Women in Malaysia: We’re challenging transgender female discrimination

By Lisa Twang, Mar 11, 2021

Warning: This story includes mentions of suicide attempts and sexual assault.

Last week, we began our International Women’s Day series, “What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country”, with period taboo and the abolishing of tampon tax in the United Kingdom. This week, we turn our attention to the plight of transgender women in Malaysia, also known as mak nyah.

Mak nyah identify as female though they are not born biologically female, and struggle to be accepted in a country which criminalises their gender identity and expression. Malaysia has a dual justice system, with federal state laws, which are secular, and Islamic sharia laws for individual states, which only apply to Muslims in principle but also influence Malaysian culture and society. State sharia laws punish “male persons posing as women” with fines and imprisonment, and many mak nyah have also reported being physically and sexually abused in prison.*

Malaysia’s laws against mak nyah have led to great social persecution as well, including hate crimes, cyberbullying, and workplace discrimination. In 2020, Malaysia was ranked 139th out of 167 countries for perceived tolerance towards LGBTQIA+ individuals, including trans people.**

In support of the mak nyah community, we spoke to 41-year-old transgender female activist Nisha Ayub. Nisha is the co-founder of two organisations: SEED Foundation, which offers a safe haven for the trans community through its T-Home shelter in Kuala Lumpur, and Justice For Sisters, which raises public awareness on the legal persecution of Malaysia's mak nyah.

Nisha has faced imprisonment and assault, won the US Secretary of State's 2016 International Women of Courage Award, and was on the BBC's list of 100 most inspiring influential women in 2019. 

She tells Dayre why she continues to fight for the rights of mak nyah, even at great personal risk, and how she hopes we can offer them our love and support.

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It takes courage to live as transgender women in Malaysia. We’re discriminated against because of laws against us, but we want to live freely and be honest about who we are. 

In Malaysia, many states have implemented sharia laws to ban cross-dressing. This means mak nyah who are born Muslim are criminalised for expressing our gender identity, and may be arrested, fined, or sent to religious rehabilitation camps.

Knowing we can be reported to authorities and prosecuted, even when we’re walking down the street, means we sometimes carry a mental burden of fear and stress. We continue to live as transgender women, because we want to be true to ourselves. When I dress and live as a woman I feel liberated and happy, like this is who I was born to be.

I believe it’s important to abolish laws that criminalise one's gender identity, gender expression and sexuality, as it violates our basic fundamental rights as human beings.  

Though sharia laws against trans people do not affect non-Muslims in principle, they also contribute to anti-trans and anti-LGBTQIA+ attitudes in Malaysia. When our country’s leaders speak negatively and portray us as deviants by using religion against us, it stirs society’s hatred and fear towards us. This then amplifies transphobia, violence, and hate crimes. 

Recently, transgender influencer Nur Sajat was accused of insulting Islam by wearing female attire. Over 120 officers were deployed to arrest her, and we’re concerned about how the authorities went to such extreme measures to hunt her down, for merely expressing herself based on her gender identity as a trans woman. 

Finding work is difficult for trans women, because companies may not want to hire us due to our gender identity. Many transgender women in Malaysia work in more female-friendly jobs related to beauty or wedding planning, but it’s hard to find employment outside these industries. Often the community would have to turn to sex work as their last means of survival. Before I was an activist, I worked as a beautician and briefly in the sex work industry, so I understand how difficult it is for mak nyah to find job opportunities out there. 

Trans women also struggle for acceptance from our families, friends or people on the street, because our gender identity isn’t seen as normal, and doesn’t fit into the binary ‘male’ and ‘female’ system. Many trans women have been rejected or cut off from their families, and some even face violence from those close to them.

I often meet others who are very biased against trans women, but when I speak to them face to face as a friend, I usually see their attitudes soften and change to tolerance. This gives me hope and inspires me to keep speaking up for my fellow trans people. 

Being transgender is a strong part of my identity: since I was a child, I’ve always identified as a girl.

When I was nine, I dressed up as a ballerina for a fancy dress competition in school, and I felt so comfortable and happy: it was a moment where I found my true self. It wasn’t easy being a feminine boy in an all-boys’ school, but I’ve never been one to keep quiet when I was bullied, and I fought back.

