Judging a book by its cover

March 22, 2010

A report in IOL South Africa details the horrific prison experience of a cis woman, Denise Abbah, who was incorrectly registered by prison authorities as ‘Denis’ instead of ‘Denise’ and consequently detained in a cis men’s prison cell for seven months. During this time, she was raped and sodomised.

“They just refused to believe that I was a woman. They thought I was a man who had undergone a sex change [sic]. I told them about my children at home, but it didn’t help.”

“When I told the female wardens that I was menstruating, they refused to believe me, saying the bleeding was a result of the sex change operation that I had,” said Abbah.

Having been cleared of all charges against her, Ms Abbah is now suing the Department of Correctional Services for damages, although I wonder if any amount of money can ever repair the trauma and distress that she must be suffering.

And even though she’s apparently been cleared of all charges, the authorities have decided to add one further insult to the injuries Ms Abbah has suffered:

Abbah is expected to undergo gender testing ahead of her legal battle against the Department of Correctional Services.

Because, y’know, once you’ve been tainted by the brush of trans panic, then the rest of decent, law-abiding, equally bigoted cissexist society assumes the right to know for sure that you really are who you say you are. And, after all, we know how successful ‘gender testing’ has been in the IAAF’s witch-hunt against Caster Semenya, don’t we?

Finally – and I expect I shall probably be accused of being a heartless cynic (and probably worse) for daring to recentre the discussion away from cis people – I should add that human rights breaches like this happen to trans women around the world with monotonous and depressing regularity.

For example, I’ve recently written about the trans woman prisoner referred to only as ‘B’ who was incarcerated in a cis men’s prison for five years; Nastaran Kolestani in the U.S.- held for 18 months before her case came to court – and a Spanish trans woman who was held in a cis men’s prison for eleven years – yes, eleven years – before she was granted the basic human rights that many of us take for granted.

But this is not about creating hierarchies of oppression – Ms Abbah’s treatment has been utterly barbaric: seven minutes would have been too long, let alone seven months – but to point out that comprehensive breaches of human rights are inflicted on trans women prisoners with almost sadistic cruelty over time periods of years, not months.

What makes Ms Abbah’s case different is the way it sets up a mirror image of the reasoning used to justify the abuses against trans women. In the case of trans women, the usual pattern is that, no matter your legal status (for example, ‘B’ was in possession of a Gender Recognition Certificate), if the powers-that-be have any doubts about you, they will apply a biological essentialist metric and judge you on your genital configuration: if you have a penis you must be male, if you have a vagina, you are female. The paradox that Ms Abbah ran into was that, although her genitalia were visually typically female, her (misrecorded) documentation showed a typically male name – and it seems it was that which justified the prison authorities’ decision to send her to a gender-inappropriate prison. The sick irony is, of course, that had that reasoning been applied to ‘B’, Nastaran Kolestani and the Spanish woman, all would have been sent to women’s prisons. As I have said before:

The character Mr. Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist may well have had a point when he said “the law is a [sic] ass — a idiot”; unfortunately it’s an ass with a powerful kick.

3 Responses to “Judging a book by its cover”


  1. […] transphobia, prisoner abuse, and denise abbah’s strange sad case Filed under: Uncategorized — Tip @ 10:29 am Tags: feminism, identity, LGBT, prisoner abuse, prisoner rights, queer, south africa, trans, transgender, transphobia, transsexual From Bird of Paradox: an examination of worldwide cases regarding transphobia and prisoner abuse, particularly with regard…. […]


  2. […] In “Judging a book by its cover” Helen G she describes Abbah's case as barbaric and a breach of human rights and gives a contrast of Nastaran Kolestani a trans woman imprisoned for eleven years in a men's cell : For example, I’ve recently written about the trans woman prisoner referred to only as ‘B’ who was incarcerated in a cis men’s prison for five years; Nastaran Kolestani in the U.S.- held for 18 months before her case came to court – and a Spanish trans woman who was held in a cis men’s prison for eleven years – yes, eleven years – before she was granted the basic human rights that many of us take for granted. […]


  3. […] In het boek “Judging a book by its cover” beschrijft Helen G de zaak rond Abbah als barbaars en als een schending van de mensenrechten. Ze vergelijkt de zaak met die van Nastaran Kolestani, een transseksuele vrouw die elf jaar in een mannencel zat : Ik heb bijvoorbeeld geschreven over een transseksuele vrouwelijke gevangene, die ik alleen met ‘B’ aanduidt, die vijf jaar in een mannencel vastzat; Nastaran Kolestani uit de VS. –  die 18 maanden vastzat voordat haar zaak door de rechtbank werd behandeld – en een Spaanse transseksuele vrouw die elf jaar in een cel met mannen gevangen zat – ja, elf jaar – voordat ze toestemming kreeg om van haar grondrechten als mens gebruik te maken, rechten die vele van ons vanzelfsprekend vinden. […]


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