CAIRO — Aisha was sleeping when her apartment was raided. She and three other friends had just moved in when the police came by asking if they had weapons or anything illegal. They said no, and were asked for their identity cards.
Aisha and her friends are transgender women, but their identity cards say they are male. When the police discovered this, they took them to the station without any explanation. "I asked them what they were going to do to us at the police station, and they said, 'Nothing, you're just going to sign some papers and then you're going to go free,'" she recalls.
At the station, they were asked if they were prostitutes. The police who brought them in explained, "They are she-males." Then the beatings started. "He [the police officer] beat up my friend with an electric stick. He was hitting her on her head, on her stomach, on her butt, everywhere; she was screaming. They beat us so hard, and told us 'You're not worthy, you don't deserve to live,'" recalls Aisha.
Signs of a crackdown
Aisha is one of many transgender women who have been targeted since the beginning of 2014. Since then, more than 150 transgender people, women in particular, have been arrested, according to Scott Long, a gender and sex rights activist who has been actively documenting the crackdown.
The day after she was detained, Aisha and her flatmates were sent to court, and her lawyer warned her that they would most likely be found guilty and that she shouldn't hope for anything until the appeal. "We went to the judge. He didn't even ask us our names ... he didn't ask us anything."
Aisha and two of her friends were sentenced to three years in prison, while her friend, who owned the apartment, was sentenced to eight years. Under Egypt's debauchery laws, three years is the maximum sentence, but because the law originated in relation to prostitution, those with their names on the leases of property can face harsher sentences.
Another transgender woman and activist, Yara, believes the ongoing crackdown against LGBT people in Egypt has singled out transgender women more than any other group. Yara believes this is due to their visibility.
Many transgender women take estrogen hormones, which causes their appearance to change and become more feminine. In some cases, like Aisha's, they have breasts, which contrasts with the identities written on their official documents. While most do not present as female in public, there is a chance that even in private, their neighbors might see them and call the police.
Dalia Abdel Hameed, a gender rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), doesn't think transgender people have been singled out more than gay men. But she does think that cisgender gay men who present effeminately are more likely to be targeted. She says that around 200 people, both transgender and gay, have been arrested in the current campaign against LGBT people in Egypt.
Abdel Hameed believes that the media and the police are more likely to highlight the arrest of transgender women than any other group because it means they can release pictures and videos of “men” in dresses, which is considered particularly scandalous and is thus likely to sell newspapers.
"Of course there is depression"
Long agrees with Yara that transgender women are the easiest target in the current crackdown. “It's the most public part of gay identity,” he explains. Long thinks the moral component of the state's crackdown on LGBT people is amplified in the case of transgender women because “they're seen as a particularly degrading example of men who reject their own masculinity.”
The idea of transgender identity, and even the idea that people who were labeled as male at birth could willingly transition to female, is new to Egypt, says Long. “When I was working here in 2003, transgender identity didn't seem to exist. I'm sure it did, but it wasn't public,” he says.
There was, however, a very public case in 1988 concerning Sally Mursi, a transgender woman. Mursi, a student at Al-Azhar's medical school, found a doctor to perform sex reassignment surgery and tried to return to Al-Azhar as a female student. Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi released a fatwa approving gender reassignment surgery, but according to Long, the fatwa did not actually affect the policies of Al-Azhar University, which refused to allow Mursi to return to school as a woman.
Abdel Hameed says that in 2003, a ruling was passed saying doctors could only perform “corrective” gender reassignment surgery, not surgery for people who elect to change their gender. This means that intersex people — those born with a reproductive, sexual anatomy and/or chromosome pattern that does not seem to fit typical definitions of male or female — could get the surgery, but transgender people could not.
Many transgender women use estrogen hormones they can get over the counter, rather than under the supervision of a doctor. This can lead to several serious health complications, says Abdel Hameed. Some of these can include depression, both as a result of going on the hormones and coming off them, a problem that Yara says is common among transgender women. “Of course there is depression,” she says, “you can't work, even at home you can't ... the best thing is if no one can see you.”
Even without the crackdown it is difficult to get by as a transgender woman in Egypt, especially for people taking hormones. It is almost impossible to change your legal identity from male to female or vice versa. Abdel Hameed says it is possible if you go outside the country to get gender reassignment surgery and a certificate proving it, but even then it's still difficult.
Drawn into sex work
Identity cards are a key block for transgender women, especially when it comes to finding employment. “What you see is different than what's written on the identity card, where it says you're a boy. That causes a lot of problems, because we do not have an open-minded society,” Yara explains. She believes this is part of the reason why many transgender women turn to sex work.
There are no exact numbers on the percentage of transgender women in the sex trade, as it is by its very nature undocumented, but Long, Abdel Hameed and Yara all agree that many transgender women are sex workers.
Long says part of the reason that many transgender women are involved in sex work is because there is a large market for them. “There are clients, and this is true in every country, who want to have sex with a man, but want to have sex with a man in a dress, or who fetishize transgender people, or just clients who like transgender people,” he explains.
It is difficult for anyone to get a job in the current economic climate, and being transgender only exacerbates this problem. The fact that there is a market demand for transgender women in sex work means that it may be one of the few jobs they can reliably get, Long adds.
This puts transgender women who work in the sex industry even more at risk because of the laws concerning sex work. “The law criminalizes the sex worker, but not the client, so the client gets off scot-free and the sex worker gets arrested. All the penalties fall on the sex worker,” says Long.
But even when a transgender woman is not involved in sex work, as with Aisha, they are still vulnerable. Aisha and her friends were in jail for a total of six months, isolated from the rest of the other inmates in a room without beds. Aisha says the conditions were horrible. “People were like pigs inside, I saw it with my own eyes. Maybe pigs are treated better than we were,” she says.
Small acts of kindness
Aisha and her friends eventually won their appeal as the result of a procedural error when they were first arrested. The prosecution forgot to make them take a forensic anal examination, a practice which “violates international standards against torture,” according to Human Rights Watch.
When the doctors eventually did perform the anal examination, it was weeks after their arrest, and there was no “evidence” of anal sex, although human rights organizations claim that such examinations are inconclusive, no matter the time frame.
This proved to be a key point in their release. Aisha says even the judge, who ultimately dismissed the charges against them, was disgusted by what he referred to as their “homosexuality,” although Aisha identifies as straight.
“We thanked him [after the verdict], and he said, 'I don't want you to thank me. I hate you, you're nothing in my eyes. So don't bother yourself by saying thank you'.”
Despite this, Aisha recounts that even in prison, the idea that transgender identity is different to homosexuality is starting to be understood. She reports multiple instances of prison guards sympathizing with her and her friends.
“They were treating us like we were girls. Around 90% sympathized with us. They said, â€˜You have a mental condition and jail is not for you.' They provided us with food sometimes. When we had nothing left they would bring us food, water, Pepsi and cigarettes.”
Yara says the perception that transgender identity is a medical condition and not a choice is largely a good thing in Egypt, as it garners more sympathy toward transgender people. “It's worse if people have a religious point of view, because then it's a big sin and people will do crazy things. But mental disorders are in psychological textbooks.”
Yara herself realized she was transgender four or five years ago. She came out to her family very quickly and was thrown out. “They kicked me out and I had a lot of problems, but I have a connection with my mother now,” she explains.
Part of the difficulty for Yara was that she was struggling with her gender identity, and up until four or five years ago had not encountered the idea of transgender identity, which she discovered through online reading is not a disease.
Longing to get away
Yara is working to raise awareness about transgender identity and to combat commonly held myths about it. She started a Facebook page for transgender people, where she posts and translates articles about gender identity. The page is private and requires Yara's permission to post a comment, but has already gathered over 250 likes. She says she wants it to be a place “of safety and support for transgender people, for them to talk easily.”
She acknowledges that maintaining safety will be difficult, “We have to pretend all the time,” she explains. This is one of the reasons for an online movement. But she also wants to start a campaign offline. “I've been thinking about this for a while," she says. "This is an important moment, because the media is talking about gender identity in a different way.”
“If there is a message, it's that it's important that we talk more about our lives, it's important that we have Facebook groups, maybe one or two people here in our society will change their ideas,” she goes on to say.
But ultimately, Yara does not know if she would stay in Egypt if she got the chance to leave. "I wanted to leave in the past," she explains, "but it's not an easy answer, to leave the people here ... What would I do? Where would I go?"
For Aisha, the answer is not so difficult, "I want to go to some country that can understand the rights of human beings like us. I think most countries, maybe they don't like us, but at least they're good to us. For example in America, maybe they do not like us, but at least they're not harmful to us, they're not trying to hurt us," she says.
Aisha's time in jail still casts a long shadow. "We thought we would be the happiest people on earth once we got out, but we started to realize something was broken inside, nothing could make us happy like we used to be before going to jail, even now," she says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm better, but more often I'm not."
(Aisha's name has been changed and Yara referred to only by her first name to protect their identities)