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Transwomen are Women: “It is not what lies between your legs but how you perceive yourself”

Nisha Ayub

Forced to walk naked past male inmates and perform oral sex on them is a tormenting experience for some transwomen in Malaysia who are imprisoned for “impersonating a woman.” To prevent further abuse from fellow inmates and receive protection, some transwomen perform sexual favors for the prison warden, also known as the “daddy.” Nisha Ayub, an advocate for the Malaysian transgender community and programme manager for the only transgender initiative in a Malaysian NGO, was a victim of such abuse at the young age of 21.

While hanging out with her friends, unaware that she was committing an offence, Nisha was picked up by the religious authorities. According to Section 28 (differs by State) of the Syariah Criminal Offences, it is against the law to “impersonate a woman” or “cross-dress.” The Act is used to target transgender persons within the Muslim Malay society in Malaysia.

For three months, Nisha was imprisoned in a men’s jail. The experiences she faced in that short period of time were horrific enough to remain with her a lifetime. These memories, or nightmares as it seems, turned her into the fearless and significant advocate that she is today for the transgender community in Malaysia.

Dressed in black, with straight, long black hair and beautiful dangling earrings, Nisha greeted me at the centre she works in with a smile and thanked me for giving a voice to her community. It was a Sunday afternoon and I apologised for taking time on her day off, but with a reassuring smile, she told me distinctly, “anything for my community.”

Transwomen are a highly marginalised and persecuted community in Malaysia. Nisha was sad to say that most violations against transwomen are not reported, hence it is difficult to get accurate statistics on the number of them who are murdered or harassed. However, based on the cases that have been reported at the centre, there were six cases of hate crimes that led to death and three cases of suicide last year, along with five cases of hate crimes that almost caused death and three murder cases this year.

Transwomen in Malaysia frequently face grave violations such as targeted murder, deaths threats and different forms of abuse. They are openly discriminated and constantly harassed by the public (mostly men), the religious authorities and the police. Nisha explained that in comparison with transmen, transwomen experience greater discrimination and harassment due to their visibility. It is more apparent when men transform into women in contrast to women who transform into men.

The discrimination and harassment faced by transwomen begins at home and school. Due to non-acceptance by the family, some transwomen are kicked out of home sometimes during their teenage years and become homeless at a very young age, shared Nisha. To worsen the situation, in 2012 the Malaysian Ministry of Education sent out guidelines to schools for parents and teachers to identify students who portray behaviour similar to that of the LGBT community and randomly selected students to attend rehabilitation camps organised by the government. There was a huge outcry by civil society organisations against this practice which was contained to a certain extent. From a young age, many transwomen lack the support, understanding, space to come to terms with their changes and identity. Many are socially isolated because of their identity, branded as enemies of the country and of Islam – their actions accused as being against the nation’s moral values.

This issue is intensified by the negative attitudes portrayed by media on the LGBT community. Although the Muslim transwomen are directly affected by the Syariah laws, the non-Muslim transwomen have been arrested and convicted for “disorderly and indecent behaviour”.

Based on the 2010 UNGASS Country Progress Report – Malaysia, nearly 80% of the transgender population has been involved in sex work at some point. Nisha attributes this to the high unemployment rate within their community which is a major barrier to achieving economic security. Although many are qualified or have finished school, most employers do not hire transwomen, making it difficult for them to earn a living or even survive.

Many transwomen who are jobless and homeless come to the centre where Nisha works with similar issues and seek assistance with basic needs. Sex work becomes a last resort for many as a means for survival even though some earn as low as USD1.75 per client or service. As a result of the hazards in this industry, transgendered people unfortunately account for nearly 10% of the HIV positive people in Malaysia (2010 UNGASS Country Progress Report – Malaysia).

Nisha emphasised that violence against transwomen is a huge issue resulting from the community’s lack of understanding. Nisha strongly believes that through acceptance, most issues can be mitigated. The inability to change one’s gender on the nation’s identity card and have sex reassignment surgery in Malaysia are struggles that the trans community continues to face in working towards gaining this recognition.

Nisha is convinced that Malaysia’s youth is more open minded to issues faced by the transwomen. She spends time to inform them about the LGBT community, and believes that transwomen will have a better standing in society in the future. Creating greater awareness on the transwomen community is a priority for Nisha as the lack of understanding largely contributes to the issues faced by transwomen.

