‘I’m a Yemeni trans man and my family want to kill me’
Yahyia Al-Zindani had to flee his homeland in fear of his life but continues to do all he can to support Yemen’s trans community
The years of abuse that Yahyia Al-Zindani suffered for being a trans man came to a boiling point on one traumatic night in August 2019. As he hid in his locked bedroom, he said his father screamed threats to murder him through the door. In fear of his life, that night he fled his homeland of Yemen.
Despite escaping his family, the shadow of threat still weighs heavily upon him. He has to live in hiding from fear of a so-called ‘honour’ killing. He is only 23 but feels like he has gone through “a million lifetimes of torture”.
And he has the additional pain of missing the family he still loves. He told openDemocracy: “I miss Yemen. I miss home and I miss my family so bad, even though they hate me and they would kill me if I go back. But I still love them and it hurts to miss them while they are hating me this bad. I miss my friends and I miss being not afraid of anything, knowing that my family has my back. But now I have no one.”
Wednesday is international transgender day of visibility, which comes amidst a backlash against trans rights around the world. And to mark it, openDemocracy is looking at the people facing the brunt of that backlash – including in Yemen, where both sides of the civil war are violently imposing Western gender norms brought to the country by the British empire only a few generations ago.
After a six-month openDemocracy investigation, major aid donors and NGOs have said they will investigate anti-LGBT ‘conversion therapy’ at health facilities run by groups they fund.
But unlike the other aid donors, US aid agency PEPFAR has not responded at all.
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Al-Zindani’s peace of mind, right to freedom and educational hopes have been destroyed by the transphobia he has suffered. With the help of human rights advocates and friends, he was able to get the necessary documents, ID and passport to finally leave Yemen for another country in the Middle East. “The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed my plans for relocating out of the Middle East,” he said.
“The threats from my family have not stopped, I fear moving around areas inhabited by the Yemeni diaspora. My movement is still restricted, I am still alone. I am still in an Arab country where the NGOs I reach out to for help regarding shelter or education or jobs don't accept me for my gender identity. I still face discrimination for existing the way I do.”
A lifetime of torture
“I have only been in this world for 23 years, yet it seems like a million lifetimes of torture,” said Al-Zindani.
“In 2015, when the war broke out in Yemen, my family and I fled to Somaliland, where I was subjected to physical abuse and torture. I was jailed against my will in a mental institution, while antipsychotics and female hormones were given to me by force.
“I was labelled a schizophrenic, bipolar, paranoid and an aggressive person. All my medical reports were switched to suit my family’s claims of insanity and to label me as incompetent and unable to make my own decisions. I was put under their forced guardianship.”
He showed openDemocracy a photograph of numerous drugs, including antipsychotics, which he said he was forced to take over two years. He said he was also made to take Progynova – used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopausal women because it contains oestrogen – and that he was forcibly injected with antipsychotics usually used to sedate prisoners.
openDemocracy showed his list of medications to two UK-based doctors, who both corroborated his claims about what these medications do.
I was jailed against my will in a mental institution, while antipsychotics and female hormones were given to me by force to reassign me to my birth sex
Al-Zindani said that, in January 2017, his family “brought two body-builders to chain me at home… They covered my mouth and eyes and chained my hands and legs so they could take me to the mental hospital. There they started forcing me to take the drugs.”
After two months his family took him home, he said, but for the next two years, whenever he refused to take his medication, they threatened to send him back to the hospital, which he refers to as a “prison”.
On the drugs, he said he “couldn’t think”, adding: “It was like a blank inside my head. I was struggling in uni because of them. I couldn’t even wake up. My mom used to force me to wake up every day. She used to shower me with cold water in bed.”
He said his family “got a court decision to ban me from travel. I tried to leave but they caught me at the sea port.”
“I was deprived of my right to get an education for two years. I am a fifth-year medical student, and the huge doses of antipsychotics I was given have killed a part of me I don’t think I will ever get back. My memory is not the same, I am not the same, and what breaks me the most is that they killed my dream of graduating from medical school with my classmates last year.
“Everyone who helped or tried to help me was harmed, including physical harm. I’m really sorry for them. [My family] believe whoever helped me or supported me are criminals and people without morals.
“My family refused to disown me. They thought if they could make me depend on them, it would make me go back to them and accept living the life they want for me. They constantly made it clear to me that it is OK with them if I killed myself, since it would keep their good image in front of the community […] but they didn’t wait for me to do it, they wanted to do it themselves.”
In May 2018, the family moved back to Yemen and by the following summer, the situation with his family had descended to the ultimate low. openDemocracy has received corroborating evidence for Al-Zindani’s claim that his father threatened to kill him. His father has not responded to our offer to put across his side of the story.
“He also reported me to the Houthi militia,” Yahyia said, referring to the forces that run much of the war-divided country.
Transphobia in Islam: a modern phenomenon
As a gender equality and LGBTQIA+ rights advocate, Al-Zindani dreams of creating the change that the suppressed LGBTQIA+ community in Yemen so desperately needs.
“I dream of relocating to a country where I can safely express my thoughts and my identity, where my inalienable human rights are respected and where my voice can create the change that our community needs, so that the rest of us don’t disappear into thin air,” he said.
Although Al-Zindani is as vocal as he can be online for trans rights, he struggles with being restricted to an isolated existence in hiding. “The only visible life I have is on social media. Other than that I am isolated and this is not a life any human being deserves.”
Even the ability to speak out online was a hard-won right. “For a long time, I was deprived of my right to privacy and under constant supervision. My emails, phone records and conversations were being checked constantly.” Even after he left Yemen, he said his family made others report his Facebook account, so that it was shut down.
Modern transphobia within Islam doesn’t have a basis in traditional teaching, according to two Australian academics, Aisya Aymanee and Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli. In an article published last year, they argued: “The Qur’an unequivocally acknowledges the existence of transgender people.”
And they pointed out that two senior religious figures – Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, who held Egypt’s most prominent religious role until his death in 2010, and Ayatollah Khomeini, the late political leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution – issued fatwas in the 1980s permitting gender reassignment surgery.
According to Aymanee and Pallotta-Chiarolli, “pre-colonial Islamic communities” regularly allowed people known as mukhannath into women’s spaces. Mukhannath are said to be “males whose effeminate qualities are innate and natural, and who do not experience sexual attraction towards women”. It has also been claimed that the mukhannath of traditional Islamic communities are what modern society knows to be trans women.
However, across much of the Middle East, the colonial legacy of transphobia overrides traditional acceptance. In January, Al-Zindani tweeted about numerous cases of trans people in Yemen allegedly being assaulted or killed.
The cases included an eight-year-old trans boy, who Al-Zindani said was killed by militias in the south of the country. “I was in contact with several NGOs inside Yemen, but they all declined to help because they were scared of the Houthi militia,” he said. “We either disappear, get killed, or get jailed and then are never heard of again.”
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