sex. The truth, however, is always underneath. Tantawi thus makes a distinction between an outward appearance [ zahir], which may be deceptive and an inward essence[ batin] which is always true—a well-known and important theme in Muslim culture.
Fourth, a Hadith about the Prophet sending a physician to a man to cut a vein is taken as evidence that removing parts of the body through surgery is permitted. Combining this with ibn Hajar al-cAsqalani's remark that the hermaphrodite must strive to abandon his state, Tantawi deduces that it is permissible to perform surgery to remove limbs or organs which do not belong to the hermaphrodite's true sex.
As the fifth point, Tantawi finally relates the Hadith which seems to be most to the point and according to which the Prophet cursed hermaphrodites and overly masculine women and expelled one of them from his house. This Hadith, however, is taken not to signify a general curse on hermaphrodites, but rather a prohibition against performing a sex-change operation for the fun of it. It must be a treatment, curing hermaphrodites by revealing their true sex.
What is Tantawi doing in this fatwa? Well, basically he is quoting a former Mufti of the Republic, Jadd al-Haqq cAli Jadd al-Haqq, who issued a fatwa on sex-change operations in response to an enquiry from the Malaysian Center for Islamic Research in l981. What, then, are they doing? They are not referring to the elaborate fiqh discussions of hermaphrodites and the like, but they discuss some of the Hadiths of the Prophet on the issue in order to come up with a new ruling on this new phenomenon—which means in legal terms that they are practicing ijtihad. There are around a handful of Hadiths dealing with hermaphroditism and transvestitism, all apparently quite hostile towards them; in several of them the Prophet expels the hermaphrodite to the desert. One of the first things to decide is which of the Hadiths gives the most general rule. Tantawi and Jadd al-Haqq both focus on the one where a hermaphrodite is expelled as a punishment for having revealed the secrets of the harem and conclude that, inversely, if he had not done this he would not have been expelled. From this they conclude that those who are hermaphrodites by nature cannot be blamed for it, as long as they strive to rid themselves of this ambiguity and move towards increased sexual inambiguity. If they move in the other direction—that is towards ambiguity, indulging in their hermaphroditism—then they are to blame and must be banished from the social world.
Tantawi thus stresses that the correct position for a hermaphrodite is to be on the move away from the hermaphroditic state, that is under treatment. Surgery is such a treatment. In order to sustain the idea of the hermaphrodite being on the way either further into or out of his state,—that is, hermaphroditism as a process—Tantawi maintains the dogma that every human being has only one sex, which is its true sex. In this way, hermaphroditism is reduced to being corporal and psychological movements and manifestations denying this true sex. Consequently, the task of the doctor will be to identify which of the ambivalent outward forms corresponds to the true inner sex, which he describes as hidden, or covered. As mentioned, the task of identifying the true, inward [ batin] essence behind misleading, outward [ zahir] manifestations, is well-known to the Islamic tradition: that is also the concern of the mystic, the philosopher, and possibly even the theologian. It is called ta'wil, a key concept in the Islamic understanding of the search for truth. The search for the true sex is a search for the truth about a human being. This idea is not altogether alien to western thought, either. In the preface to the book Herculine Barbin dite Alexina B., Michel Foucault describes the shift in mentality when, with the break-through of the medical sciences in the eighteenth century, the possibility of a body having two sexes was abandoned and the idea of a true sex gained ground. One of the casualties in this new and more rigid understanding of the true sex—and indeed of an intimate relationship between sex (or gender) and truth—were the hermaphrodites who were now all taken to be "pseudo hermaphrodites".
Mufti Tantawi seems to be squarely on the side of medicine in this matter. Defending a binary sexual system, he maintains that every human being has one sex and only one. While to medieval Muslim jurists gendering was a way of eliminating ungendered bodies, to Tantawi they simply cannot exist in the first place: the surgery performed on Sayyid cAbd Allah was no 'gendering of an ungendered body', for such a thing as an ungendered body does not exist. Rather, the surgery was a re-gendering of a body whose sex had been socially and physically disguised but was nevertheless not changed in the least by the operation: far from legalizing a sex-change operation, Tantawi's fatwa denied the possibility of performing one altogether.
Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen is a research fellow at the Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Near Eastern Studies, University of Copenhagen. He wrote his dissertation on the office of the State Mufti in Egypt, and is currently at work on a project about transformations in the Druze religion, in Lebanon and Syria, 1970-1995. The following article appeared in the collection, Middle East Studies in Denmark, from the Odense University Press.
The report has been published: an-Niyaba al-cAmma: Min mudhakkarat an-niyaba al-camma. M ajallat Hay'at Qadaya ad-Dawla 35, (4), 1991:159-69. The Public Prosecutor stresses that al-Azhar did not take psychology into account, and the Doctors' Syndicate never examined Sally itself
It should be noted that Orientalism has had the reverse image of the Orient as transsexual and hermaphroditic: men in long dresses all-too willingly indulging in homosexual intercourse, etc. See Marjorie Garber, "The Chic of Araby: Transvestitism, Transsexualism and the Erotics of Cultural Appropriation," in Body Guards, edited by Epstein & Staub (London, 1991).
I believe that the work referred to is Nayl al-Awtar min asrar fi sharh Muntaqa l-Akhbar, by the Yemini scholar ash-Shawkani (d. 1832)
Support for this theory may be found in e.g. Nikki Keddie, "Symbol and Sincerity in Islam," Studia Islamica XIX, 1963: 27-64; and Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (Glencoe, Illinois, 1952)
Michel Foucault, Herculine Barbin dite Alexina B. (Paris. 1978). This is the story of a girl, Alexina, growing up in a completely female environment, the convent school in the mid-nineteenth century, who at the age of eighteen was 'discovered' to be a man and forced to undergo a juridical sex-change. Interestingly, a similar story of a girl growing up in a female environment until the age of eighteen when she was 'discovered' and underwent sex-change surgery was reported by the Egyptian media in the summer of 1993. See al-Ahram, June l2, 1993. p. 7