I’ve always been captivated by genetics, matters of sex, and gender issues. The idea that the gender of my body, one of the fundamental attributes of being human, could pose challenges for me has consistently intrigued me.
While I don’t adhere to a hyperfeminine persona, I hold a strong sense of identity as a female. I can’t fathom feeling any other way.
Western media has delved into discussions about transgender issues, and in Egypt, I believe we’ve made progress in this dialogue, although there’s much more to change.
However, a gender matter that has long fascinated me, and yet scarcely receives attention in both Egypt and the West, is intersex.
Intersex is a term used to describe a range of variations in sex characteristics that do not fit typical definitions of male or female bodies. These variations can occur in terms of chromosomes, hormones, gonads (reproductive organs), or genitalia. Intersex people may be born with physical traits that don’t fit the binary understanding of male or female.
It’s crucial, though, to differentiate between intersex and transgender.
Intersex pertains to biological sex characteristic variations, while transgender relates to a person’s gender identity not aligning with their assigned birth sex.
I recall learning about intersex at an early stage in life and being perplexed not by the condition itself, but by the absence of individuals who openly identified as intersex. Later, I realized it was likely due to not having encountered someone willing to disclose their status; statistically speaking, I must have met intersex individuals without realizing.
I started a quest to find someone comfortable discussing their experiences on record. However, over the course of 8 years, I encountered only one intersex person, who respectfully declined my interview.
After giving up, someone contacted me and asked if I was still interested in holding the interview, and I certainly was. Their only request was to stay anonymous.
While I preferred to have the person’s identity in the article, they preferred to stay anonymous, which we will respect.
Upon meeting, I mentioned that I’ll probably have to add a pseudonym for them in the article, and they jumped in with “Nour” since it’s the most gender-neutral Arabic name, so throughout we’ll be calling them Nour.
Nour, preferring they/them pronouns, was born in 1990 in Egypt with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). Despite having male chromosomes (XY), Nour’s family raised them as male, even though individuals with AIS commonly identify as female and typically live as women.
“I had many sisters and no brothers. I was my father’s sole hope of being the ‘man’ of the family.”
Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS) is a genetic condition where individuals with XY chromosomes exhibit reduced or absent responses to male sex hormones. This leads to diverse developments of external and internal genitalia that may appear typically female, despite the genetic male composition.
AIS manifests in three primary forms. Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) presents with a feminine appearance and undescended testes. Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (PAIS) involves a spectrum of genital and internal structure development, with the extent of androgen insensitivity varying. Mild Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (MAIS) results in a male external appearance but could entail minor under-masculinization.
AIS is usually diagnosed during childhood or adolescence when seeking medical attention for sexual development concerns. Treatment encompasses hormonal therapy, surgery, and psychological support, tailored to the individual’s condition and preferences. AIS illustrates the intricate interplay between genetics, hormones, and sexual development.
In Nour’s case, they had CAIS.
Nour’s parents never informed them about their condition during their upbringing.
“To them, it was a source of shame, something they preferred not to acknowledge or discuss.”
Nour added that her parents’ denial reached a point where they even refused to provide necessary hormonal treatment for their survival. The absence of appropriate treatment resulted in several health complications for Nour, including cancer.
“Most individuals with AIS live as women due to the elevated risk of testicular cancer. However, my parents didn’t opt for testicle removal, as they desired a male child. They also didn’t provide proper hormonal treatment, as they didn’t want to deal with the issue.
They left me to grapple alone with the question of why I lacked a penis like other boys during my teenage years.”
Nour discovered their condition independently at the age of 14.
“A friend’s father, who I thought was a physician, but later discovered was a dentist, informed me that I was intersex. That was the first time I encountered the concept. I confronted my parents, but they denied it.
They consistently convinced me that I had a very small penis, and I accepted their explanation.”
At first glance, Nour appears like any ordinary woman, despite presenting as male with short hair and men’s attire. They shared photos from her college days, leaving no doubt about her being female. Even Nour agreed.
“Although I’ve never experienced attraction to either men or women, I was persuaded that I was a gay man due to my feminine traits. I felt ashamed and resorted to abusing alcohol and drugs.”
At the age of 20, Nour attempted suicide at a party and was subsequently hospitalized. It was then that they learned once more about her intersex condition and received recommendations for surgery to live as a woman.
“When my family learned about the doctors’ advice, they confronted the medical professionals and even contemplated suing the hospital. They showed no concern for my life or the high likelihood of impending cancer. Their primary focus was having a son.”
I was almost certain at that point that Nour’s family was uneducated, and it was a major shock to me to learn that their father was a very well-known economist and a college professor.
Nour endured years of abuse from her family, and at 23, they applied for asylum.
“For 3 years, I faced rejections from all official asylum channels. The authorities seemed to prioritize the LGBTQ in the LGBTQ”+” community. Although we’re part of the LGBTQ+ umbrella, we don’t fit their predefined categories.
Nour explained that she doesn’t even nessasry feel like she’s a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Our concerns appear to be disregarded, even among marginalized groups.”
