Victims of Saudi Arabia's 'gender crime' law

In countries where gender discrimination is considered a social and religious necessity, the dividing line between male and female is not to be crossed. Men must behave and dress as men, and women as women – or face punishment. 

In Saudi Arabia last week, police raided a gathering of Pakistanis who are known in their home country as khawaja sara, sometimes described as the "third sex". Thirty-five were arrested and two of them – identified as Amna, 35, and Meeno, 26 – later died in custody, according to media reports. They are said to have been placed in sacks and then beaten to death with sticks.

Yesterday, Trans Action Pakistan, which is supporting the detainees, said a third member of the group, known as Spogmy, is "very sick" in police custody. In a statement posted on Facebook it said six of those arrested have been released (not 11 as previously reported) – apparently because they were dressed as men at the time. It added that none of those who were in female male dress have been released and the Saudi authorities are demanding that they each pay a fine of 30,000 riyals ($8,000).

Khawaja sara have long been a feature of South Asian society and, though they are often despised and abused there, they have gradually been gaining some rights. Many of them live together in organised communities headed by a guru

There are concerns about the health of

Qamar Naseem, a rights activist in Pakistan, told al-bab those arrested in Saudi Arabia are mostly from the north-western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan. They were working in several Saudi cities, mostly in manual jobs such as carpenters, tailors and car mechanics, and had gathered in Riyadh for a formal ceremony known as Guru Chela Chalan where they choose their gurus and the gurus choose their chelas (students or disciples).

It is unclear how the Saudi authorities became aware of this activity but press reports quote a spokesman Riyadh police as saying that the rest house where the ceremony was being held had been "under constant surveillance". The spokesman added that "women’s clothing and jewellery" – apparently incriminating items – had been retrieved from the scene.

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Transgender issues in the Middle East

When society makes a point of treating men and women differently, as in Saudi Arabia, it becomes important to maintain a clear-cut distinction between male and female. Everyone is expected to conform to the appropriate gender stereotype and anything that obscures the distinction is viewed as a problem and potentially a threat to the established order. 

In Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and, more recently, in Kuwait this has given rise to bizarre laws against "imitating the opposite sex" – and arrests are not uncommon.

Maintaining “proper” proper standards of male and female behaviour has also become a particular concern for some Islamic scholars. In his book, "Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam", Yusuf al-Qaradawi quotes the Prophet as saying that “a woman should not wear a man’s clothing or vice versa”. Qaradawi continues:

“The evil of such conduct, which affects both the life of the individual and that of the society, is that it constitutes a rebellion against the natural ordering of things. According to this natural order, there are men and there are women, and each of the two sexes has its own distinctive characteristics. However, if men become effeminate and women masculinised, this natural order will be reversed and will disintegrate.”

However, this preoccupation with gender "norms" seems to be a fairly recent development among Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad was himself familiar with at least two kinds of people who did not fit into a simple male/female binary.

Eunuchs – castrated men – were a feature of Islamic society for centuries and, because they were assumed to be sexually inactive were often assigned a trusted role in wealthy households.

The Saudis appear to have forgotten that eunuchs also served as guardians of holy places in Jerusalem, Najaf (Iraq), Mecca and Medina. A few were reported to be still serving in Medina as recently as 2001, though their numbers had dwindled to 13 and there had been no new appointments since 1984. 

Perhaps more relevant to the case of the khawaja sara, the Prophet was also familiar with effeminate men in Medina known as mukhannathun

According to one description, the mukhannathun were men who resembled or imitated women in the “languidness” of their limbs or the softness of their voice. It’s unclear whether they also adopted a feminine style of clothing and, during the first century of Islam they were not associated with homosexuality (though later they were). They had a reputation for frivolity – which met with disapproval from devout Muslims – and some of them were renowned for making witty quips at the expense of the powerful or the pompous. The mukhannathun were generally not considered respectable and insulting someone by falsely calling him mukhannath was an offence punishable with twenty lashes.

In the hadith it is said that the Prophet cursed effeminate men (al-mukhannathin min al-rijal) and mannish women (al-mutarajjilat min al-nisa') – a remark which is widely quoted today and provides a religious basis for laws against cross-dressing in numerous Arab countries.

However, reports from the hadith (collections of words and deeds attributed to the Prophet) need to be treated with caution: they have been handed down over generations and may have become garbled in the re-telling. Elsewhere in the hadith the Prophet is said to have condemned "men who imitate women" (al-mutashabbihin min al-rijal bil-nisa') and "women who imitate men". This may be a report of a different remark, or perhaps just a second version of the remark quoted earlier – which would raise the question of which version is correct.

Whatever the Prophet’s actual words, this is nowadays interpreted as a general indictment of effeminate men and masculine women but other evidence from the hadith suggests he never took action against them as a group. He does seem to have punished a few individual mukhannathun, though not necessarily for reasons connected with effeminacy.

One story concerns a man who had decorated himself with henna (normally a practice among women):

A mukhannath, who had dyed his hands and feet with henna, was brought to the Prophet. 

The Prophet asked, “What is the matter with this one?”

He was told, “O Apostle of God, he imitates women.” 

He ordered him banished to al-Naqi’ [a town about an hour’s walk from Medina].

They said, “O Apostle of God, shall we not kill him?”

He replied, “I have been forbidden to kill those who pray.”

