Last Friday Iraqi police jubilantly announced they had arrested an ISIS terror suspect disguised as a woman. In the eyes of the police this was an example of the trickery ISIS employs to in order to carry out its attacks.
But the suspect, detained at a checkpoint in Karbala province, was no supporter of ISIS. She was, in fact, a transgender woman.
The police now appear to have accepted that they made a mistake – but not before humiliating pictures of her had been circulated on the internet. A video posted on YouTube shows her surrounded by men in uniform photographing her on their mobile phones. One man strokes her hair. (I'm not going to post the pictures here but readers who wish to see them can follow the links.)
The woman, who has an Instagram account using the name "Kanary Koke", is reported to have returned to Iraq recently from Turkey.
Iraqi news reports refer to her as male, and the Baghdad Post (in Arabic) puts a sectarian spin on the story:
"It is worth mentioning that gender changing between young men and women has spread greatly in the provinces and regions in southern Iraq under the rule of the Shia parties in Iraq."
More sympathetically, the Iraqi News Agency quotes a legal expert who criticises Koke's arrest and points out that there are "no penalties" for transgender people in Iraq's criminal code or any other Iraqi law.
However, several of Iraq's neighbours – notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE – criminalise "imitation of the opposite sex" and have used this to crack down on transgender people along with others, such as boyat (women or girls displaying masculine traits in their dress or behaviour).
Regardless of the legal position in Iraq, a report by Human Rights Watch in 2009 documented numerous extra-judicial killings of Iraqi men whose style of dress or behaviour was not considered "manly" enough.
Transgender is still largely an unfamiliar issue in the Arab countries and is often confused with homosexuality. The problems of transgender people are especially acute because so much of the social structure is based around a clear-cut distinction between male and female, and anything that obscures the distinction is viewed as a problem and sometimes even as a threat to the established order.
For more detailed discussion, see the series of articles posted on al-bab last year.