Later, as a teen and young adult, I started to transition: doing hormone therapy, growing my hair long, and wearing makeup and women’s clothing. My family didn’t approve at first, but over time they’ve grown to accept me for who I am: a proud trans woman. 

I started fighting for trans womens’ rights at 21, after I was sent to prison for being a male Muslim dressed as a woman. It was a horrendous experience, but it also stirred a passion in me to help other trans women.

I was in prison for three months: I was beaten up, and my long hair — the glory of most trans women — was shaved, so I was bald. I was also sexually assaulted: I was forced to have sex with a warden and other inmates, and I couldn’t report it.

Later, I tried to end my own life. Now I think it was foolish of me to attempt suicide, but when I experienced such mental and physical torture, I was so depressed that I couldn’t think straight.

One good thing that came out of my time in prison was that my family finally started accepting me. They saw that I wasn’t going to change, and that this was who I really was. 

My mother came to visit me in prison, and cried when she saw me bald. I asked her to bring me a wig, and she did. I was touched by my mother’s love, and my family’s support helped me through this terrible time.

When I left prison, I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to me, and I wanted justice. I could not accept that I was put in prison and abused, just because I dressed as a woman.

Back in 1991, no one in Malaysia was talking about transgender rights. I became inspired by other Malaysian women’s rights activists like the late Toni Kasim, and shared my story at local and regional events, and international platforms .

At first, I only spoke up for myself. But the more I talked about my experiences, the more messages I received from other trans women, saying: “Thank you so much for speaking up for us.”

There is diversity within the transgender community: we come from different ages, sexualities and backgrounds. Our community faces various challenges, but the main issue will always be the discrimination we face from our gender identity as trans women. Our visibility is our strength, but at the same time it's also our weakness, as we're easily targeted by transphobic people.

To support our transgender community in Malaysia, I co-founded two organisations: SEED Foundation and Justice For Sisters.

SEED Foundation is Malaysia’s first trans-led community organisation, focused on social welfare and community development. Our drop-in centre in Kuala Lumpur is a safe space for marginalised communities, such as transgender people, female sex workers and the homeless (our tagline is: “Nobody should be left behind”).

Our team runs prevention programs and provides peer support referrals for social aid and legal matters. We link people to resources so they can live sustainably, and provide counselling. 

Myself (extreme top right), with students from a medical university at our SEED drop-in centre.

Myself (extreme top right), with students from a medical university at our SEED drop-in centre.

We also built T-Home, Malaysia’s first home for trans women who don’t have children and families to support them. Our main priority is elderly trans women, but we are open to emergency cases for all ages.

Since COVID-19 hit, we’ve seen an increase in trans women seeking refuge with us. Some lost their jobs, and couldn’t go back to their family homes as their families couldn’t accept them. It’s heartbreaking to hear these stories, and we’ve been helping them as much as we can: providing places to stay, or distributing groceries and funds to trans women who are badly affected by the pandemic.

Right now, we also have a mentorship programme for the younger trans community. We’re training young trans leaders to continue advocating for and helping the community. Through our grassroots campaign Justice For Sisters, we also raise public awareness about violence and persecution of our community in Malaysia. 

Many trans women have been the target of hate crimes (being murdered, beaten up or raped), and those who are assaulted are unable to report it. They’re afraid of our legal system that doesn’t recognise their gender identity, and they know they’re treated differently and may even be blamed for the crimes they report.

We educate the community on their legal rights, and raise funds to finance court cases brought against transgender women, under both civil and sharia law. As Malaysian citizens, we are entitled to the same legal rights as other citizens, and have the right to be represented by lawyers when we are in court.

When it comes to women’s rights, I believe we should always include trans women’s rights, too. Some people disagree — because they don’t see us as “real” women.

I believe cisgender women and trans women all want the same thing: to achieve gender equality, be treated with respect, and overcome gender stereotypes in our patriarchal society. But as trans people, we sometimes feel discrimination from both males and females who don't want to accept diversity, as they still believe in the binary system of gender.

