Transgenders find family ‘maaf’ can be in short supply even at Hari Raya

Nisha Ayub (far right, back row) with her family during Hari Raya last year.

PETALING JAYA: For many Muslim transgenders, going back to their hometowns to celebrate Hari Raya can be daunting, especially if they were forced to leave by their own families.

Such was the case for trans-woman activist Nisha Ayub.

Transgender refers to people who identify with a gender different to their sex at birth. Some struggle with their identity throughout their life while others gradually transition to the opposite sex, usually with extended medical intervention.

Speaking to FMT, Nisha said she was thrown out of her family home in Melaka early in her transitioning period, when she was just 18. She didn’t dare try to return for Hari Raya.

At the end of Ramadan, Muslims traditionally return to their family home to be with their loved ones to celebrate. This is known in Malaysia as balik kampung, or homecoming.

Balik Kampung is very important to Malaysians. To have it forbidden to you is traumatic.

Hari Raya Aidilfitri traditionally sees families and friends seeking forgiveness from each other. Muslims greet one another at Raya with “maaf zahir dan batin,” which means, “Forgive my physical and emotional wrongdoings”.

Forgiveness is not always forthcoming. Nisha did not go back home to Melaka to celebrate Hari Raya for two years.

Her mother was born into a Christian family, but converted when she married Nisha’s Muslim father. So Nisha grew up with both Christian and Muslim relatives.

Both sides used to chastise her for being transgender.

“My mother’s side would often tell me not to shame the family. My father’s side would use religion to make me feel guilty. It made me feel that I was not accepted in any religion. They shunned me and I felt I was not a part of the family.”

Nisha Ayub grew up with both Christian and Muslim relatives, and both sides chastised her for being transgender.

However, she said she never blamed them, as to her they were simply ill-informed about the transitioning process.

“They think that when you’re a trans-female you will end up on the streets, with no proper employment,” she said, “But I proved them wrong.”

Her father died when she was young, so her mother became the judge of right and wrong in their home.

“My mother did not accept my decision to transition. I had to leave home, but we still kept in touch.”

For two years, she celebrated Hari Raya in the transgender community with fellow outcasts. Some had spent many years apart from their families, she said.

They all feared the wrath of disapproving relatives if they went home.

When she was 21, and a fully transitioned woman, she finally gathered enough courage to face her mother and her siblings.

Yet she delayed her visit to avoid the flood of relatives who always gathered at her mother’s house during the first few days of Hari Raya.

When she finally arrived home, she felt self-conscious of her clothing and mannerisms in front of her family.

She had taken care not to appear overly feminine, wearing clothes that were gender-neutral or loose, so she could hide her figure.

Some of her transgender friends, when they venture home, go as far as wearing a bengkung binding wrap, traditionally used by women to flatten their bellies after giving birth, in order to compress their breasts underneath their clothing. She did not go that far.

“What I noticed was my immediate family were more worried about what my uncles or cousins and our other extended family members would say. It was a difficult time for us all.”

It took her about ten years to feel comfortable being herself around her family. She only overcame her fears after establishing a career as an award-winning transgender activist.

The job, and the stability and independence it gave her, empowered her to face hostile relatives.

Now 40, Nisha looks forward to going back home for Raya. She feels blessed to be around her family, who have grown much more accepting.

John (not his real name), a 48-year-old Muslim trans-man, celebrates Raya every year with his wife and her family.

His wife accepts his female past, but they still hide his history of transitioning to a man from her Muslim family.

John told FMT he hopes to tell them eventually but fears how they will react.

He said he had felt wrong in his female body ever since the age of five.

He decided to start transitioning when he was in his thirties, and underwent sex reassignment operations over a period of five years.

Born Buddhist, he converted to Islam around the same time he started going for his operations.

Some in his position would have opted to leave Islam due to the discrimination they face from the community, but he felt at peace with the religion, which he believes is not at all against transgenderism.

He has spent years studying Islamic texts and claims many hadiths regarding the matter are taken out of context.

“There was even a name for transgender people, ‘mukhannathun’, and they were accepted in Muslim society at that time,” he said.

After his transition, he was nervous to meet his extended family, who had last seen him as a woman.

“They are staunch Muslims and Christians, so I was afraid how they would react,” he said. “But they didn’t bat an eyelid.”

He was surprised and grateful. Unfortunately, many others do not enjoy the same experience, he said.

“I’m now very confident and grounded with who I am as a person.”

Despite their long, difficult journeys both Nisha, John and many others in the transgender community still find the courage to spread positivity during the festive season.

Their message to transgender people going through the same difficult process is: Once you have accepted who you are as a person, your family may come around – it just takes time, so don’t give up.

Eventually you may be able to enjoy balik kampung once more.