Monday, January 04, 2010

Intersexuality and Muslims

"What is intersex?

Intersex people are people who, as individuals, have genetic, hormonal, and physical features that may be thought to be typical of both male and female at once. That is, we may be thought of as being male with female features, female with male features, or indeed we may have no clearly defined sexual features at all." (
Organisation Internationale des Intersexues)

I saw a documentary last night about an intersex child. It was fascinating and made me re-think my position: that there are only two genders, male or female. Is there a third gender? What is Islam's position about intersex?

The child in the documentary was born a "boy." He had a penis, but upon closer examination, he also had a little "vagina" underneath it. Instead of urinating from an opening on the head of the penis, he urinated from an opening at the top of his "vagina." "His" parents refused to consent to the hospital's recommendation that they operate on the child and "fix" the genitalia. Although the parents gave the child a male name and socialized him as a boy, the child grew up showing interest in feminine things and activities. The child also insisted that he was a girl. The documentary permitted the viewer to accompany the family on a beautiful and sensitive journey. It ended before the child entered puberty, and it would be interesting to see a follow up documentary.

The program also said that intersexuality is common in nature.

For example, kangaroos have three vaginas. Male seahorses, not female seahorses, have the brood pouch. Intersexuality occurs frequently in the fish and plant world, too.

Imagine the emotional nightmare experienced by a Muslim couple who is told by physicians that their daughter has been born with a penis? A female in all respects, but also born with a penis, like someone born with an extra finger, or two hands on one wrist.

Is this considered a "deformity" in Islam? I wonder how this is handled.

Do Muslims parents permit the doctor to perform surgical gender reassignment?

Is this the right thing to do? After all, Allah (swt) tells us in the Qur'an,

"Truly, nothing is hidden from Allah, in the earth or in the heaven. He it is Who shapes you in the wombs as He wills." (Al-Imran, 6)

It would seem from this ayat, that nothing from Allah (swt) is a mistake, or a deformity.

Someone actually asked a question of Yahoo! Answers concerning intersexual Muslims.

And some people consider surgical gender reassignment of infants equivalent to female "circumcision." Surgical gender reassignment is known to cause serious psychological and physical problems for children when they grow up.

Here's another article about Islam and the interesexed individual. Note: there is no daleel for the author's claims, but interesting nonetheless.

And here's an article about transsexuals in Iran, where sex change operations in adults are sectioned by the country's clerics and fatwa.

And a film was made about Iran transsexuals.


Stacy K. said...

I definitely favor waiting until the child is older to do any surgical alteration. Its hard to tell at birth whether the person is mentally more male or female. It is a part of God's creation that is hard to understand, but I think its better not to mess with it when the child can't articulate their own preference and personality.

AlabasterMuslim said...

I am on Y/A! a lot, and i knew the question posted there as soon as you mentioned it. That man posts a lot of questions on the "ramadan" section of Y/A but he is extremely abusive. When i tried to offer advice he bombarded me with emails insulting me, and accusing me of insulting HIM, when it was nothing of the case. Another sister explained to me that he does that to everyone, he even told the sister he'd do stuff to her and her family. For that man, i have no compassion.

For the subject of inter-sex... I still do not believe that there is a third gender, and i believe that they are deformities because it is halal for deformities to be fixed.... If it was not a deformity, it would not allowed to be i making sense, lol. But of course Allah swt has made everything as he wished.
I am strongly against gender correction before the child has entered puberty for a few years and until the child can decide for itself.

mezba said...

it's a difficult position that needs to be debated and researched by those clerics with an open mind and farsightedness.

Yusuf Smith said...

As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

The condition you describe is probably congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition which sometimes causes a female fetus to have an enlarged, penis-like clitoris. They never look quite male and an internal examination would rectify the doubt, but if a visual examination is what is relied on, they may be judged an incomplete male, and raised as such because it's supposedly more advantageous than being female. (Of course, being an incomplete male is likely to be a much bigger disadvantage, as others who have been through it could tell you.)

However, as such people get to puberty, they display more open signs of femaleness (having periods is a pretty big clue).

The "opposites" to CAH are androgen insensitivity syndrome or AIS and Swyer syndrome. The first is where a child with XY chromosomes appears as a girl because she is resistant to testosterone, which is what turns a body male, and thus appears superficially female. Swyer's is another condition in which an XY body looks female inside and out although lacks ovaries and doesn't experience a female puberty (this is by someone with this condition).

There are also grey areas, such as a well-known case in the UK where a child named Joella Holliday had substantial abdominal abnormalities including the lack of any reproductive organs. She was registered as a boy because doctors thought she (or he, as she was then) would not live long, and they had to give her a name. However, when the baby was about a year old, it was decided that she was incompatible with maleness and she was raised as a girl. There was a long legal battle to have her birth certificate changed and this took ten years.

I'm not an expert on these matters, but intersex is not the same as transsexualism. A person who reclaims their real sex after having been mistakenly raised as the other is not the same as one who decides to change it because they feel they've been born into the wrong body. As Shaikh Nuh Keller wrote in his book on the qibla issue, some things are not a matter of fiqh but of fact: the world is spherical, and that is the world we base our qibla ruling on, regardless of how it appears to us in everyday experience. A person who has a womb and who menstruates is female, regardless of how they may have appeared in a cursory check when they were born, and so on. The issue is not of whether there is a third sex, but of being able to assign their most compatible sex, which may not be the one their chromosomes dictate. I can't see why it takes an imam to decide these things.

Anonymous said...

extremely interesting. I often wonder about things like this and no one ever wants to discuss it with me. And there aren't any Islamic writing in English that I know of.

Maybe someone knows of some. Let me know.

Unknown said...

Dr. Jamal Raza
I am a pediatric endocrinologist working in Pakistan. Looked at the site and read comments with interest. In my personal opinion this debate is a very serious one. The issue involves deep understanding of a difficult subject, and some serious answers by authentic scholars on Islam. I think people who do not understand the complexity of these conditions should not make casual comments which may make things more difficult for others to understand.

meg said...

I also favour allowing the child to determine their own gender when they are old enough to do so. There is a recent case in Australia where someone had their birth certificate changed so that it was 'sex not specified'. I think that surgically altering a body to revert it back to a cultural norm is terrible when one considers the later effects on the child through life, growing up as someone you do not want to be.