Mideast Israel Miss Trans
Israeli Arab Talleen Abu Hanna, 21, poses on stage after she was announced as the first Miss Trans Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

November 10, 2016

A Move Towards Acceptance of Transgender Women in the Middle East

by Courtney McGinn, LLM student at Texas Law and member of the 2016-2017 Working Paper Series Editorial Committee

On May 27, 2016, Talleen Abu Hanna, 21, became the first Miss Trans Israel. On an international scale, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals face discrimination not only by those in their communities, but also by the legislation and court systems that are entrusted with the duty to protect society. In most Middle Eastern countries,[1] homosexual and transgendered individuals are shunned, mistreated, harassed, and even killed. Due to the recent transgender beauty pageant held in Israel, there may be a cultural shift to public acceptance for the LGBT community in this part of the world.

Out of the seventeen countries in the Middle East, eleven are state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[2] Yet at least thirteen countries in the region still criminalize homosexuality. In Iran, sodomy is a capital offense often punished by execution.[3] In Saudi Arabia and Yemen, sodomy is punishable by death. In other countries, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, and Syria, homosexual and transgendered individuals face constant threats of imprisonment.  Even in countries that have not yet enacted anti-LGBT laws, individuals are arbitrarily punished in retaliation for their sexual identity.

The Israeli government is much more friendly to the LGBT community in comparison to the rest of the Middle East. In March 2014, the government adopted Amendment No. 4 to the Pupil’s Rights Law 5761-2000, whereby sexual orientation and gender identity were added to the prohibited grounds of discrimination against pupils.[4] With this amendment, the government ensured that transgender men and women would be acknowledged as their chosen gender and allowed the same benefits as the rest of the citizens in the country. Unlike other countries in the region, sodomy is not a crime in Israel. This year, Israel will also host its 18th annual Tel Aviv Pride Parade, which is expected to draw nearly 200,000 participants, 35,000 of which are coming from countries worldwide.

The acceptance of the LGBT community in Tel Aviv is celebrated around the world. In 2012, Tel Aviv was named the world’s top gay city by GayCities.com, and this year, was named “the gayest city on earth” by the Boston Globe.[5] Although this shows great progress within Israel, there is still room for improvements. The rest of Israel is not as accepting of the LGBT community as Tel Aviv, and hate crimes against members of the LGBT community are still common. Furthermore, under the current law, same-sex couples cannot marry and are barred from surrogacy programs.[6] By hosting the Miss Trans Israel pageant in years to come, Israel has the opportunity instill into its citizens a growing acceptance of the LGBT community.

The Miss Trans Israel is much more than a beauty pageant; it provides a platform for women to talk about their circumstances and raise awareness of the LGBT community. As the winner of Miss Trans Israel, Talleen Abu Hanna was able to share her story in Barcelona at the Miss Trans Star International pageant, where she won first runner up. The founder of Miss Trans Star International, Thara Wells, emphasized that the pageant “is an attempt to engage society. We want to go beyond beauty and tell the life story of each girl.”[7] In order to raise awareness, there must be platforms for individuals to speak out about the discrimination, violence, and harassment they face due to their sexual orientation and identity. These beauty pageants not only provide that platform, but also encourage transgender women to embrace their femininity instead of hiding it.

[1] For purposes of this commentary, the Middle East consists of the following countries: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
[2] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations, ‘Ratification status by country or by treaty’, http://indicators.ohchr.org.
[3] Islamic Penal Code of Iran of 1991, Book 2, Part 2 (Punishment for Sodomy), Article 110: “Punishment for sodomy is killing; the Sharia judge decides on how to carry out the killing.”
[4] Human Rights Committee Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Israel, CCPR/C/ISR/CO/4, November 21, 2014.
[5] Meet the Arab Woman Who Has Just Become the First Miss Trans Israel, (May 31, 2016), http://time.com/4352201/talleen-abu-hanna-first-miss-trans-israel/.
[6] Id.
[7] Miss Brazil Rafaela Manfrini Crowned Miss Trans Star International 2016 (Sept. 21, 2016), http://www.newnownext.com/transgender-beauty-pageant-europe/09/2016/.

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary