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.

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