By Nehal El-Sherif and Shabtai Gold
Sally Abdullah Mursi walks into a room with an air of confidence, clutching a leather handbag in one hand and holding a pink mobile telephone in the other.
Though having lived as a woman for over 20 years, and married to three men over the decades, Mursi was born male in 1962. At the age of 26, after years of emotional turmoil, she boldly underwent a sex change operation in conservative Egypt.
The 48-year-old now wants to complete a medical degree and help others struggling with similar issues.
But, like many aspects of her life, finishing her studies is proving to be an ordeal, and one Mursi is now taking to the African Court on Human and People's Rights.
At the age of 14, when she was still known as Sayyed, Mursi began to realize she was different, she told the German Press Agency dpa.
Doctors, she says, diagnosed a hormonal imbalance stemming from an abnormal chromosome, which was likely caused by her mother's ingestion of abortion pills during pregnancy. There was mention of the option of a sex change.
'After my father rejected conducting an (sex change) operation for the first time, he told my doctor 'I want a boy, even if he is artificial,'' Mursi recalls.
Sayyed, the boy whose railway worker father wanted him to 'toughen up', was subsequently stuffed with male hormone pills and sent for counselling.
The father moved young Sayyed from the French School in Cairo to the all-boys al-Azhar high school, connected to a leading Sunni university which goes by the same name.
'I tried to cope by concentrating on my studies and isolating myself from the rest of the boys,' says Mursi.
The result was academic excellence: Mursi finished high school ranked among the top 10 students in the country and on a path towards graduation from al-Azhar's medical school.
'Frustration pushed me to study medicine and get to know more about my illness. The more I read, the worse I felt,' she recalls.
At the all-boys university, Sayyed began to become Sally, slowly adopting neutral dress and then gradually becoming more feminine and growing her hair long.
This would eventually lead to her being disciplined for 'imitating women' and suspended for two months.
'I was going to postpone the operation until after graduation, but that proved to be too hard for me,' says Mursi, adding: 'I even tried to commit suicide.'
In 1988, she booked into a private hospital in Cairo and underwent a sex change operation. Mursi flashes her official identification card and shows that it was altered - the state now legally sees her as a female.
Egypt's Interior Ministry this week declined a request by dpa for information on the number of people who have officially changed their gender.
After the operation, al-Azhar university refused to allow Mursi to transfer to the all-girls medical school. She was shortly thereafter expelled for undergoing an 'immoral operation' and making herself 'sexless.'
'That is nonsense,' Mursi says, adjusting her Islamic headscarf, or hijab.
'Al-Azhar's problem is they reject anything that is different. I was shocked to find all that ignorance inside al-Azhar,' she exclaims.
The school has refused to comment on Mursi's case.
After her expulsion, she found work as a belly dancer, says the transgendered Egyptian whose inability to have children has led to three marriages that ended in divorce.
'I thought I might prove my femininity through that job,' she says.
However, Mursi says, al-Azhar again rejected her acceptance to the medical school, this time for being a dancer.
She holds a warm place in her heart for the former grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, who died earlier this year. He issued a fatwa, or religious edict, saying that if a doctor advised a sex change it was permissible under Islamic law.
Mursi hoped this would help her case with al-Azhar, which unlike the state, follows stricter religious teachings.
'Tantawy was very wise,' she says, while noting that his successor, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, has since issued a new fatwa, rejecting entirely the old ruling.
'So now I have two totally opposite fatwas about me,' she says.
While fighting to be accepted back at the medical school, she has been studying elsewhere, learning law and completing a degree in arts, using a stipend left over from her father's pension.
But to finish her last year at al-Azhar she has recently joined with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a legal aid centre, and is heading to the African Union court.
She hopes the court, which sits in Tanzania, will take up her case in November and help her to realize her ambition of becoming a doctor.
'I studied my illness and understood it. But the rest of the doctors in the faculty do not understand,' she explains. Both medical knowledge and empathy is what people in her situation require, she says.