Sally and the shaykhs

In 1989, the late Shaykh al-Tantawi, Egypt’s leading Islamic authority, issued a fatwa on sex change surgery : “It is permissible to perform the operation in order to reveal what was hidden of male or female organs. Indeed, it is obligatory to do so on the grounds that it must be considered a treatment, when a trustworthy doctor advises it. It is, however, not permissible to do it at the mere wish to change sex from woman to man, or vice versa.” This fatwa is open to interpretation, however, since “hidden” and “mere wish” are subjective terms and could potentially allow for sex reassignment surgery in cases of gender identity disorder.

The edict was issued in the wake of a famous case of an Egyptian medical student called Sayyid Morsi, who underwent sex reassignment surgery in the late 1980s. As Sally, she applied for re-admission to her old school, al-Azhar, the Arab world’s oldest Islamic university, no less – which turned her down on the grounds that she violated its policy on sex segregation, and that all the surgery had done was to render her neither completely male nor genuinely female. After years of legal challenges, Sally was able to change her official sex to female, but failed to persuade Al Azhar to reinstate her; no longer able to pursue a career in medicine, she relaunched herself as a belly dancer. Sally’s case is discussed in detail in “Sex Change in Cairo” by Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen and “The body of the condemned Sally” by Mohamed Jean Veneuse.

In 2009, Egypt introduced an official medical committee to adjudicate on such cases, specifying that any eligible patient “should also have the physiological organs of the sex he will be changed to, which might have been hidden or were not functioning properly but should be there.” This ruling narrows the conditions, but as with almost everything else in Egypt, what is said and what can actually be done often part company.