By Guest Contributor Simba Rousseau, cross-posted from Her Blueprint
Threatening emails, phone calls, constant surveillance by secret police and eventually prison couldn’t dissuade Randa, an Algerian transsexual and pioneer in the Arab world’s gay and transsexual movement, from going public with her life story.
“I returned home to Algeria from my last trip and that’s when the threats to imprison me started,” says Randa, who received initial threats via email and phone. “As a method of intimidating me, they started sending articles about me to my family, and they would show up at my workplace. Once, while being stopped at a checkpoint, one of the officers grabbed me in the car and told me that he could arrest and rape me and no one would know about it.”
Convinced by influential members of Algerian society, two of Randa’s friends were forced to present her with an ultimatum. Leave the country in ten days or things will get worse.
Ten days is not a long time, but as luck would have it, a feminist organization in Lebanon found out about Randa’s situation and offered to assist.
“I don’t regret speaking out because in the end I realized that the reason they were doing all of this was because they were scared. I managed to shake up their system and this is why they were lashing out at me,” she said in an interview with Her Blueprint. “Of course it was driving me crazy, and I knew that if I didn’t leave the country they would kill me. I decided to continue addressing the situation of LGBT in Algeria outside the country and accepted the offer to go to Lebanon.”
However, Randa’s troubles were far from over.
Once in Lebanon, Randa caught the attention of the Lebanese secret intelligence. One day while going to the General Security (Lebanese immigration), she was informed that she was under investigation because she shared a birth name with a man who had skipped out on military service. It seemed to be an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, though Randa believes the Algerian embassy in Lebanon was responsible for having her detained.
Randa, who had been living as a woman for years, was forced to dress in men’s clothes and confined to a cell alone in the men’s section of Adlieh prison.
Adlieh, a former underground parking lot turned detention center, houses thousands of migrants and refugees and is infamous as a harsh and inhuman detention center. Human rights advocates have long called for the closure of Adlieh due to its inhumane treatment of inmates. Most detainees languish underground for years until they’re deported or until rights groups are informed of their whereabouts.
Randa was one of the lucky ones. She was able to send a text message to friends letting them know that she had been arrested. “It was a miracle that I got the call that I was going to be released. Almost 99% of the prisoners are deported. They kept me in the prison for over 60 days because they were trying to figure out any way to deport me,” says Randa.
Once Randa was released, she decided she had to take the opportunity to share her life story. By publishing a memoir, Randa hoped to gain closure around her experiences in Algeria and humanize the Trans experience, which remains a taboo topic in most Arab countries. Her biography, Memoirs of Randa the Trans, which is based on a series of interviews with her, was written by Lebanese journalist Hazem Saghyieh and is likely the first book of its kind to be published in Arabic.
Speaking to Her Blueprint, Randa says, “I wanted to say to the world that Trans people exist. We have dreams, feelings, pain–just like everyone else. Our suffering is that we’re treated like monsters and people think that we are just looking for sex.”
So how did Randa become the voice of the Algerian Trans community to begin with? Like the recent political revolution in Egypt, it began with the Internet. In a conservative Muslim country like Algeria, where the penal code and society severely condemns the LGBT community, Randa faced severe difficulties. Oppressed by her family, bullied at school and abused whenever she would tell her mom that she was a girl trapped in a male body, Randa decided at the age of fifteen that someone needed to address the issue of LGBT in Algeria.
“When the Internet arrived to Algeria it gave me an outlet to speak, so I started a personal blog writing about different issues I was facing. Then it started to take on a life of it’s own,” says Randa. “People around the world started coming to my blog and it became a reference for individuals to learn about issues concerning the LGBT community in Algeria.”
Although living in Lebanon as a transwoman has been easier than it was for her living in Algeria, discrimination and harassment still exists. As a certified nurse, finding work in her profession or landing any kind of respectable job has been a daunting task.
However, for Randa the bulk of the discrimination she faces in Lebanon is within the LGBT community. “Within the community you have this hierarchy of the gay male, then the feminine male, then the lesbians and then the lesbians are categorized according to their look and then there are the bisexuals and then the trans,” she said. “Of course there is also the class issue that also plays a role in dividing the community.”