By Serena Hart

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Most of western society has the picture painted in their head of the Middle East as a backwards society filled with outdated laws such as only men being able to drive, a place of conflict and generally far behind the West in terms of equality and human rights. However, is this truly the case; in particular, are the transgender recognised and treated equally to those that are cisgender by law?


In September 2016, the Emirati Government passed Federal Decree No 4, a series of changes to reduce doctors' criminal liability. The new law allowed doctors to perform medical intervention on intersex people in order to "correct" their sex, effectively removing either the male or female genitalia. However, sex reassignment surgery remains illegal. Despite this progress, transgender people are still not recognised by UAE law and as such are not protected by anti-discrimination laws and are unable to receive any type of surgery or hormones to help transition into their true body.


Despite Syria being most recently known for being a place of extreme conflict, an Islamic State stronghold and the birthplace of millions of refugees currently seeking asylum it is one of the more progressive Middle Eastern countries in terms of their transgender laws. Gender reassignment surgery is legal in Syria and in 2004 the first case was reported. A Syrian woman named Hiba came forward as a transgender woman who had been given permission to have a sex change operation. Despite this, transgender people are not protected by anti-discrimination laws however that is largely due to the fact that none exist and therefore no one is protected by them!


Gender reassignment surgery is illegal in Egypt and therefore transgender people are not recognised by law. Although Egyptian law does not explicitly criminalize cross-dressing it does have several provisions that criminalize any behaviour or the expression of any idea that is deemed to be immoral, scandalous or offensive to the teachings of a recognized religious leader. Furthermore, in light of public opinion, shaped by cultural and religious traditions, these public morality and public order-based laws have been used against LGBT people as well as anyone who supports more liberal attitudes.


In Iran a person who has undergone sex reassignment surgery can legally change their name and gender on the birth certification upon the order of court and sex reassignment surgeries are partially financially supported by the state. Warnings, however, include the need to have medical approval from a doctor that supports a dissonance between assigned gender and their true gender. However, unfortunately some homosexual individuals in Iran have been pressured to undergo sex reassignment surgery in order to avoid legal and social persecution. It could be said that this is why Iran carries out more sex reassignment surgeries than any other country in the world after Thailand.

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Treatment for gender dysphoria in Israel can be paid for using the country's public health insurance system if a patient receives approval by the Committee for Sex Reassignment. However, many transgender Israelis have had trouble getting approval for treatment by this committee due to their stringent opinions on gender dysphoria. Thus, many pay out of pocket for hormone replacement therapy and/or go overseas for sex reassignment surgery. A law was introduced to the Knesset in June 2013 to eliminate gender markers on National Identity Cards. Since 2015, the Health Ministry has allowed transgender people to change legal gender without undergoing sex reassignment surgery or a sex change operation. Israel also allows all transgender individuals to openly serve in the military. Despite this there are no anti-discrimination laws concerning gender identity.

In conclusion, I have been surprised by how “progressive” the laws of some of these Middle Eastern countries are with regards to gender identity and expression. Israel, probably the most ‘western’ of the middle eastern countries is expectedly much more open and embracing towards transgender individuals, however does not have any anti-discrimination laws to protect the transgender and non-binary. I was pleasantly surprised about how accepting Syrian and Iranian laws were towards transgender people despite neither having anti-discrimination laws. Despite this, the UAE and Egypt do not recognise the transgender or allow them to receive gender reassignment surgery or hormone therapy. Therefore, it really depends on where you are in the Middle East whether transgender people are protected and recognised by law or not.