The uncharacteristic showing of a transsexual on a popular Tunisian chat show this week has stirred a debate online, reflecting the divided nature of Tunisian society.
Born “Leila”, but going by the name “Jalel,” the transsexual appeared on Andi Mankolek (“I Have Something to Tell You”) – a program that enjoys the highest viewership among Tunisian television channels – explaining that he was registered as female at birth but has long identified as a man.
Responding to a question about whether his family considered him a male or a female, Jalel said: “They have always known me as a female, and they still do treat me as one,” Jalel said.
Jalel, who revealed that he has been using hormonal treatment to look and sound like a man, explained that he wants to undergo a sex reassignment surgery but cannot because such surgeries are illegal in the tiny North African nation. A Tunisian female footballer grabbed headlines in 2013 when she legally changed her status from female to male after court consent. But such incidents seldom take place.
“From the outside, I am a man. But inside, I am a woman. But deeper inside, I am a man,” Jalel, wearing a pair of sunglasses that concealed his identity, said, explaining his dilemma.
“I have always felt like a man,” he went on. “I am rejecting my femininity because I have never felt it. I never felt it because my brain has been programed to be a man; in the way I think, the way I speak, and the way I walk.”
In Tunisia, homosexuality is a crime punishable by law, with up to three years in jail. Fearing legal repercussions and social discrimination and intimidation, Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons seldom appear on media outlets, making Jalel’s appearance on the show a first.
In a traditionally Muslim country, which is also known to be one of the Arab world’s most progressive, Jalel’s story sparked mixed reactions on social media.
“These are lies. God created her as female and her name is Leila. She rejected her femininity and she is going to be punished for this on Judgment Day,” said a Facebook user.
“This woman, and the likes of her, does not need an operation as she claims because she wants to change God’s creation. She needs the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); this is her solution,” said a commentator on Ettounsia’s website. ISIS reportedly stoned two homosexual men to death in Syria November last year.
An interview with Tunisia’s grand mufti, Othman Battikh, in which he declared that sex reassignment surgeries are sinful in Islam, was also played during the show. Battikh noted that “corrective surgery” was only allowed in the event the “patient” proved to have hormonal abnormalities.
Responding to the mufti’s clip, Jalel, who is biologically a female, said his gender dilemma was internal and not hormonal. “So if it is sinful, do I continue living this way forever?”
“The mufti is clear. Go to a psychiatrist and you will be fine,” said another commentator.
Others sympathized with his plight, however. “This person is going through a lot of struggle that no one understands except his creator. And our modern-proclaimed society is mocking him,” said one commenter.
“Religion continues to deny the psychological component of the human being although it is one that maintains a real balance within the person,” it added.
The group also criticized the show host Ala Chebbi’s insistence to use Jalel’s legal name “Leila” – despite Jalel’s request to be call by his preferred name – saying it exposed Chebbi’s “disrespect toward the man who is fighting to exist.”
Between sympathizers and critics, some viewers praised the show for pushing the limits of freedom of speech, saying such “taboo subjects” need to be brought forward to the public sphere.
Many Tunisians are not aware of certain things, journalism student Sarra Mouelhi told Al Arabiya News. This is why “it is important to discuss such sensitive topics in public,” she added.
Discussing Jalel’s case in such a popular show is a “great idea” as it will raise awareness among the public and “those ‘cases’ will probably find ways to change their lives for the better,” Mouelhi said.
“The Tunisian people are now capable of discussing such sensitive topics given the freedom of expression that the country is experiencing,” said Jihed Abid, a trainee computer engineer.
“This case, or homosexuality in general, are not new in Tunisia. But no one faced the reality of their existence before, or dared to have a discussion about them.”
Albeit still prejudiced in society, LGBT individuals have been increasingly joining the public sphere since the ousting of strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, using social media and the Internet to voice their dissent.
An online magazine for homosexuals in Tunisia and the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Gayday, was founded shortly after the revolution and grabbed attention for breaking the taboo.
Following a televised declaration by former Human Rights Minister Samir Dilou, in which he said that “there were limits to freedom” and that homosexuals were “sick” people that need to be hospitalized, the demand for a legal framework that would protect LGBT rights grew louder.
But onlookers express that so long as the law is based on religion, there is little that can be done for the LGBT community.
“Our legislation is based on Islam,” said law student Eya Belhaj. “It is sinful to change your sex, and sinful to act like anything but your sex.”
“He [Jalel] will never be able to change his sex on papers, even if he takes it to court.”