On one hand, violence against transwomen is on the rise in Malaysia, on the other hand, a parliament member from opposition hired a transwomen to be the party secretary which is a huge step forward in the eyes of the trans community. It is positive to see progress in some areas, but there is still major weakness in the system and high intolerance and discrimination by people towards the transwomen. The right to personal liberty, non-discrimination, freedom of movement, freedom to express one’s identity as guaranteed in the Malaysian federal constitution needs to be upheld by the people in Malaysia. The multiple-discrimination faced by our sisters has to stop right away and no hate crimes should be committed towards transwomen.

* This interview is based on the subject’s knowledge, opinions and feelings on the issues faced by the transwomen community in Malaysia.

** It is important for the community that people understand the different identities such as transgender women, transsexual women, transvestites, cross-dressers and drag queens and to acknowledge, accept and respect them accordingly

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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Cali gal Michelle's picture

Gaya- Thank you for this

Gaya-
Thank you for this thought-provoking article. In your profile you mentioned a need for improved writing skills. Well, I believe already possess them, and they are being uncovered and revealed. Most importantly, your voice is strong underneath the words and it rises up for us to hear.

Thank you for your courage, and for writing this important piece. Thank you for your courage and for showing us Nisha's courage as well. We look forward to hearing what steps and actions can be taken towards change. Stand strong and tall!

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

jags_83's picture

Thank you!

Hi again Michelle,

I am constantly trying to challenge myself to do better. I do have very little confidence in my writing skills and encouraging words from readers like yourself definitely help me in this process.

From what Nisha says, the immediate steps is about creating awareness..she believes that this is one of the main reasons for most violations towards transwomen. Many transwomen are isolated and keep themselves within their groups. Only with acknowledgement, understanding, acceptance and respect from society, will they be able to gradually integrate openly within society and other issues relating to discrimination will be tackled.

I hope that the far and wide dissemination of this article will be a first step....of course challenging patriarchy, stereotypes and changing laws and policies is the long term goal in achieving substantive equality and big changes.

Warmly,

Gaya

Mauri's picture

Gaya, I agree with Michelle:

Gaya, I agree with Michelle: you have a talent for writing. Hope to read more of your articles - both on Pulsewire and, with a wish which is a more-than-half prediction, on the Press ;-)

I agree with you that solving the issue of discrimination against transwomen in Malaysia (and many other countries, Europe included) demands a change of attitude, which comes only from knowledge, and the open-mindedness coming from it. I think your account of Nisha Ayub's terible and beautiful story is one important point.

Your article made me reflect!

On a side, I wonder whether the greater discrimination transwomen face, in comparison to transmen, comes entirely from greater visibility. I write from Italy, a mostly-Catholic coutry, where a similar phenomenon takes place. In Italy, another aspect is transwomen are feared more within a patriarchal frame, as living examples of a sort of "corruption" men might suffer by becoming more "womanly" (translation into commonsense logics: more completely human, that is, OK, strong and independent but also caring, involved, connected and so on). Possible "dangerous" paths... The same kind of stigma attached to transwomen occurs is reserved, although maybe possibly a bit less, to male homosexuals, or just "effeminate" or sensitive or mild-looking men. Transmen, in this view, did try to "elevate" themselves, which gives a long list of troubles, but much less stigma ("You are not entitled to play the part of a man!"). Behind this all is, in Italy, a latent devaluation of women, femaleness and femininity. And by the principle of action and reaction, of men, masculinity, ... Is it the same, or different, or something else in Malaysia? What do you think?

Another thing you inspired is, what in the end makes us human? To devise the grace of God? So difficult questions... Yet, what distinguishes anyone of us is so small compared to similarities. And meanwhile, so irreducibly unique. Gender is a part of it, an important one in our society. But why are we, as humans, compelled to fit in just two categories, man and woman, when anyone of us is an individual experience, imagination, wishes, ...

Maybe, the simplest solution would be to drop any gender label from identity cards, driving licenses, legal documents, web sites, ... That measure would seem "obvious" from the latest letter in the LGBTI subset of humankind ("Intersex"); I'm coming to the conclusion it could be no less natural for anyone. Maybe..

And after all that, who in the World does not "impersonate" some more or less idealized image? To "impersonate" an image allows others to make expectations about us, and if the image we choose fits out authentic self, then communication gets more efficient - at the very least. So, why people should choose an unauthentic image? In the name of what, exactly? Anyone defining herself a woman would then be, simply be a woman, without labels like "trans" or something else - unless that "label" is important to the person. Why not?

In my idea (of Lutheran ancestry), all people devise the grace of God, and they aspire to it. But alone, we/they can't. You must apply yourself, engage in a dialogue with God of which you are fully responsible. Conduce a life which conforms to the principles in the Books - remembering all of them, New Testament included, I add. Not judging, if you wand not be judged.

In this individual path, nothing is said about gender. In front of God we're individual, bare. Any "impersonation" we may have chosen is irrelevant (it is not necessary to God: He knows any of us to the latest bit of dust).

Too difficult problems, for me..

But I'd like to see what do you think.

Thank you.

Love

Mauri

jap21's picture

Hi Mauri

I saw your comment and could not do any less than say hi my dear friend!

It has been so long since we had the chance to share thoughts and ideas!

It is great to see you. Hope we can pick up from where we left, now that I am on my feet again.

Hugs my dear Mauri!

Love,

Jackie

Jacqueline Patiño FundActiva
Tarija - Bolivia
South America
www.jap21.wordpress.com

I love your line, "in front of God we're individual, bare."

Beautifully said!

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

jap21's picture

Hi Gaya

The title of this wonderful piece made me aware that we can be, without being aware, discriminating women because of their sexual appearance.

Then the reading made me more aware of what life would be like if I had to change my image. It sounds so harsh, so hard, that maybe I would not be able to cope with it.

And it made me aware of the need to see these women as part of our female community. I had never before seen them like that. I always thought of them as part of the male community. So, the real value of your article for me, is to make me think about what they want. If they wanted to be part of the male community, they would remain as men. But they want to be women. Who are we to close the doors of female communities to them?

But then again I start thinking about some female activities that would be affected by their decision. Examples in this, are sports and beauty pageants, where they would have, due to hormonal realities, both advantages or disadvantages. So maybe the way is to let go of tags. Maybe the gender issue is created for a reason, but the tags are created for no reason.

Maybe, in a better world, time will come when we will see each other as human beings first, and will give each other the same opportunity to reach our hearts, positively, without prejudice. You make me want to do that.

Your article, makes me want to be a better women when I relate to transgender women.

Thank you for turning my absence of knowledge, into a light that shows a new path.

Love,

Jackie

Jacqueline Patiño FundActiva
Tarija - Bolivia
South America
www.jap21.wordpress.com

jags_83's picture

Hello Jackie!

Thank you for your comments, Jackie. It is really personal and you have given a lot of thought to it. I am really grateful that you have shared this.

Nisha said that women have been less discriminatory towards transwomen compared to men. It may be to do with the whole macho/patriarchal status that they want to safeguard!?

I can't agree with you more on how difficult the process of transformation is. It would take a toll on me and that itself is a major stress that transwomen have to face and we really do not need to add on to that with other societal discrimination and negative stereotypical attitudes.

I am so glad this article made you revisit previous impressions you had on transwomen. They are our sisters and they want to be recognised as women despite the transformation they had to go through. They do not fit the
expectations that society have of men or relate to the sexual body of men. They perceive themselves as women who want to live in society as women and be recognised as a woman. They may not have the similar female reproductive system but then a person's reproductive system alone does not represent their gender. Gender identity goes much deeper and wider than that and this is something that I am also still trying to understand better.

You are absolutely right about the tags that we can easily do away with...we are all human beings who have been given the intellect and heart to use in the best possible way during our lifetime and we should make full positive use of such a unique opportunity.

I am constantly challenging myself to be a better person/woman and it is women like Nisha that help bring me back to my humble self to and challenge my perspectives so that the basis of humanity is part of my core.

Thank you once again, Jackie. I am really happy that this article had a positive impact on you and I look fwd to continue creating these impacts and raising greater awareness on behalf of the marginalised communities.

Love and hugs from Malaysia,

Gaya

Eileen Page's picture

Hi Gaya

Thank you for a provocative and courageous story which I have reflected on considerably over the past few days.
In particular, I have been reflecting on what defines me as a woman in my own identity and how would I feel if others identified me differently. It also raises the question when do I want to be identified by gender and when is gender irrelevant? How are my safety, equality and justice affected by my gender? What judgements and "isms" do I have related to gender?

Sadly we all have "isms" and my hope is that we can find creative ways to raise awareness faster and on a bigger scale so that those who are especially vulnerable to violence, abuse and injustice can live full lives safely integrated in society.

