Malak doesn’t remember exactly when she started feeling she was female instead of male. “I didn’t even know what ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ meant,” she tells me. As a child, she gravitated to girls for friendship, feeling more comfortable around them. She dressed much differently than boys her age and avoided picking fights like they did, to prove their masculinity. At age six, she would dream of wearing a wedding dress, which only compounded her confusion.
The term for this is gender dissonance, Malak says, a fairly good description of her feelings at that time. Her demeanor is cheerful as she speaks with me, but it doesn’t hide her physical tension. Her transition was not only a personal struggle, or a battle with her family and immediate community. It also put her up against the political authorities, when she decided her own struggle intersected with that of others.
The laughter ringing out in the small apartment in Hadaiq al-Ahram, south of Cairo, was brought to a sudden halt when Miss Inshirah appeared on the screen in a scene in the film al-Nazir. “Turn that woman off, she’s a transsexual,” Khuloud, Malak’s sister, said angrily before muttering about seeking God’s refuge. As if in a cartoon, a lightbulb in Malak’s head switched on. It was the first time she had heard that word. Miss Inshirah, or Hanan al-Tawil — a trans actress who died in 2004 under tragic circumstances — was Malak’s gateway to her true self.
Malak shuffles her feet nervously and exhales the smoke of her cigarette as she looks up, remembering the day she told her family she was a girl. She was just nine years old. She was sitting with her girlfriends, Yara and Salma, on the staircase of her building making dresses for dolls, when she suddenly told them she had to go upstairs and would be right back. But she didn’t come back. Hesitantly, she entered the kitchen where her mother was standing and told her uneasily, “Mama, I’m a girl, not a boy.”
“Go to your room until your father gets home from work,” her mother said, not even looking at her. When her father came home, he gave her a beating.
Before that day, her family had not noticed anything about her personality that marked her as different from other boys of that age. But after Malak confronted them, her family tried numerous methods to modify her behavior in line with their own perceptions of her identity. They took her to a few doctors and multiple sheikhs. She was committed to mental institutions for months and came out of them with bad memories and a report asserting that she was indeed male, which only made her family more tenacious in their attempts. In this period, Malak was afraid and confused. She stopped saying she was female, cut her hair, and in a moment of despair told her mother, “That’s it, I’m a boy, I’m your man,” all in an effort to avoid the pain she was experiencing.
But deep down she told herself, “Even if the whole world thinks I’m a boy, I know in my depths I’m a girl.” Malak dressed like a young man at home in front of her family, but she started snatching things from the women in the house and hiding them in her wardrobe: eyeliner, lipstick, a woman’s bodysuit top, a gold anklet, skinny pants, and few colored hair bands. She would put them in her bag, and when she left the house at 6 am, she would stand on the stairs next to her family’s apartment, on the fifth and top floor, put on the makeup and women’s clothes, and wrap a rainbow-colored scarf around her neck.
But she lived in a close-knit neighborhood. Most of the neighbors knew each other. Her aunts and cousins lived nearby and had heard about their “squishy” cousin. As a result, she was subjected to constant violence from her family. Once, her brother and father stripped her in the street.
During this time, Malak avoided crowds, always opting for empty side streets in a search of safety, even if she had to go out of her way. Even this was not enough to reassure her, and she always walked swiftly, casting nervous glances behind her.
At school, Malak chose to avoid her classmates, to escape their harsh words about her lack of masculinity. She came to exams late and was always the first to leave. In a muffled voice, she tells me, “When I was in the third year of preparatory school, 43 students attacked me and beat me up at school for no reason.”
Ahmed Waly heard about Malak before he met her. He lived in the same neighborhood after moving back from Hurghada, where his father worked for a while. There was gossip, back then: Malak was a “deviant” who walked the streets of Hadaiq al-Ahram in makeup and women’s clothes. Curious, Waly decided to talk to Malak himself.
“We were shot at with a shotgun on the streets so many times, me and Malak were,” Waly tells me, laughing. He became Malak’s only friend. His mother kicked him out of the house because of his friendship with her, but he did not back down. His classmates called him gay, but he didn’t care. He lost many of his friends, but he thinks they weren’t really friends to begin with.
As adolescence kicked in, Malak was lost. She struggled with her sexual orientation. For a while, she thought she was gay and then for a short time, bisexual. During this period, she had a boyfriend. As she became certain she had gender dysphoria, she confessed to him that that she wanted to go to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery, but he loudly rejected the idea out of hand, saying it was illicit.
Then she embarked on her real-life experience—a term transgender people use to mean living full-time in the gender role they identify with. “I mean, I wore a red-headed wig,” Malak says. She pursued this path alone, and at age 14 decided to live as a woman to start a new life, after her family cut her off.
