An Indian hijra dances in Mumbai. Photo: Getty.
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India’s Supreme Court recognises a third gender

The Supreme Court in India has issued a new law allowing transgender people to change their gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity – why are so many European countries still several steps behind?

The Supreme Court in India has issued a new law allowing transgender people to change their gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity. Many newspapers yesterday reported this as India officially recognising a “third gender” – because until the law was passed, transgender people had to register as either male or female. The law is actually more wide-ranging than this because it means anyone can change their gender on official documents to male, female or transgender depending on their self-identity. The term self-identity is crucial here: transgender people in India don’t need to undergo any surgical or medical intervention to change their gender on official documents.

These new laws alone won’t change the discrimination that many transgender people (often called hijra in India) face: many are excluded from mainstream employment and society – to the extent that some hospitals have reportedly refused to treat them – and are regularly harassed by police. It is however an important step in the right direction, because legal recognition can underpin greater social acceptance and community integration. The Supreme Court is also introducing quotas to increase the representation of transgender people in employment and education.

So how does India now compare to other countries in terms of transgender rights? It is hard to find reliable, comprehensive data on laws protecting transgender people worldwide, but Amnesty International  and the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association both publish detailed reports on the situation in Europe: and they suggest that European countries have some catching up to do when it comes to establishing a legal framework to protect and recognise the rights of transgender and intersex people.

Last year, Germany became the first country in Europe to allow babies to be registered as “indeterminate sex” when they are born with characteristics of both sexes: until then (as in other European countries) parents were forced to assign a gender to their baby, a decision that is often accompanied by surgery to make the child’s physical characteristics conform more closely to either male or female.

Several countries worldwide allow individuals to register as a third gender on their passport applications including New Zealand (2012), Bangladesh (2011) and Australia (2011) , while Nepal has allowed people to register as a third gender on its census since 2007 and Pakistan on identity cards since 2011. In the UK, individuals who are born intersex (around one in 2000 of the population) must be registered as male or female, and often undergo surgery as young babies to “enforce” this assigned gender. 

European countries have also been too slow to allow individuals to change their gender on official documents to reflect their self-identity. In 1992 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that refusing to allow people to change their gender markers on official documentation was a violation of human rights – but still many European countries are lagging behind. The ILGA has published a summary of trans rights across 49 countries in Europe and found that in 16 countries there is no procedure for people to change their gender on official documents. In 24 countries in Europe, trans people must undergo sterilisation before their gender identity is recognised. In other countries they must first be diagnosed as suffering from a mental health disorder and in 19 countries you must be single to change your gender identity. Why should people be forced to make such stark choices?

While the legal system in many European countries fails to recognise individuals’ gender identity, many transgender people are also subject to abuse and discrimination in other areas of life: 35 per cent of respondents to Amnesty International’s survey of transgender rights said they had experienced violence or the threat of violence in the past five years.

The Supreme Court ruling in India is good news for the country’s transgender population, and its impact could be even greater if it forces European countries to face up to some uncomfortable home truths. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle