Gender trouble: some thoughts on transgenderism in Malaysia

If there’s one thing about feminism that I feel proud to be identified with is its struggle for the abolishment of traditional gender roles. For the uninitiated, this means rejection of women as natural homemakers and men as pre-determined breadwinners. Rejecting the social conditioning of gender also means redefining the feminine and masculine and who has the ‘rights’ to them. While many in this day and age do not see anything wrong in seeing women in important decision-making positions in politics and business, and becoming successful doctors and engineers, discussing the rights of men and women who reside outside the sphere of heterosexuality is enough to raise so-called tolerant and progressive eyebrows.

Take for example all the talk about America’s Next Top Model (season-n) first transgender hopeful, Isis. Looking every bit like catwalk material, she’s like any other woman with a big dream – in her case to be a female fashion model – a popular standard for female beauty.  Should she be chosen by the arbiters of style and fashion solely for she what does best, and not because of her gender, would mean a huge leap for mainstream media – the arbiters of popular culture and social acceptance.

In a local context, Malaysia has witnessed over the years the persecution of transgendered men or Mak nyahs for their desire to assert their feminine identities. Transsexuals in Malaysia have been at best, regarded as inferior to heterosexual men and women, and at worst, perverted and depraved.  A fatwa prohibiting the Muslim transgendered community from access to sexual reassignment surgery in 1983 meant that many were forced into back-alley mutilations or surgery in nearby Thailand.

Making do without a sex change can prove to be just as difficult as cross-dressing is in legal terms “indecent behaviour” in Malaysia. Given the vagueness and multitude of meanings in “indecent behaviour”  would mean that the moral police station can often be the busiest place in town. Religious authorities have been known to be particularly active in nabbing Muslim transgendered individuals at beauty pageants and prostitution districts. Often discriminated in the job market, the majority of the transgender community end up in the flesh trade, and professions in hairdressing and the entertainment industry that further stereotype their identities. A recent report of a transvestite (transsexual?) losing hir teaching job for ostensibly setting a poor example on schoolkids reiterates some die-hard prejudices:

From The Star Online:

A TEACHER who admitted in a Syariah Court in Bachok last Sunday to taking part in a beauty contest for transvestites would not be returning to teaching, but would be transferred to an administrative post, Berita Harian reported.

Education director-general Datuk Alimuddin Mohd Dom said transvestite teachers were not suitable for the job.

Teachers, he said, had to be good role models for their students.

“This case will be given priority because it could damage the pro-fessional image of teachers,” he said.

He said the decision would be finalised by the Education Ministry’s disciplinary committee, which is chaired by the secretary-general.

Alimuddin was responding to a report on the teacher being hit with a RM1,000 personal and a good behaviour bond for two years by the Bachok Syariah Court on Sunday.

To be fair, being a teacher and transgendered is difficult, and there is an unspoken rule that transsexuals are allowed jobs that keep them mostly hidden from the public eye, and this include high-profile positions such as religious and political leaders.

While non-Muslim transsexuals can face a fine of only RM25-50 under civil law, their Muslim sisters are slapped with a heftier penalty of RM1000 which can include internment in a rehabilitation centre which aim to ‘treat’ transsexuals into becoming normal, heterosexual men. In general, non-Muslims who are either Buddhist, Hindu or Christian live in a climate of greater tolerance and respect for their private lives.  It is bad enough that Muslim transsexuals face constant harassment and humiliation at the hands of the police and Islamic authorities, equally damaging to their lives is the their depiction in the Malay media. In Malay films, effeminate male characters consistently provide comic relief and stay in the background as supporting roles whereas sensationalist news reportage tend to depict the mak nyah as pre-repentant lost souls.

Efforts to portray mak nyahs in a more realistic light have resulted in two films, “Bukak api” (Open fire, 2000) and “Pecah lobang” (Broken hole, 2008). The mise en scene of both films, Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur is a lot like the pre-Giuliani streets of New York; seedy and dangerous. “Pecah lobang” cites Islamic references that are used as justifications for the maltreatment of mak nyahs, but I believe that that’s not the whole story. Years ago I used to watch ‘al-Kuliyyah’, a religious talk show every Friday and remembered clearly an episode on the plight of the mak nyah who were desperate to be accepted into the Muslim community in spite of society’s bigotry. The programme was refreshingly positive about transgenderism and explained to the audience in the studio and at home that “God made people in his image, and can come in many different forms, shapes, and sizes, and this includes gender”. What he was trying to explain was probably this:

In the Islamic religion, gender is divided into four groups: men, women, khunsa (hermaphrodites), and mukhannis or mukhannas (men whose behaviour is similar to that of women). Mukhannis want a change in their gender identity, while mukhannas are considered ‘effeminate’ but do not want to change gender identity.