Men often ask me: “Why have you given up the privilege of being a man?” But to me, I’ve never enjoyed or experienced the privilege of being a man because I always portrayed myself as a woman. In fact, I believe the ideology that men are more privileged than women is a social construct, and proves that gender discrimination exists.

As a trans woman, I’ve experienced discrimination from cisgender women too. When I won the International Woman of Courage award in 2016, I was the first-ever trans woman to receive it. Some cisgender women said I didn’t deserve the award because I wasn’t “a real woman”, and wasn’t born female.

But to me, what makes someone a woman is more than your sex at birth. It’s not just your sex organs that make you a woman, but how you perceive yourself.

Accepting the International Woman of Courage award from United States Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, DC.

Accepting the International Woman of Courage award from United States Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, DC.

I tell people: “Even if you can’t accept me as a woman, please accept me as a human being.” I’m a person with feelings and emotions, and it hurts when others treat me and other trans women cruelly.

I’m not here to change people’s minds and force them to see me and other trans women as  women. I know it can be difficult for people to understand why we are transgender, or to approve of us on religious or moral grounds.

As an activist, I speak of our issues from a humanitarian angle, and ask others to at least see us as people who deserve dignity and respect, just like everyone else.  

I believe everyone should be looked at equally in the eyes of the law and in everyday society, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or colour. Our goal should be the same: to fight for equality in society. 

In my 20 years as an activist, I’ve seen how our community’s issues have been politicised, and how religion was used against us. But I’ve also seen support for us grow as our issues were discussed in public.

Last July, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religious Affairs) gave “full licence” to the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) to take action against the transgender community. He said it was not just about arrests, but also to provide religious education so the transgender community would “return to the right path” or repent. 

Recently in January, the Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Religious Affairs) said the government is considering amending the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act to enable heavy penalties to be imposed on the LGBTQIA+ group. It was hoped that the amendment to the Act (Act 355), would have a greater impact on our group, which currently faces up to three years’ jail, a fine of RM5,000 (S$1,630) and six strokes of the rotan.

However, these proposed harsher laws also created a public discussion: people questioned why these discriminatory laws exist. I’m encouraged by these conversations, and how they’re helping to raise awareness for our community. 

I’m also relieved that some politicians have spoken up for us, defending our human rights. On Feb 15, Malaysia’s Federal Court ruled that a state law banning consensual same-sex conduct was unconstitutional.

I believe our younger generation will lead us towards a more inclusive and tolerant country, that’s more accepting of our marginalised trans community.

When I started out as an activist, most of my speaking engagements were with human rights groups overseas, such as in the US. But in recent years, I’ve been invited to more local talks and discussions, and I see more openness from our young students.

At a university talk (second from right) for transgender health.

At a university talk (second from right) for transgender health.

People have asked why I’m still in Malaysia when there is so much discrimination against mak nyah. I’ve chosen to stay because this is my home, where my family, friends and loved ones are. I want to look after my trans community here, and advocate for our basic human rights.

I think it’s crucial for transgender people to be recognised legally here in Malaysia. Only when we are recognised legally, will we be able to live our life as others do. We will then have our rights to employment, education, freedom of expression and movement.

Supporting transgender people starts with respecting us as fellow human beings. I believe parents play an important role in teaching this: if you see a trans woman on the street, don’t judge us and say: “That woman is not a woman, she’s actually a man.” Kids pick up on that negativity, and may grow up to be biased. Instead, tell them that if they see a transgender person dressing as a woman, respect them as a woman, and as a person. Society can also support us by creating a safe and inclusive environment.  

This International Women’s Day, I hope that more people will stand by us and be allies for the transgender community. I believe we’re all fighting for the same cause: equal rights for all human beings.

* From the Human Rights Watch report “I’m Scared To Be A Woman”: Human Rights Abuses Against Trangender People in Malaysia, published in 2014.

** From the Prosperity Index 2020: Malaysia, by Legatum Institute. 

This is the second story in our International Women’s Day series, ‘What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country’. Click here to read our story on normalising periods in the United Kingdom.

Writer's Note:

My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve written about teaching my daughter Tully about love and respect for everyone, including different genders, races and religious backgrounds. I also ponder how I can learn to be a better advocate for marginalised communities, and shed my personal biases to respond with love. 

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