“Being Trans in the Arab Sector is Impossible”

Following her sex-reassignment surgery, Miss Trans Israel Talleen Abu Hanna talks about the challenges of the transgender community in the Arab sector: “I have a friend whose father tied her feet to his truck and dragged her behind it while driving so that her body scraped against the road. He would lock her in a garbage can for hours until he finished work.”


Winning Miss Trans-Israel led Tallinn Abu-Hanna, a 22 year-old Christian Arab from Nazareth, to international recognition. Media channels such as The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar and even media outlets in the Arab world- even in Iran- showed interest in the world’s new transgender supermodel. After winning the national competition, Talleen represented Israel in the Miss Trans Star International contest in Barcelona, and won honorable second place. “I went there not only to represent Israel, but also to explain about my community,” says Abu Hanna. “Being transgender in the Arab sector is impossible, it’s the hardest thing there is. I had gone through a lot of difficulties in order to get to where I am today.”

Abu Hanna was born as the youngest son in the shadow of two older sisters. “From a very young age, I dressed and behaved like a girl,” she recalls. “At 14 I started to feel like a woman, but refrained from sharing. It was only for myself.” Since in her childhood she had not yet learned about the transgender community and the concepts dealing with gender and LGBT, Abu Hanna identified as a gay boy to her friends. “I had gay friends, but I never felt like them. At 16, I went to a party of the Arab organization in Tel Aviv for the first time, where I was exposed to a lot of LGBT people from the sector,” Abu Hanna recalls.

“After the party we went to the home of one of my friends and there was a transgender woman there. I saw her as a regular woman until she started telling about her past. Her story sounded so strange to me That I started to laugh. In fact, this was the first time I had met a transgender woman. A friend of mine explained to me that she had had a sex change operation and described the process. At that moment I knew that this was exactly what I was feeling from an early age- until that very moment, the thought of turning into a woman was only a dream.”

Talleen says that contrary to the misunderstanding and violence demonstrated against transgender women in her sector, there’s a development of a certain degree of acceptance for the gay people in the Arab-Christian community. “I have gay friends whose families accepted them,” says Abu Hanna, “although this is not yet a subject that is openly talked about. But unlike in the past, now they can stay at their homes.” Acceptance among families often comes from hope that the sexual orientation is just a phase. “Some families still have hope that one day their son will regret being gay and get married, but with transgender people there’s a completely different attitude,” she explains, “because all of the appearance changes. Families think they have lost their son. My sister thought she would lose me. I explained to her that instead of a broken and poor brother she’d have a happy sister who’s living a life, but unfortunately, until today there’s no understanding. ”

Talleen says that she comes from a modern family that doesn’t represent the rigid attitude to transgender women in the sector. “I know about many difficult stories of my friends in the sector,” she says. “I have a friend whose father tied her feet to his truck and dragged her behind it while driving so that her body scraped against the road. He would lock her in a garbage can for hours until he finished work. Another friend was found by the police after being handcuffed in her room for three days. Another friend escaped a plan of her family to take her to the woods to bury her alive in a middle of a family wedding.”

The process that Abu-Hanna went through with her family was full of difficulties and misunderstandings, but in spite of everything, the discourse on the subject has led to the change. “Today, my mom is very supportive of me and accepts me,” she declares proudly. We keep in touch on a daily basis and she’s proud of me and my success. There is no doubt that she went through a journey, but today she sees how I turned from a person who could do nothing with his life apart from complaining, into a successful and happy woman. She also gets support calls from people in the sector due to my achievements.”

With her win of Miss Trans Israel 2016 and first runner-up to Miss Trans Star International in Barcelona, Abu Hanna won an amazing gift given by hospital Kamol Cosmetic in Bangkok. “I won a $22,000 grant, and the first chance I had I went to redeem the prize. I was accompanied by Israela Stephanie Lev, project and social initiations manager at the Tel Aviv LGBT Center. Israela cares for me like a mother, we have become a real family and I thank God for giving me this new family.”

“I feel fortunate for the opportunity given to me by the Miss Trans-Israel competition. I know that quite a few people raised their eyebrows regarding the prize given to me as the winner of the competition, but I have to clarify the matter and to talk about the enormous cost of sex-change operations. They are not easy and certainly not very helpful for transgender women, who in 2016 still can’t enter the labor market. Unfortunately, many of them reach a cycle of marginalization out of necessity, in order to fulfill themselves and reach a balance between feeling like women and the physiological genetic with which they were born. In the hospital I received VIP service, medical care at the highest level I could ever get. They treated me like a queen. Today I feel like a whole and happy woman.”

Despite the extensive activities of LGBT organizations across the country, LGBT associations in the Arab sector are not yet visible on the ground. Talleen says that to the best of her knowledge there’s still no answer for LGBT people in that sector, and therefore exposure to the subject in 2016 is still secretly made through the Internet. “I think it all begins with education in the villages,” she says. “Muslim schools educate to hate the gay community. I, personally, was lucky. I studied at a democratic school that focuses on identity and the realization of the individual’s desires. All the attitude at school was different, contrary to schools that are fixed on teaching you to become a doctor or a lawyer. The school allowed me to belong to the girls’ group in sports, for example, and these advantages have helped me to identify myself.”

“I’m sure that in East Jerusalem transgender women are being murdered every day, but there is no one there to hear or talk about it,” adds Abu Hanna. “There’s a need to open NGOs that provide a unique response to LGBT people, with a clear division of Christian and Muslim Arabs. I hope that everything I’ve given of myself so far really helps people. I hope it will bring visibility and awareness to the places I came from. I hope the new year will bring social development with it, and that we will look at each other as human beings.”