After 30 years as a woman, she asked: Who am I? [Archives:2007/1056/Reportage]

June 4 2007
Al-Harazi undergoes sexual ambiguity.
Al-Harazi undergoes sexual ambiguity.
Amel Al-Ariqi
[email protected]

It has become quite normal to hear about those born with genitalia and/or secondary sex characteristics determined as neither exclusively male nor female or which combine features of both male and female sexes and then they have sexual reassignment surgeries.

However, it's unusual to hear about one who has lived more than 30 years as a woman, had children and then suddenly – of her own will – appealing for sexual reassignment surgery.

Arwa Al-Harazi was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1975. She and her family, consisting of her father and five siblings, returned Yemen after the second Gulf War. She married in 1997 after finishing high school and became pregnant immediately thereafter during her first month of marriage. But in her fifth month of pregnancy, she was divorced.

Despite being a divorced woman, Al-Harazi improved herself as a good mother, as well as a good employee at a tourism and travel office. She was the only supporter of her family.

Six years after her divorce, Arwa decided to visit her village in Haraz, located west of Sana'a, where she had an accident, falling down a mountain, which injured her greatly.

“I was in a hospital in Sana'a for a month. I broke my legs, my pelvis and I had to carry out a hysterectomy. I had much medication to relieve my pain. Gradually, I noted that my body was changing. My period stopped, my voice became rough, hair began to grow on my chest and my breasts began to atrophy. I felt confused for long time, unable to understand what was going on with me.”

Al-Harazi conducted other medical testes that revealed that she had male secondary sexual characteristics. “I couldn't believe it. Suddenly, I lost everything – my womanliness, my motherhood, my identity. I lived in denial for a long time. My family tried to support me, particularly when I tried to kill myself twice by cutting my slitting my wrists,

Medically, Al-Harazi is termed a “pseudohermaphrodite,” but most use the term “intersex.” Because such terms now are considered antiquated, misleading and stigmatizing, patient advocates call for these terms to be abandoned. There's currently a move by some activists to eliminate the term intersex in medical usage, replacing it with sex development disorder or sexual ambiguity in order to avoid fusing anatomy with identity.

According to medical studies, the most common cause of sexual ambiguity is adrenal hyperplasia, an endocrine disorder where the adrenal glands produce abnormally high levels of masculinizing hormones. In females, this leads to an appearance that may be slightly masculine (having a large clitoris, for example) to quite masculine.

Al-Harazi isn't the only one suffering such a medical problem in Yemen, according to urologist Dr. Hussein Al-Kaff, who confirms that he has treated many pseudohermaphrodites. “Such cases can be treated by sexual reassignment surgery; however, Al-Harazi's case is special and requires more medical attention. Due to the lack of facilities in Yemen, I recommended Al-Harazi seek treatment abroad,” he stressed.

Recent testing shows that Al-Harazi has more male than female chromosomes, “which indicates that I'm tending more toward being a man than a woman,” Al-Harazi explained, adding, “I don't care if I'll be a man or a woman, I just want to know what I am. I'll be satisfied with God's judgment. The only thing I want is an identity to keep on living”

However, Al-Harazi already has chosen the way. “Because of my inner struggle, my doctor advised me to accept my fate and my new life and told me to deal with people as a man. It was very difficult to do that in the beginning. I wore the veil, but at the same time, I was very scared, thinking that if anyone removed it, they would see the hair on my face. Besides that, I couldn't hide my rough voice, so I decided to stop wearing women's clothing and dress as a man.”

In an attempt to adopt a new life Al-Harazi, now wearing men's dress, asked others to call her/him Elias Al-Harazi and his son calls him dad. “I even have two male friends who are close friends now because they accept me as I am. We chew qat, chat and hang out together.”

Al-Harazi's transformation is incomplete, as he/she still needs hormonal assessment and surgery. “I still suffer pain due to the incomplete male genitalia that I have, so I need surgery to fix the problem. So I appeal to human rights organizations and medical organizations, either abroad or in Yemen, to consider my situation and help me go abroad for treatment and become an active social person again.”

Although Al-Harazi isn't the only case in Yemen, he/she was brave enough to tell his/her dramatic story during this change. Al-Harazi lost the job that was the only live source for him/her and the family.

“My work asked me to provide my new official identity, which mentions whether I am a man or a woman, but I couldn't complete the form because I haven't received treatment yet, so I'm now unemployed. I've become a heavy burden to my family after being its only supporter. It's ironic that I supported my family when I was a woman, building a house for us to live in, but now Al-Harazi cried in a strangled voice, unable to finish.

However, employment wasn't the only problem, as Al-Harazi was attacked many times by neighbors after they discovered his/her situation. “They accused me of acting as a woman in order to be with their sisters and wives. People in my neighborhood look down on me because it was my choice to change and some tried to drive me from the neighborhood.”

Al-Harazi avoids leaving home during the daytime in an attempt not to meet others in his neighborhood. “I feel discarded when I'm among them, so I go outside only at night when my neighbors are sleeping because that's the best time to contemplate my situation.”

Al-Harazi's 8-year-old son Amer also encounters difficulties with his school classmates, who fight with him by calling him his mother's name, Arwa.

“Is it too much demand my right to have an identity? Is it too much to ask others to respect and consider my situation? Is it too much to ask that my son learn and grow up like other children?” Al-Harazi concluded.