Malak left home with nothing but her self. She was forced to get a job, despite her youth, and moved between friends’ houses until she got to know herself again and became reconciled to the person she was. She was fired from some jobs because her outward appearance did not match the data on her identity card, but in the end, “It was stubbornness that allowed me to live,” Malak says.
Malak found a refuge with Hana, who took her into her home for two years. Hana said that her daughter, Nancy, told her about a friend of hers who had been kicked out of her house. “My daughter didn’t understand Malak, but she felt for her. She told me, ‘She’s a boy with a girl inside him.’”
Without hesitation, Hana agreed to let Malak stay. She explained to her daughter that this was a medical case and wasn’t Malak’s fault. Hana lives with her only daughter in the Nahiya area in Cairo. I asked her if she was afraid of the neighbors’ reactions to Malak’s presence in the house. “I never thought about it,” she says. The only thing Hana thought was that Malak was a kind-hearted girl who had been wronged by society and treated cruelly by her family. “When Malak told me about their cruelty, I couldn’t believe it,” she says, “But I saw them with my own eyes.”
During this period, Malak transitioned in full. Sex reassignment in Egypt is a long, arduous process. It starts with the gender reassignment committee in the Doctors Syndicate, which subjects applicants to numerous medical tests, followed by a referral to a urologist and then psychiatric treatment, in a process that takes at least two years. During this time, the psychiatrist assesses the case to determine the need for gender reassignment surgery. In the last step in the process, the applicants for gender reassignment must come before a seven-member committee that includes doctors and a representative of al-Azhar.
In reality, the procedures are even more complicated. Malak spent more than two years under psychiatric review at the Hussein University Hospital, during which two psychiatrists refused to deal with her—one ostensibly because she smoked and the other because she said Malak was a non-believer. A third psychiatrist agreed to assess her case and in mid-October 2017 diagnosed her with gender dysphoria in an official report.
Malak applied to the Doctors Syndicate committee to begin the official procedures for surgery, and five months later, she was able to submit her medical file to the committee. But the Azhar representative’s boycott of the committee meetings to approve surgery for Malak and dozens of others like her has meant that no surgeries have been approved for five years. Last year, at age 19, Malak decided to undergo the procedure in a private hospital.
On her 18th birthday, Malak reestablished a relationship with her mother after a long, emotional phone conversation. She called her mother, cried, and blamed her for her lack of empathy and leaving her to face all this fear on her own. Her mother explained how hard it was having “a transsexual son in Egypt,” how she and the family were harassed, and how she couldn’t comprehend the situation. Her mother concluded by telling her she loved her whether she was male or female.
Gradually, over 2018, Malak’s relationship with her mother began to improve. She visited the house despite a tense relationship with her father and siblings, who insist, even today, on addressing her with masculine pronouns, which Malak detests. Her family says they are pained by the fact that she changed God’s creation, but Malak thinks that what bothers them is the talk from other people.
Her relationship with her siblings — two sisters and one brother — remained fraught. Rana, the middle sister, talked at length about what she was doing in an attempt to dissuade her, Malak says, which she considered bullying.
But the elder sister, Khuloud, was nicer, closer and more understanding, at least in the beginning. Khuloud was the only one in the house in whom she confided her passion for drawing. She always bought sweets for her on her way home. The relationship was good until Malak decided to leave home. Khuloud cut her off completely, even refusing to speak to her at the dinner table when Malak came back home four years later.
Then at 2 am on a day in March of last year, Khuloud called Malak and asked her to come by the house because her mother was sick. Malak rushed to the family home in a panic to find national security officers waiting to arrest her.
In 2015, while she was transitioning, Malak became involved in circles of people like herself. She started reading up on feminism, gender and rights, and she became interested in the impact of political repression on rights and liberties, which is naturally worse for the trans community as a socially rejected minority. She read content from Nazra and became friends with an Egyptian transwoman who currently lives abroad and who had become politically involved since the January 25 revolution. She influenced the evolution of Malak’s political thought.
“If transpeople do not pay attention to politics, how can they know the laws that make it hard to live their lives normally and then try to change them?” Malak says.
Mohammad Allam, a friend of Malak’s who is also a transperson, appeared frequently in the media after 2013 to demand his right to undergo gender reassignment surgery and change the personal details on his ID card — a quest in which he was ultimately successful. He admires Malak greatly for her attempts to continue her education and work despite the difficulty of doing so in Egypt.