When asked about their asylum acquisition, Nour explained that they connected with individuals from an online intersex forum who supported their travel financially.
“I spent 4 years in the UK. Initially, I had no intention of settling there; my primary aim was to undergo transformative procedures without judgment. Back in Egypt, I couldn’t secure a doctor’s appointment due to reluctance from medical practitioners.
I was treated as a transgender individual, and the legal aspects were uncertain, rendering me a pariah no one wished to engage with.”
Nour reached a point where their struggle with body dysmorphia and gender issues became too overwhelming. The distinction between living as male or female lost significance.
“I merely wished to feel a sense of identity, to be ‘fixed.’ In retrospect, there was no ‘fixing’ necessary.”
During their time in the UK, Nour underwent several surgeries, hormonal therapies, and psychological evaluations. Eventually, they felt closer to embodying a woman than a man, leading them to choose to live as a woman.
They explained that the psychological treatment they received was torturous because the therapists did not take Egyptian and Muslim culture into account and assumed Nour was “weak” for fearing returning to Egypt as a woman.
“Being recognized as a man by everyone, how could I possibly return as a woman? Can you imagine the anxiety I would feel just passing through airport security with “male” in my ID?”
Nour eventually returned to Egypt, and though they felt complete as a woman, they opted to present themselves as a man.
I asked what happened with their family when she arrived, and they began to cry, prompting me to conclude the interview for the day. We agreed to continue the following day, but Nour blocked my number and remained out of contact for the next 8 months.
Our initial meeting took place in December 2022, and Nour reached out to conclude the story in August 2023.
As soon as we met again, Nour shared their official ID with me.
Her gender was listed as female, and her official name was now very feminine. She asked me to use she/her pronouns.
When I asked her what happened, she said she realized while talking to me how horribly her family had treated her, and there was no point in living for 33 years just to please them.
We continued our discussion from where we had left off.
She explained how when she came back from the UK, she contacted her family after 4 years.
Their reaction was apathy.
Upon sharing details of her surgeries, her father slapped her and told her to leave and cease any communication.
From then until our interview, Nour admitted to living her life to please them and hoping to gain their approval again.
“I tried my utmost to embody masculinity. I even pursued relationships and posted gym selfies, striving to fit that mold. I struggled to become that person, but it simply didn’t align. I didn’t even employ gender-neutral pronouns until conversing with you.”
Nour confessed to ongoing battles with her gender identity and grappling with shame over her decision to embrace her womanhood.
“We lack visibility. We’re a rare sight. Can you name a single famous intersex individual? There isn’t one! The solitary instance that gained public attention was Caster Semenya, and even then, it was a scandal.”
Caster Semenya, a South African middle-distance runner, triggered debates on her eligibility to participate in women’s sports as an intersex woman.
The crux of the matter revolved around her naturally elevated testosterone levels, igniting discussions about gender identity and fairness in competitive athletics. Following her victory in the women’s 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships, gender verification testing was initiated, sparking debates about whether her hormone levels provided her an advantage.
World Athletics (formerly IAAF) established regulations regarding testosterone levels for female athletes with differences of sexual development (DSD), necessitating these athletes to lower their testosterone levels to compete in specific events.
Semenya contested these rules, asserting her rights and privacy. Her case underscored the intricate interplay between gender, sex testing in sports, and the rights of intersex individuals, fuelling ongoing debates on how sports organizations handle these complexities.
Nour was right; Semenya is the sole intersex person I’m familiar with.
Though not a common occurrence, intersexuality is real. Estimates suggest intersex trait prevalence ranges from approximately 0.05% to 1.7% of the population. Yet, due to the intricate nature of classifying intersex variations, and the potential lack of immediate visibility for many traits, determining precise figures proves challenging. Moreover, numerous intersex individuals might not be aware of their intersex status.
Nour acknowledged that progress won’t occur until people openly discuss the topic. She recognized herself as somewhat hypocritical for advocating this while remaining hesitant to step into the spotlight. Nonetheless, her experiences have left her reluctant to bear that responsibility.
And it’s hard to fault her for that.
In Egypt, distinctions between transgender, transsexual, and intersex remain unclear. Regrettably, it appears that substantial time may pass before these subjects gain prominence in discussions.
When I inquired about her future, Nour expressed a desire to endure.
“I grapple with severe thoughts of suicide and can only hope to see tomorrow. While I feel authentic as a woman and encounter no issues when meeting new people, facing those from my past remains a challenge.”
Due to lacking a uterus and having a non-functional cosmetic vagina, Nour won’t bear children. Yet, she maintains optimism about encountering “the one.”
We shared a laugh over the scarcity of available men aged 30 and above in the dating pool. She exuded confidence in her potential to find someone. She even placed a bet on which of us would find a partner first. Given her resolve, it’s safe to say I’ll owe her a substantial meal in the near future.
Conversing with Nour merely scratched the surface of this intricate topic. My resolve to delve deeper remains unwavering. Change is imperative, and these narratives must be heard.
Note: Nour, who’s the subject of the article, has approved the article before publishing.