Wilfred Thesiger lived with and observed the Marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. Here’s a quote:

One afternoon, a few days after leaving Dibin, we arrived at a village on the mainland. The sheikh was away looking at his cultivations, but we were shown to his mudhif [guest house made of reeds] by a boy wearing a head-rope and cloak, with a dagger at his waist. He looked about fifteen and his beautiful face was made even more striking by two long braids of hair on either side. In the past all the Madan [Marsh Arabs] wore their hair like that, as the Bedu [Bedouin] still did. After the boy had made us coffee and withdrawn, Amara [one of Thesiger’s boat boys] asked, ‘Did you realize that was a mustarjil?’ I had vaguely heard of them, but had not met one before.’A mustarjil is born a woman,’ Amara explained. ‘She cannot help that; but she has the heart of a man, so she lives like a man.’

‘Do men accept her?’

‘Certainly. We eat with her and she may sit in the mudhif. When she dies, we fire off our rifles to honour her. We never do that for a woman. In Majid’s village there is one who fought bravely in the war against Haji Sulaiman.’

‘Do they always wear their hair plaited?’

‘Usually they shave it off like men.’

‘Do mustarjils ever marry?’

‘No, they sleep with women as we do.’

There’s also mention of a biological man asking for his penis to be cut of so he can be a “real” woman, since in “every other way” he was “a woman.”

I’ve read about the same gender issues in colonial New England and among the Pueblo Indians.

But, as everyone knows, marriage has always been between one man and one woman, women don’t go to war, and the existence of male transvestites and transexuals are a uniquely 20th century invention.

(via David Moles)

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