Dr Fadwa Al Mughairbi, Professor of psychology at UAE University, during the session ‘The Boyat Phenomeon’ as part of Counselling Arabia 2011 held at the Sharjah Women’s College. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/Gulf News

Sharjah: Should the Boyat phenomenon, where young women dress and behave like men, be regarded as a problem in Arab society?

The issue is being hotly debated with experts saying labelling and judgment should be avoided while students say it should not be tolerated in high schools and universities.

The topic was discussed at the Counselling Arabia 2011 conference at Sharjah Women's College Wednesday.

Biological or cultural

"People misunderstand this thing. It's not about homosexuality and we shouldn't confuse biological problems with those people who, because of cultural aspects, are Boyat," said Dr Fadwa Al Mughairbi, a professor of psychology at UAE University who has researched the topic.

She explained that there are several genetic or hormonal disorders (Testicular feminisation syndrome, hermaphroditism, Klinefelter syndrome, 5-Alpha-reductase deficiency) that would lead to uncertainty about a person's gender.

It could be possible, Dr Fadwa said, that those girls who were exposed to a lot of testosterone in the first three months of their mother's pregnancy could show more male characteristics.

She also said if a mother was a strong figure and she had brothers whom she played with, the social upbringing would cause a girl to be more of a tomboy.

"Gender identity is a big part of social upbringing and even men who live in a family full of females can be a little soft and act and talk like females because he has been with them all his life.

"We can't call them Boyat and be prejudiced against them." Dr Fadwa said statistics about the issue in the Arab world were scarce but if a young woman had a biological problem where gender was not clear, she should decide if she was male or female. "Rear the child as consistently as possible but be prepared that an intersex person may be orientate [sexually] at a later stage."

Not conforming

"The Boyat has turned into a symptom and a product of society, which does not live up to standards of their own community," said researcher Dr Jose Sanchez Garcia from the University of Barcelona, Spain. These women, he said, are reconstructing another way to be young women, which is not viewed in a positive light by society.

The social phenomenon is a consequence of the young women seeing themselves as individuals and this is different to Gulf society and tradition.

Another factor he points out is that young Arabs take longer to get married these days and this leaves the Boyat to be young in a similar way as boys.

Dr Lorenz Nigst from the University of Vienna's Institute for Oriental Studies said labelling girls as Boyat was dangerous. "When you put a label on something, you want to deal with it and get rid of it like a disease."

"People think a Boyat is disobedient and rebelling against God's creation. Some see Boyat as suffering from a disorder," he said.

He explained that some people regard Boyats as going against their "fitrah" (an Islamic term meaning nature or disposition) or not living according to their fitrah as women who have a role to fulfil as wife and mother. "By transforming their bodies they are changing their place in the social order," said Dr Nigst.

‘Boyats' as bullies

One faculty member said some ‘Boyats' were viewed as predators that preyed on other girls. A student mentioned that Boyats were operating as gangs on campus and were going as far as threatening to rape fellow students.

Dr Fadwa acknowledged that some Boyat gangs are intimidating other students on campus. "Sometimes their self esteem comes from being predators by being really strong like males. There should be a counselling centre in every university so they can raise their self esteem," Dr Fadwa said.

Another student commented that Boyats do not have medical conditions and rules against them should be set in this country.

"Alcohol is not allowed in this country because it harms ... and Boyat is affecting the society." She called for Boyats to be handled and treated while they are still in school.

"We can never generalise because we don't have the studies to prove that they don't have a medical condition," cautioned Dr Fadwa.