Waad's male identity combined with his ability to move freely in female society make him very popular with women. 

Girls will be boys

While Waad's case is unusual, he is far from

the only one to be wearing men's clothes under his abaya. In any closed female space, it is hard to ignore the fact that a significant proportion of young women choose to dress, and behave, as men. They cut their hair, they lower their voices, they date other women.

 

The phenomenon has been put down to a combination of situational sexuality in a society where boys and girls rarely meet, rebellion against imposed gender norms and a strategy to secure the same freedoms as their brothers.  

While the boyat, as they are known, are certainly not approved of, society mostly prefers to turn a blind eye. While in other Gulf countries, girls who 'subvert' their gender identity have been institutionalised, in Saudi such individuals are usually dismissed as

'tomboys' going through a phase, one

which will hopefully soon pass.  

What's the most rebellious thing you've ever done?

I've travelled a lot without telling anyone. Not outside the country of course, but here. I visit friends in Dammam, I ride motorbikes on the beach in Jeddah. I want to experience everything!

Thobe and shemegh are the names given to Saudi men's traditional attire of long white tunic and red and white checked headdress

The Gentleman

Waad, 26, Jeddah, Photographer

Waad was registered female birth, but was discovered to be intersex at puberty. He identifies as male, but in strictly gender-segregated Saudi society, he continues to inhabit the closed female sphere. 

 

 

 

On the role of women

It’s so much easier to be a boy here! Girls aren’t really allowed out, but boys can go wherever they want; no asking for permission, no guardian. Girls have a lot more to deal with with the religion too; they have to wear an abaya when they go out, they have to surrender to their families in a lot of ways. It’s difficult for them to be free like us. 

Of course they should have their freedom… but it’s really difficult because it’s not something they’ve had from the beginning. If they suddenly got everything now, it would be such a mess! They would want to try everything, good or bad. It’s like when you have a bird that you’ve never let it out of its cage; once you open it and it has its freedom, it can never go inside the cage again. 

On photography

This is really my passion, I’m never going to stop doing this. It makes me feel free. I can work in mixed environments, I can play with my own image; in my self-portraits you can see I am a man, just like any other. 

People say it’s forbidden in Islam to draw human figures or faces, or even to take photographs. I don’t really understand this. If it’s haram, why do the religious police take photos of you?

 

On gender identity

 

When I was seventeen I tried to get surgery. You know this is okay in Islam, because it’s not really a change, it’s a correction. But a guy from the religious police found out. He told everyone I was a girl, he started harassing my mother, my family. 

It was pretty tough at first, even my family, they didn't accept how I was. But now I'm just living my life, I have fun! I have make and female friends, I go out. I'm more comfortable dressed as a man, I've even put on a thobe and shemagh* and driven a car! No one noticed anything! But on the street I usually wear an abaya. My ID still says female, so  it's safer that way. And especially if I'm meeting up with girlfriends, I don't want to make any problems for them.

It can be difficult. The way I am, it's not accepted here. But you know, I try to look at the bright side. There is a reason for everything in this life. God creates us, and as for the way I am, he writes everything for us while we are still in our mums’ tummies, and everything he writes, happens. We can’t stop it. So I have to live my own way.

On relationships

This is the big advantage to my situation: I get to meet girls! I know it’s wrong but I’ll admit it! My friends are always saying I’m the luckiest man in Saudi Arabia; I am always the only guy at the girls’ parties.

 

And so yeah, I’ve had a looot of girlfriends! I’ve had relationships with younger girls, with married women… sometimes it’s a headache, w'allah!

That’s not how it is for most guys here. You know, the religious police, if they catch a guy and a girl together, they force them to marry. If they refuse, they send them to jail. Anywhere, even if you’re sharing a coffee in Starbucks! They go crazy on Valentine’s Day!

On change

Oh my god, life has changed so much. My mother, my grandmother, they didn’t go anywhere. They just sat at home, cooked, washed dishes, cleaned clothes. But now, women, they’re working, they’re going out, they have businesses, they’re voting, they’re on the Shoura Council. It’s a new story now.

But for me, in the future I see myself living outside; I’m thinking about Canada, maybe they'd give me asylum.  I hope one day I’ll get married, a nice girl, not Saudi; they’re too narrow minded. I’d like to have an apartment, family, kids. And I’ll find a job, even if I’m just a waiter; I like to work, I’ll take whatever God gives me. 

There is nothing impossible under the sun, I’ll keep doing whatever I want for as long as I am breathing.

This interview is an extract from the book Queens of the Kingdom, Simon & Schuster (2019)