Kind wishes on your journey!
Eileen

Eileen

jags_83's picture

Thanks Eileen

Dear Eileen,

Thank you for your comments and I am glad that it has created thoughts around the complexity of gender identity and how we have been socialised to think and act in specific ways. I too have been trying to understand the socially constructed expectations of gender and continuously challenge the binary classification of gender.

You are right about all of us having "isms" and it is a good start to talk about it and educate ourselves in order to understand how society has evolved and how this has affected the broad spectrum of gender identity....which in turn has caused a lot of discrimination and inequalities in society.

It is so important to exploring this angle more in depth...I hope to be able to work on this particular topic of gender identity in the near future!

Thanks a lot for your kind words - please keep in touch as your thoughts are important for me to go further.

Warm wishes,

Gaya

Eileen Page's picture

Way to go!

Hi Gaya,
I really admire your courage and appreciate your work to raise awareness and acceptance!

And encouraging or even challenging us all to dig deep within our own perceptions to root out the beliefs, origins and experiences that shape our thinking and behaviour is wonderful!

Wishing you well as you continue this journey.

I look forward to seeing and hearing more about your vision and how we can all learn and engage with you.

Kind regards
Eileen

Eileen

Your comments are empowering and priceless. I want to take some time to respond to them. Please bear with me while I get back to you. Thank you so much again for your support, encouragement, kind words and I am glad to hear that I have created the awareness I was hoping for. Please do share this article far and wide so that transwomen gain positive visibility and recognition.

Warm wishes and hugs from Malaysia,

Gaya

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

Dear Gaya!

Dear Gaya,

Thank you for this crucial information, for all the work you put into it and for introducing us to Nisha, who is so clearly, as you put it, "... a fearless and significant advocate for the transgender community in Malaysia."

It is sickening to hear of the government camps to "rehabilitate" transwomen; as sickening as any other forced attempt to change the essence of any human being.

Nisha's experiences during her three months in a men's prison would certainly have been enough to cause someone of less psychic and emotional strength to descend into permanent madness or, at the very least, irrevocable bitterness, and so she deserves all the more respect for rising to the surface and continuing forward with such purpose and courage.

Gaya, your piece is excellent and has obviously prompted lots of discussion and thought-provoking responses, just as it should. In this way, you've already contributed to raising awareness over the grotesque injustices faced by transwomen in Malaysia.

Thank you again, Gaya,

With Respect,

Sarah

jags_83's picture

Thank you Sarah

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your comments and sharing your thoughts. I could not agree with you more that the treatment transwomen could result in really awful circumstances and Nisha has had the strength to turn an awful situation to an empowering one. As a society, ensuring that we are aware of and understand and respect differences, is an important initial step forward in overcoming discrimination against transwomen.

I do hope that everyone can share this piece and continue creating further awareness.

Warm wishes,

Gaya

Lina Foster's picture

Beautiful Article

Gaya,
Thank you for taking on this important subject. My heart breaks for these women who are just trying to be true to who they are. Your piece does a lovely job of making their struggle real for the reader. Excellent job!
Lina

Lina

Sutanuka Banerjee's picture

Bravo

Brilliant piece! Thanks for highlighting such sensitive and important social issues.

Keep on protesting through your pen

Love

Sutanuka

I live in my convoluted mind....

Maura Bogue's picture

Very Good!

Wow. This is a really compelling story. You wrote it very well and included all the necessary details in a logical order. Very good work!

Next time, try adding more quotes. They add to the authenticity of the piece and give the reader more of a sense of humanity.

But, truly, great work!

Best,
Maura

jags_83's picture

Thank you Maura

Dear Maura,

Thank you for your specific comments...it is much appreciated and important to continuously improve my advocacy writing.
Your suggestions are well noted and I definitely agree with you. I'll try and get more quotes for the next article.

Looking fwd to your continuous support,

Gaya

jags_83's picture

Thank you Sarah

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your comments and sharing your thoughts. I could not agree with you more that the treatment transwomen could result in really awful circumstances and Nisha has had the strength to turn an awful situation to an empowering one. As a society, ensuring that we are aware of and understand and respect differences, is an important initial step forward in overcoming discrimination against transwomen.

I do hope that everyone can share this piece and continue creating further awareness.

Warm wishes,

Gaya

jags_83's picture

Thank you Maura

Dear Maura,

Thank you for your specific comments...it is much appreciated and important to continuously improve my advocacy writing.
Your suggestions are well noted and I definitely agree with you. I'll try and get more quotes for the next article.

