Tunisian female footballer Fatima Maleh announced on national radio that she is now a man, legally registered in civil records as Mohammad Ali. One not-small step for this man; and a giant leap for Tunisia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Ground Zero for the Arab Spring, Tunisia may be trailblazing other human rights as well.
“Everything was fine when I was a child, but things started to develop when I reached the age of puberty,” Maleh told Sport Radio Nationale, “When I passed the age of 12 and 13 and nothing happened, I began to wonder and ask questions, but I found no explanation.”
In high school, he was drawn to whatever boys did, particularly football. But Islamic traditions in his Tataouine hometown prevented girls from playing coed sports. Maleh would be ridiculed and beaten when he tried to join in.
Registered at birth as female, and considered a woman by her family and friends, he went on to become an international footballer whose career included play with a Gulf-based all-women football team. He told the radio station that he did not feel comfortable dressing in the team’s changing rooms, and kept his sexuality hidden from his teammates.
In 2008, following a series of medical examinations, 29-year-old Maleh obtained a certificate confirming his masculinity.
After years of struggling with his sexual identity, but before making his secret public, he began the bureaucratic process of sex change, ultimately winning a court ruling to register as male in civil records and obtain a new national identity card. Last June, he received his new ID card with his chosen name, Mohammad Ali.
Same-sex sexual activity is illegal in mostly-Muslim Tunisia, and can result in imprisonment up to three years. Homosexuality is viewed as decadent and immoral, and there’s no legal recognition of same-sex couples. Many LGBT Tunisians feel pressure to keep their sexuality closeted and to marry a person of the opposite sex.
Although Tunisia has no organized LGBT rights movement, two years ago online Gayday Magazine was launched. There’s also a Facebook page campaigning for Tunisian LGBT rights. Anecdotal evidence shows that transsexuals continue to be harassed by authorities under public morality laws.
Check out Karin Kloosterman’s thoughtful article on Middle East mores regarding LGBT lifestyles. In the United Arab Emirates sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage are a crime. In Qatar, LGBT folks lack rights, but curiously, homosexual acts between adult females are legal.
And in the kingdom formerly know as Transjordan, specifically in urban Amman, being transgender may be moving closer to a societal non-issue.
Images of Fatima Maleh from Al Arabiya