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23 August 2015

A Ma'dan mustergil (1917–?) landowner, poet.

Her father was a rich Sheik of the Ma'dan معدان‎, the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. She was then the only child her parents had together, but her father had had five sons with his first wife, and her mother had had a son and daughter with her first husband.

Her father's mother raised her. She was moderately deformed. Already as a child, she wanted to live as a boy, and as Ma'dan had a tradition of mustergil (comparable to the Sworn Virgins in Albania/Kosova) it was permitted.
"A family is proud of a girl who wants to live like a boy".
 The mustergil carried weapons and went on hunts.

When he was 20 or so in 1937-8 (AH 1355), his mother was murdered by the second husband's family. His young brother had become the father's favourite, and the elder brothers feared for their inheritance. They did not kill the boy because he was their blood, but the mother was an outsider. The killing was supposed to bring the father to his senses, that he should devote himself to his elder sons. This did not happen, but neither was the murder avenged, on the pretence that the killer was unknown. The mother's first husband's clan did want to get involved as a vendetta would bring government intervention. The mustergil never forgave this lapse, and wrote ridiculing and insulting poems to goad the family. In time the murderer was himself murdered, but not by the family of the first husband.

The father moved both the mustergil and her grandmother to another village where he could keep a better eye on them. The mustergil owned some land in usufruct on which 50-60 rice-growing families lived. The mustergil was afraid that he would lose it, so she applied to the authorities in Basra, who ruled that he would have to pay tenure-fees until 1945, but would then gain the legal title. He erected a meeting house as a male sheik would do, and had coffee distributed to the men of the village.

The mustergil wore male outer and undergarments, but had hair long like a woman and a female kerchief. This retention of token female appearance was because he prayed every day to Allah, and if he did not do so as a woman, prayers would have no consequence.

At harvest-time the mustergil inspected the crop and took a share, and paid the tax to the government.

The mustergil was the only female-born person of the Ma'dan that the sociologists met who could read and write. Poetry was a family tradition: both he father and the mother's first husband were famous local poets, and the half-brother on her mother's side gained national fame for his poetry.
  • Sigrid Westphal-Hellbusch. „Transvestiten bei Arabischen Stämmen“. Sociologus, n.f.6,1, 1956. Berlin. Reprinted as „Transvestiten: Institutionalisierte Möglichkeiten des Ablehnens üblicher Frauen- und Männerrollen im Süd-Irak“ in Brigitta Häuser-Schäublin, Hrsg. Ethnologische Frauen-Forschung: Ansätze, Methoden, Resultate. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1991. S. 176-189. Translated into English by Bradley Rose as "Institutionalized Gender-Crossing in Southern Iraq" in Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York University Press, 1997: 233-243.
  • "Transgender im Süd-Irak (1956)". rhizom, 2.August 2011.


    The paper by Westphal-Hellbusch seems to be all that we have about the mustergil.

    The person described here takes up most of the paper.   It is unfortunate that he is not given a name.   There may well be good reasons for hiding his name, although given the social prominence of the family it is unlikely that local persons do not recognize who he is.    Either way, if it were deemed cautious not to give the real  name, a pseudonym would have been useful for reference.

    As we are not given the person's name, we don't actually whether the person took a male name at any stage. 

    The person would seem to be untypical of mustergils in general, both by the family wealth and by the fact of being literate.  Thus, despite Westphal-Hellbusch's paper, we actually know almost nothing about most mustergils.  By extension we do not know how or if they survived following Saddam's murderous attacks on them after the first Gulf War.

    "he prayed every day to Allah, and if he did not do so as a woman, prayers would have no consequence".   And yet, what must have been his greatest prayer, that the mother's murder be avenged, had no consequence.

    The person was Shi'a, and would look to Iran for religious guidance.   However this is 30 years prior to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomein's 1983 fatwa that recognized gender changes, after which a similar person would no longer have been required to pray as a woman.

    The Albanian/Kosovan Sworn Virgins that I have discussed fought and suffered as men in the Second World War.  In April 1941 the Iraqis arose and overthrew the Hashemite monarchy that the British had imposed on them without consultation.   The subsequent Anglo-Iraqi War was won by the British and the Hashemites re-imposed.   There is no mention that this person even participated.

    She was proficient in the use of arms.  It could be said that if the mustergil were a cis man of the same class in that culture, he would have killed the mother's murderer himself.   To get upset because no man steps forward to give you vengeance is a stereotypical woman's role.  However traditional third-gender roles often combine limited tolerance with behaviour limits.   We know so little about mustergils that it is unknown whether such were permitted to partake in feuds or vendettas. 

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