EVEN popping into the convenience store down the road can be dangerous – if you are a transgender (Mak Nyah). That was what Muna* learnt last year when she went out to get the paper one morning.
Before she realised what was happening, she was surrounded by a group of men who claimed to be religious enforcement officers.
“They ordered me to hitch up my shirt and show them my bra. I was so shocked that I could only stare at them, so one of them pushed me face down to the ground and held my hands to my back while another pushed my shirt up and tugged my bra. The others only laughed,” Muna recalls.
Although it was not the first time she had been stopped by the authorities, it was the first time she had been groped and manhandled, on the street and in daylight. The incident rattled her, and for many months after that Muna was too frightened to step out of her house.
Violent abuses against the transgender community, specifically male-to-female transsexuals, also known as Mak Nyah, appear to be rising in Malaysia in the past few years, not only at the hands of the authorities and the religious police but also the ordinary Joe on the street.
Reported cases allege that during “raids” some errant enforcement officers often ask for bribes and sexual favours from the transgender. In custody, they are usually asked to strip in front of the authorities, while their breasts are groped and they are hurled with derogatory sexual remarks.
Like Muna, many in the transgender community suffer mental anguish from the fear of discrimination, abuse and persecution. Worried that they can be arrested at any time, they feel uneasy about going out.
Former Boom Boom Room dancer Dara Othman admits that it is a stressful way to live. “For most transgender, it is down to knowing where and what time is safe. But now, it seems like anytime and everywhere is not safe.”
Hence, some people – mainly those who have been working with PT Foundation (a community-based, voluntary non-profit organisation that provides information, education and care services relating to HIV/AIDS and sexuality in Malaysia – have banded together under Justice for Sisters to highlight issues surrounding violence and persecution against this community in Malaysia, as well as provide them support and assistance.
They had met up with a group of Mak Nyah in Negeri Sembilan, heard their stories and documented some cases. S. Thilaga, one of those behind the movement, says: “At that point, many were pretty sick of the situation and wanted to change it. So we met up with a few lawyers and were told that what we can do is to challenge the law.
“Our transgender friends are up for it but they don’t have the money to challenge the law. Some can’t even make ends meet! So we thought we should do something to help them raise funds and create public awareness on the issue.”
Thilaga adds that they work closely with the transgender community and try to involve them in all their initiatives. “Ultimately, we would like them to be in the forefront.”
Last December, Justice for Sisters was launched with a fundraiser concert at the Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur. Recently, another fundraiser was held at Map KL, Dutamas – its third since the launch.
The target is to raise up to RM60,000, says Thilaga, not only to help the transgender community challenge the matter in court, but also to help those who are left in dire financial straits while pursuing their legal defence.
Unfortunately, Justice for Sisters has only managed to raise slightly more than a third of that sum.
There are an estimated 30,000 plus transgenders in the country, for whom dealing with rejection from the so-called “normal” members of society is a daily preoccupation because they don’t fit in the identity box assigned by society.
Being called names and getting dirty looks are normal occurences, Thilaga says. “Some people go to the extent of throwing bags of urine at Mak Nyahs and throwing things into their house when they are not around.”
Considered a “high-risk” group, most in the transgender community are caught in a vicious and pernicious cycle of violence and persecution for being who they are.
“Many suffer rejection by their families and some are even kicked out of their homes. They are subjected to various forms of humiliation so they stop schooling. They’re rejected for jobs and loans, and struggle to find safe shelter. They’re constantly coerced in every way and face every kind of pressure to conform (usually through violence).
“Quite a number leave their homes to look for work as early as 15 years old, but they are unable to get reasonably paid employment because people are reluctant to hire them. And if they do get hired, they are often underpaid,” says Angela Kuga Thas, another key mover of the human rights campaign.
The crux of the issue is the blatant refusal to understand and appreciate Mak Nyahs for who they are, she opines.
“They exist in every single country in this world and are as diverse as the extent and level of changes that they physically seek, yet as a community, this is their identity, this is who they are.”
In Malaysia, their identity can constitute an immoral conduct offence under civil criminal law. This is mainly used against them if they are caught in a vice-related context.
Under the Syariah criminal law, however, the Muslim transgender can be persecuted for being a man who dresses like a woman (lelaki berlagak seperti perempuan). In almost every state, this offence carries a jail term of six months (or one year in some states) or a RM1,000 fine (up to a maximum of RM5,000 in one state).
These are very hefty costs considering that Mak Nyahs are being arrested once every two months, or more frequently, says Kuga Thas.
And should one be arrested for the third time, and found guilty all three times, she can be sent to prison, Thilaga says. “It is like the three strikes rule,” she notes.
According to Justice for Sisters, there is an alleged growth of arbitrary arrests of the transgender persons, especially in certain states. One transgender activist, who declines to be named, say she was even arrested for being a woman who dressed as a man.
“I was in jeans and T-shirt and looked androgynous, I guess, so they charged me with ‘menyerupai lelaki’ (dressing as a man) instead.”
However, she is used such arbitrary charges.
“Sometimes these so-called enforcement officers have no identification, nor do they follow rules and procedure. They are like polis koboi (lawless cowboy enforcement officers) . Once when I was arrested, one of them grabbed my boobs and said, ‘Your butt looks like a man but you have boobs,’” she recalls bitterly.
Make-up artist Miss A* hits out at the authority’s common tactic of stripping them down to their underwear or asking them to flash their bra to prove that they are transgender.
“We are really confused. Who do we offend with our underwear? Whose business is it what we wear under our clothes anyway? So, what do they want us to do, let everything hang out?”
Kuga Thas, who is an advocate for women’s empowerment and non-discrimination, believes those in power and in authority need to realise that no amount of coercion and violence will change the transgender community because “Mak Nyahs are Mak Nyahs.
“They are who they are, inside and outside of their homes. They are not pretending to be women and they are certainly not impersonating women. They identify as women, not men, and many often begin to feel that way between the ages of seven and 10.
Dara concurs: “People have no right to ask us to change. I always feel that God made us the way we are for a reason, so it is not up to the people to judge.”
Kuga Thas alleges that ever since they started challenging the law by having the arrested transgender plead “not guilty” to the charge against them under Syariah law, there has been a crackdown on them.
“They are targetted for arrests as soon as they step out of their homes. . This form of persecution would have received a massive amount of protest if it were to happen to other Malaysians.”
To Thilaga it is a simple human right issue. “Just because they are transgender, and a minority group, doesn’t mean that they don’t have rights. While they are visible, they are a muted group. That is why, in solidarity, we should stand with them to fight for their rights. We should be outraged that their rights are being violated because of who they are.
Kuga Thas agrees. “As Malaysians, we should be appalled that our transgenders continue to suffer violence and persecution for their identity.
“Everyone else has the freedom to be out as late and as long as they want, to dress the way they want to, to have any hairstyle they like, to meet up with friends for food and drinks, and have a social life.
“Why not the Mak Nyahs? Why shouldn’t they have this freedom? They are fellow human beings and they are fellow Malaysians,” she adds.
* Not her real name.