Building on the notion that biology is destiny, a khunsa is allowed to change his or her gender via an operation and become either a man or a woman. A mukhannas, however, is not permitted a gender change, out of the belief that he was created by God, and the operation would undo God’s work. Neither does Islam allow mukhannis to use make up, dress as women or otherwise express their chosen gender identity, since any act that masks the given sex of a person is seen as going against God’s wishes.

(From ‘The struggle to be ourselves, neither men nor women: Mak nyahs in Malaysia‘ by Khartini Slamah)

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. Recently I read “Feminism and the women’s movement in Malaysia : an unsung (r)evolution” by Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad, and Tan Beng Hui. It’s an interesting book, I do have some criticisms of it but one of the chapters written by Tan Beng Hui called “Querying the Forbidden Discourse: Sexuality, Power and Dominance in Malaysia” touches on some issues you raised above. Are you familir with her work? I found an online article by her via the Isis website – again dealing with sexuality discourses in Malaysia, but it is old

  2. Funny! I read the same book just recently myself! I’ve been wanting to buy it online but it’s ridiculously expensive on Amazon, so I got a day pass to read it at the SOAS library in London instead. I’ve managed to read just one chapter, so I’m not really in the position to judge the book’s merits.

    I have heard of Tan Beng Hui, but not familiar enough with her work. The link is a little old because Malaysia has moved on since the days of suppressed speech and ideas. One testament to this progress is the groundbreaking ‘Seksualiti Merdeka’ held at the Central Market last August in Kuala Lumpur, itself a historical and important local venue. I thought it was incredibly brave for Malaysians to talk so openly and positively about the sexual minorities in the country.

  3. Yeah., amazon is overpriced at times. I studied South East Asian Politics last semester and through chance completely focussed on Malaysia. I had to write a book reivew on it so I read it about 10 times! I am quite familiar with Western feminist theory so it was really interesting to read.

    If you’re still a student and your university has subscribed to ebook library, the book available as a 3 day download – that’s how I got a copy.

  4. “A recent report of a transvestite (transsexual?) losing hir teaching job for ostensibly setting a poor example on schoolkids reiterates some die-hard prejudices:”

    I see a little bit of confusion here. The word transgender which you use (not transgender-ED, because no one is gender-ED), is the umbrella term used for both transvestite and transsexual.

    A transvestite is a clothing issues. Some men may have the urge to wear women’s clothing for sexual gratification, hobby, curiousity etc.

    A transsexual is a body issue, where someone’s psychological, biological or chromosonmanl circumstances may not fit the body and sexual identity. Thus the need for Hormone Reparative Therapy (HRT) for treatment.

    Trans-VEST-ite (change of clothing) and trans-SEX-ual (change of sex). Geddit? : )

    Therefore, because the teacher in Kelantan do not has any issues with himself being male, and only wish to dress as a woman for childs play, he is a transvestite.

    I am a transsexual. I can never hide the fact I am born with male sex organs, but I do know I am a girl even if I dress as a man. I am under HRT and appear female now. I hope to one day remove that stupid mutation between my legs.

    Hope this info helps. : )

  5. Yuki Choe,

    Thank you for clearing up some murky confusion there!

    The “transvestite (transsexual?)” in “A recent report of a transvestite (transsexual?) losing hir teaching job…” was deliberate. Due to the indiscriminate and probably ignorant nature of the report leaves the reader unsure of the right terms to describe the individual in question. I sometimes am confused myself with the right terms to use without offending anyone, which is the reason why I throw in the umbrella term, “transgender” from time to time. I find the term “transsexual” to be quite fluid and does not mean a complete change of sex, and there are who identify themselves as women but haven’t changed sex through sexual reassignment surgery.

    To be ‘gendered’ is a contentious issue, as it could mean being male/female or feminine/masculine. The second binary points to the flexibility of gender and that it is constructed by society. Though societal conventions insist that the two binaries do not separate and determined biologically. And as far as my politically-neutral dictionary says to me, the word ‘transgendered’ exists.

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