Often disregarded, ignored, or met with a range of emotions from disgust to shock, the misunderstood community is fighting for equal rights.
“I was told to walk through the cells topless,” she relates. “Every day, vulgarities were thrown at me – the words they use are unimaginable.”
She was forced to take a “boyfriend” to protect her so she would not have to “serve” the other inmates.
When asked why the wardens didn’t help, she gives a wry grin.
“My ‘boyfriend’ was a warden.”
Her name is Nisha Ayub, a programme coordinator with Pink Triangle Foundation (PT), an NGO which works with communities affected with HIV. PT caters to sex workers, drug users and transgenders.
Nisha is tall and very attractive – dark hair with gold highlights, high cheekbones and a ready smile.
Biologically, she was born male, but her gender identity is that of a woman: she is a Mak Nyah.
The Mak Nyah community in Malaysia is, as minorities go, not small. Estimates say there are between 10,000 and 20,000 transsexual people in the nation.
Studies also show that about half of them have been caught by the police and religious authorities for “indecent behaviour and cross-dressing”.
Nisha finds this ridiculous. And why shouldn’t she? As far as she’s concerned, she is a woman.
In fact, the Mak Nyah community does not appreciate terms such as “drag queen”, “transvestite” or “cross-dresser”, because that is not what they are. Transsexualism is an individual’s identification with a gender that is not their biological sex.
I spent an afternoon with four PT employees to hear their stories: Brenda Sulastri, manager of PT’s transgender programme; Rina, manager of the female sex workers programme; Manis, who works in PT’s outreach programme; and Nisha.
The women were friendly, charming and personable. We joked about boys, talked about their work. It was a humbling experience, and I am immeasurably privileged to be one acquainted with such empowered and resilient women.
A lack of tolerance
The Mak Nyah community is often disregarded, ignored, or met with a range of emotions from disgust to shock.
“Society doesn’t consider us human,” says Manis. “We’re here to be bullied, laughed at. They think we don’t know our rights. It’s due to their ignorance, which is instilled by society, media, religion, parents, peers…”
She refers to the various indignities that the community endures, such as harassment from the police or religious authorities and, indeed, the common man on the street.
Adding to this, Nisha relates how the police tend to misuse their powers.
“If we’re caught in club, we’ll be the victims of extortion. We’re asked for money. If arrested, there have been instances of women being molested in cars, asked for sexual favours – it’s like they think we don’t have rights because the law is against us.”
She tells the story of a friend of hers, nicknamed “Amoi”, who was found lying dead in a storm drain in Setapak. She had been robbed, beaten and stabbed to death by a group of young men. The case is still pending, but no real action has been taken.
Brenda cuts in, saying that “because she was a Mak Nyah, no action was taken. It was swept under the carpet”.
The religious authorities, too, seem intent on stamping out what they see as deviant behaviour.
“We have a very unhealthy relationship with the religious authorities because they refuse to accept us,” Manis explains. “They still consider us men. I’m a ‘bad Muslim’ because of my actions – but this is under syariah law which is man-made. The holy book has no specific rule about this. I perform my prayers. I recite my Quran. So what’s the problem?”
The religious authorities have even suggested a sort of rehabilitation programme for the Mak Nyah, in order to “fix” them.
A better future
They are truly wonder women, fighting for basic rights in a nation where the majority of folk choose to not understand or respect them.
“Five years ago,” Manis says, “there was a suggestion in parliament that the Mak Nyah be rounded up and given testosterone. They think this will make us ‘male’.”
What many do not understand is that transsexualism is not a disorder or an illness.
“We can’t be changed like we’re from a factory,” says Manis.
“We’re okay with who we are,” Brenda explains. “This is who I am. We’ve accepted ourselves, but society refuses to. We’re born this way.”
Rina tells me about the stereotypes which plague the community: that they are all sex workers, cross-dressers, deviants.
Her tale is a heartbreaking one – disowned by her family at 13, she was homeless and was forced to turn to prostitution and fell into drug use to dull the pain.
“What did I do wrong? I didn’t follow some sort of trend. I didn’t ask God to make me this way. It’s who I am.”
Rina took her destiny in both hands and turned her life around, eventually going on to earn her Diploma in Architecture. A few days before she would earn her diploma, her mother called with news that her father was dying.
Rina wanted nothing more than to return with her paper qualification in hand and show the man whose acceptance she had craved her whole life what she had made of herself. However, in a heartbreaking twist of events, he passed just three days before she received her diploma.
She worked as a draughtsperson for a brief period before turning to social work in order to help others who were going through what she had suffered.
“I don’t want anyone going through what I did. We’re here to fight for the new generation. Of course, I could leave the country and go somewhere more accepting, but what I want is in Malaysia.”
PT, which is funded by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry, has a variety of measures by which to do this. It has a drop-in centre which operates during the day, giving the Mak Nyah a place to rest. Classes on HIV prevention, sex education, and religion are held regularly – and of course, a large helping of care and support from the organisation.
The social workers strongly advocate more comprehensive sex education in schools and the decriminalisation of gender fluidity.
“We’re not asking for special rights. We want equal rights,” Rina tells me. Her greatest dream is that one day a Mak Nyah will stand in parliament and speak for the community’s rights.
It is a fervent hope – not just among the Mak Nyah, but the Malaysian LGBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) community in general – that one day, things in Malaysia will change.
That their voices will be heard.