Why cross-dressing is a problem in the Gulf

Muhammad Fadli: a selfie sent to his family on the day of his arrest

On August 8 Muhammad Fadli, a fashion photographer from Singapore, arrived in Abu Dhabi for a photo shoot, accompanied by his friend, Nur Ibrahim. The next day they were arrested in the food court of a shopping mall for the allegedly indecent act of "wearing women's clothes in public". Both were later sentenced to a year in jail.

Nur is a transgender woman who adopted a female first name which is legally recognised in Singapore. However, since she has not had reassignment surgery, her documents still show her gender as male.

Following news of the arrests, activists in Singapore launched a campaign to release Fadli and Ibrahim. The Singaporean embassy had a series of meetings with the Emirati authorities and on Sunday it was reported that the jail sentences were being dropped. Instead, the pair would be fined 10,000 dirhams ($2,720) and expelled from the UAE.

Nur Ibrahim: a Facebook photo

Attitudes towards transgender and cross-dressing are a growing problem in Arab countries – especially in the Gulf states where segregation of the sexes is widespread and dress codes are sometimes enforced by law. When so much of the social structure is based around a clear-cut distinction between male and female, anything that obscures the distinction is viewed as a problem and even as a threat to the established order. 

In Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait this has given rise to bizarre laws against "imitating the opposite sex" – and arrests are not uncommon. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have cursed effeminate men and mannish women – a remark which is widely quoted today and provides a religious basis for laws against cross-dressing. 

Transgender people also risk being accused of the "crime" of homosexuality, based on the gender assigned to them at birth. (For detailed discussion see my four-part series on transgender issues in the Middle East.)

Earlier this year Saudi police raided a gathering of Pakistanis known as khawaja sara, sometimes referred to as the "third sex". Thirty-five people were arrested – one of whom died in custody. The Saudis blamed a heart attack though activists said it was the result of torture.

In Qatar last year the authorities ordered cinemas to stop showing The Danish Girl – about a transgender artist – following complaints from the public. In banning the film, the Ministry of Culture thanked social media users for their “unwavering vigilance”. The film had already been banned in the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait (and could not be shown in Saudi Arabia because the country has no cinemas).

Problems often arise in the UAE because the country has cultivated an easy-going cosmopolitan image which can give foreigners the wrong impression. Many of its laws are still those of a very conservative Arab society and, to make matters more complicated, they tend to be enforced haphazardly. Nur Ibrahim is said to have visited the Emirates frequently in the past without any difficulties.

A few years ago, Abu Dhabi issued a "code of ethics" for visitors (in 12 languages) which included "respectful clothing" and "no cross-dressing".

Dubai also launched a campaign urging the public to report cross-dressing “crimes”. A police official said people should dial 999 if they spotted anyone cross-dressing. It didn’t matter whether the cross-dressing was causing a problem or not, the official said, because “dressing up as women in public places is violating the laws”.

Since then there have been numerous arrests for cross-dressing and some of them are documented here. Most, though not all, appear to have involved non-Emirati men.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have also had campaigns against boyat – women or girls displaying masculine traits in their dress or behaviour.