This is the only story involving the Prophet where feminine behaviour by a man may have been the issue, and there is not enough detail to be sure whether henna was the problem or whether the man had been trying to pass himself off as a woman. If the latter, it’s easy to see why the Prophet might have decided to banish him: given the restrictions on contact between the men and women, people who disguised themselves as the opposite sex were probably engaged in some subterfuge.

Another story tells of the Prophet chastising a mukhannath who was also a singer, and in this case the issue was not the man’s effeminacy but his singing – an activity associated with immorality. The man reportedly came to the Prophet and said:

“O Apostle of God, God has made misery my lot! The only way I have to earn my daily bread is with my tambourine in my hand; so permit me to do my singing, avoiding any immorality.”

To this, Muhammad is said to have replied:

“I will not permit you, not even as a favor! You lie, enemy of God! God has provided you with good and permissible ways to sustain yourself, but you have chosen the sustenance that God has forbidden you rather than the permissible which He has permitted you.

“If I had already given you prior warning, I would now be taking action against you. Leave me, and repent before God! I swear, if you do it after this warning to you, I will give you a painful beating, shave your head as an example, banish you from your people, and declare plunder of your property permissible to the youth of Medina.”

Because the mukhannathun were assumed not to be interested in women they could be granted access – like the eunuchs – to places where men were not normally allowed. This gave them a role as matchmakers but also earned them a reputation as facilitators of illicit trysts and adulterous affairs.

Matchmaking is the subject of another story (which appears in the hadith in several versions) where one of the Prophet’s wives overheard a mukhannath recommending a woman to her brother with the words that “she comes forward with four and goes away with eight”. This is understood to mean that she had four wrinkles or folds on her belly, with ends that wrapped round to her back where they appeared as eight.

The mukhannath’s description resulted in the Prophet expelling him from the household and possibly banishing him into the desert. The reason seems to be that the mukhannath had been paying too much attention to women’s bodies (considering that mukhannathun were not supposed to be interested in them), or perhaps that passing this rather prurient description to another man defeated the purpose of keeping women in seclusion. Either way, it is clear that the mukhannath was punished for what he did, not for who he was. In fact, this story provides the strongest evidence from the hadith that Muhammad did not punish mukhannathun as a group; the implication of the story is that the mukhannath would have continued having access in the household if he had not caused offence with his description of the woman. 

For a time, the mukhannathun of Medina and Mecca enjoyed what Everett Rowson, in a paper for the American Oriental Society, describes as a position of exceptional visibility. This seems to have come to an abrupt and possibly violent end under the Caliph Sulayman (who reigned 715-17 CE). There are conflicting accounts of what happened but there is little mention of them in the sources until they re-appear during the Abbasid period, especially in Baghdad. By then, perceptions of them had changed. Rowson comments: 

"A crucial factor was the sudden emergence of (active) homoerotic sentiment as an acceptable, and indeed fashionable, subject for prestige literature, as represented most notably by the poetry of Abu Nuwas. 

"Increased public awareness of homosexuality, which was to persist through the following centuries, seems to have altered perceptions of gender in such a way that 'effeminacy', while continuing to be distinguished from (passive) homosexual activity or desire, was no longer seen as independent from it; and the stigma attached to the latter seems correspondingly to have been directed at the former as well, so that the mukhannathun were never again to enjoy the status attained by their predecessors in Umayyad Medina."

In modern times, there is no doubt that transgender people, and others in the Middle East who visibly challenge gender norms, have touched a raw nerve. Researcher Rasha Moumneh views this in the broader context of social change:

“As women in the Gulf become more visible, both socially and politically, and as migrants bring with them different ways of living, the region's governments are stepping up their gender policing. To allay fears among conservative elements, they are regulating more tightly what is deemed acceptable behaviour for men and women …

“In times of social strain, gender and sexuality often become the focal point of broader anxieties, a phenomenon evident in media frenzies, new proposed legislation, and the brutality of the police and the impunity with which they act against an already vulnerable population.”

Historically, Muslims in various parts of the world have dressed in a variety of ways. In the old days, communities were fairly isolated. This allowed each to have its own distinct customs and traditions. Within each community, though, people would tend to dress similarly, for reasons of practicality rather than religious dogma; they would wear whatever was available locally, and choice was limited. There might be the odd eccentric who dressed differently, but they could be tolerated because no one seriously considered them a threat to the "Islamic" way of life.

Since then, television, foreign travel and the like have brought increased contact, not only between different Islamic traditions, but between different cultures. Young people pick up fashion trends from elsewhere and experiment with them, while more conservative folk – usually the literal-minded religious sort who believe anyone who disagrees with them will end up in hell – are appalled at what they see and feel threatened by the disregard for their authority.

Parallel with this is an international situation where many in the Middle East – rightly or wrongly – feel they are under siege from the west and respond to it, as a form of self-defence, by asserting supposedly traditional "Islamic values". In reality, some of these values may not be as traditional as people imagine but they tend to be highly visible, and strict enforcement of male and female codes of behaviour and dress is one of them.

Viewed in that light, adherence to the codes becomes the sartorial equivalent of patriotic flag-waving, and anyone who doesn't conform is regarded as betraying the cause. The rules promulgated by “traditionalists” today are a far cry from what was originally a simple injunction on Muslims to assume a modest appearance. In extreme cases, they also reflect an extraordinarily superficial approach to religion where there's more concern over a man who is "improperly" dressed than a one who takes bribes at work and beats his wife at home.