Looking fwd to your continuous support,

Gaya

jags_83's picture

Thank you Lina & Sutanuka

Dear Lina & Sutanuka,

Thank you for taking time to read this article and I am glad that you equally see the importance of this issue. Pls pass it on to create further awareness. I am grateful and empowered by your encouraging words. Do stay in touch....

Warmly,

Gaya

jags_83's picture

Hello Michelle

Hi again Michelle,

I am constantly trying to challenge myself to do better. I do have very little confidence in my writing skills and encouraging words from readers like yourself definitely help me in this process.

From what Nisha says, the immediate steps is about creating awareness..she believes that this is one of the main reasons for most violations towards transwomen. Many transwomen are isolated and keep themselves within their groups. Only with acknowledgement, understanding, acceptance and respect from society, will they be able to gradually integrate openly within society and other issues relating to discrimination will be tackled.

I hope that the far and wide dissemination of this article will be a first step....of course challenging patriarchy, stereotypes and changing laws and policies is the long term goal in achieving substantive equality and big changes.

Warmly

Gaya

Cali gal Michelle's picture

Oh, yes, thank you for the

Oh, yes, thank you for the reminder to be aware. Being aware and present in the moment, without judgement, is crucial to accurately seeing ourselves, thereby opening a way to move forward. This awareness and accurate view reflects back at those around us, allowing them to also have accurate view, resulting in positive action.

Be amazing. Change your world!

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

Monica09's picture

Enlightening

Dear Gaya,

Your article made me learn more about this issue from a cultural/country perspective. In Bangladesh too, transgender individuals are highly discriminated upon. Not enough facilities exist to integrate them into the mainstream. They are usually abandoned as soon as the family members find out.

I sincerely hope Nisha, the selected MP, and other social activists are able to bring a lasting global change in this movement for the welfare of the transgender.

In friendship,
Monica

Dear Monica,

Hope all is well at your end. Didn't realise I had comments which I had not acknowledged.

Malaysia and Bangladesh have many similarities especially given our laws which are governed by religion. But I was informed that the transpeople in Bangladesh have better legal standing than Malaysia, keeping aside culture, patriarchal structures and sexism in the country of course. Do let me know if this is true. Does Bangladesh recognise the 3rd gender and transpeople can have their own identity without being categorised in the binary of man and woman?

It is my hope too that their place in society is gradually normalised and given the due respect they deserve just like any of us. These small steps taking place now is positive and it is my true hope just like you that their rights will be upheld and create a wave globally.

Thank you for your time and comment, Monica. Sincerely appreciate it.

Warmly,
Gaya

Gaya

Zoepiliafas's picture

Confidence

You should have confidence in your writing skills, you captured me right away. You started with a provocative 1st paragraph and really drew the reader in. I also appreciate your willingness to report on this issue. Thank you or rising to the challenge.

Regards,

Zoe Piliafas

Voices of Our Future Community Manager
World Pulse

jags_83's picture

Thanks a million Zoe!

It means a lot to me to hear this from you.

Despite my BEYOND EXTREME delay, I will be working on Module 3 this weekend. I have just moved to London to start my Masters in Human Rights and there is much to adjust and get used to.

I hope to keep up with this team of amazing women correspondents. I have been just so swept away by all their stories and the way they write that it only makes me want to do more justice to the issues we are surrounded by.

Thank you once again for this awe-inspiring experience.

Warmly,
Gaya

Gaya

Y's picture

Your profile brings to mind

Your profile brings to mind my most passionate dream. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, I pray for the day that we all judge ourselves and others by our character, as exhibited by our actions. Maybe we will than all be comfortable in our own skins and with the skins of others.
Blessings to you, Gaya.
Yvette

Yvette

jags_83's picture

Thanks for sharing Yvette

Wow - it is an amazing feeling to be be able to bring to your mind such a powerful dream/hope/future reality.

You are absolutely right, Yvette. We all should look inwards and attempt to become better people and citizens of this world first by doing the right thing by ourselves and by those around us.

If everyone focused on that, the world would be a much better place to live in and the people will be transforming towards a society that this world is hungry for.

With much gratitude,
Gaya

Gaya

nomadologist's picture

Hi Thanks for a fascinating

Hi

Thanks for a fascinating insight into Malaysia and for an engaging discussion

Greg

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