“The transpeople I know don’t work and don’t study because they’re trans, but Malak is different,” Allam says. “The main difference with Malak is that she defends the rights of the full LGBT community.” For Allam, his case cannot be equated with that of gay people or even other transpeople, whom he believes falsely claim to have gender dysphoria. He thinks that defending them weakens the case of transpeople.
But Malak does not defend only the rights of the LGBT community.
On the morning of February 27, 2019, a train rammed into the concrete barrier at the end of the platform of the Cairo train station, setting off a massive explosion that killed 21 people and injured 52 more in what was known as the Ramses Station accident.
Malak calls it the most tragic accident she’s ever seen. She remembers every image and video circulated on Facebook showing people running aimlessly, engulfed by flames. She remembers posts by the victims’ families: a young doctor mourned by his fiancée; another family who looked for their loved one for days before discovering she had died in the accident. A couple of days after the incident, Malak and a friend decided to organize an event on Facebook calling for a demonstration on March 1; 11 hours later, 11,000 people had responded affirmatively.
Malak was not afraid of being arrested. Anyone who is involved in public life is vulnerable to arrest at any time, she says, even if they do not call for or participate in a demonstration.
For her, this was not a political issue, but a humanitarian one.
“All I could think about was that it could’ve been me, and my family would have gotten LE80,000” Malak said. “But I’m worth more than 80,000 — the people who died are worth more than money.”
Demonstrators were arrested at various places before they could assemble in front of the train station. Malak’s photo was published on the Egyptian police Facebook page as “one of the subversives calling for the demonstration.” She hid out at a friend’s house until her sister’s phone call.
Malak might be the first out transperson detained in connection with a political case in Egypt.
I asked her if she had been subjected to violence in the police station. “I was given the welcome beating as usual,” she answered derisively, referring to routine beatings that are given to prisoners when they enter the jail. Malak spent 15 days in isolation in the Haram police station men’s jail, followed by 120 days in solitary at Tora Prison, on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media and abetting a terrorist group.
It wasn’t the first time Malak had been detained — this arrest followed two brief detentions in 2017 and 2018 — but it was the longest. She was denied visits for a month and then only allowed visits from first-degree relatives. Her family came just twice. After each visit Malak returned to a narrow cell measuring 1.5 by 1.5 meters, without windows save for an opening in the ceiling covered with plastic to prevent rain (and light) from entering. Next to the opening was a small lamp. On the side of the cell was a metal bed topped with a mattress “as thin as a rolling paper.” On the other side of the cell was a cabinet to store clothes and prison linens, a sink and toilet, and a small cistern to make up for the long interruptions in water service. Malak shared her cell with insects and a lone spider that she closely observed until her release. The cell had a small door fixed with a slot in the middle to allow the entry of food and the like.
A piece of paper is affixed to the doors of the pretrial detention cells indicating the prisoner’s name. Malak was identified as “Abd al-Rahman (Malak) al-Kashif; status: transsexual.” Malak became accustomed to not responding to anyone who called her “Abd al-Rahman” in prison. In the transgender community, this is known as “dead-naming” and it is rude to call someone by their dead name.
Malak underwent a medical exam at the Boulaq General Hospital on her second day in prison. She was subjected to an anal exam and faced verbal and physical harassment from the policeman accompanying her, who called her “prettier than my wife.” Throughout her detention, she was denied regular outdoor time. For the few minutes that she spent outside, all the other prisoners were locked up and her face was covered.
A few days after entering prison, Malak’s lawyer was able to get her a small sketchbook and pencil, which helped her to pass the difficult days. She quickly filled the sketchbook and then started drawing on the cell walls with the pencil, and sometimes with vegetables. She drew a bald girl with a butterfly on her head that she colored with her food. She drew two wings — one an angel’s and the other a demon’s.
Malak was released in July of the same year while the case is pending.
She changed during her four-month prison stay, she says. She voluntarily checked into an institution for the first time in her life, needing to recover from the trauma of prison. In her personal life, she became less social and more intransigent about state policy, which she now saw as “a personal enemy.” She decided to file suit against the interior minister seeking the designation of a special detention facility for trans individuals.
Despite her negative experiences in prison, Malak believes her detention compelled her to think about prison conditions for transpeople. “I became aware that there were bigger rights than just natural rights, like the right to be recognized and change my ID card.” She is now finding it difficult to change her identity card since her criminal case is still pending.
After Malak’s release, many people advised her to emigrate and join the ranks of numerous other transpeople abroad.
“I’m not leaving Egypt because I started here: I suffered, fought and was defeated here,” she says. Malak dreams of completing her degree in law and establishing the first civic institution for the LGBT community, to help people find their way on the long path to self-knowledge, assist them in obtaining official reports and documents, and provide jobs for them.