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This article contains excerpts from the chapter entitled, "Factors Determining Identity and the Status of Male-to-Female Transsexuals in Malaysia" in section 4, "Politics and Islam" of the book "Asia PacifQUEER - rethinking genders and sexualities", (2008) [1].

Transwomen in Malaysia[edit]

"The Western definition of male-to-female transsexuals, that is, men who want to undergo sex-change operations to become women, may not be appropriate in the Malaysian context. In Malaysia, the local term mak nyah refers both to men who want to have the surgery as well as to those who are comfortable keeping their penises and who do not seek surgical sex change. This phenomenon is closely linked to recent political developments in Malaysia. After achieving independence from Britain in 1957, there has been a gradual revival of Islam in Malaysia. Islam became the official religion when the nation-state of Malaysia was formed in 1963, and subsequently Syariah laws' have been implemented for all Muslims in society. In recent decades, Islam has increasingly become a political tool to gain and sustain power deployed by the ruling party.

In Islam, only khunsa, or hermaphrodites, are allowed to undergo sex-change operations, and so the majority of the transsexual population in Malaysia, who are not khunsas, are considered to be violators of the religion. Islam does not recognize the western category of transsexual, 'therefore, transsexuals are regarded as nonentities. In order to force them to conform to Islamic practices, their freedom and rights are curtailed by the police and Islamic enforcement officers. These officials often conduct raids to apprehend mak nyahs for cross-dressing, indecent behavior, and so forth under the Minor Offences Act of 1955 or under Syariah law. This kind of surveillance and harassment, in turn, impacts upon the kind of transsexual identity possible in Malaysia.

Although many characteristics arc shared by male-to-female transsexuals all over the world, the forms that transsexualism takes are also determined by local cultural and religious factors. In most cases, transsexuals have to conform to local norms. In Malaysia, the lifestyle and self-image of transsexuals have been impacted by the country's political history and political and religious exigencies.

Changes in the Status of Male-to-Female Transsexuals in Malaysia[edit]

Mak Nyah[edit]

The local term for male-to-female transsexuals is mak nyah — mak meaning "mother" and nyah referring to ladylike/feminine behavior. This term was coined by members of the transsexual community themselves in 1987 when thev tried to set up an otficial society for their community but were denied permission by the registrar of societies. The term was introduced to differentiate mak nyah from pondan or bapok, terms used to describe effeminate men or homosexuals. Mak nyah includes both individuals who have undergone sex-change operations and those who have not. In Malaysia, it has been estimated that there are about 10,000 mak nyahs in the country, about 70 to 80 percent of whom are Malays (who are also Muslims); the rest are Chinese, Indian, and other minority ethnic groups. Malays make up 50.7 percent of the total population whereas the Chinese, Indians, and other minority ethnic groups make up 27.5 percent, 7.8 percent, and 14 percent respectively.19 A possible reason why there are fewer non-Malay/non Muslim mak nyahs is that some of them, especially those with better employment qualifications, have migrated to other countries. Also, many non-Muslim mak nayhs, who face no religious objections, may well have undergone sex-change operations and become integrated into society. There are more non- Malay mak nyahs (with or without sex-change operations) holding better jobs than the Malay mak nyahs and who are consequently better integrated into mainstream society.

More than half of the mak nyah community is involved in sex work and about a third of them live below the poverty line of RM500 per month. Most of them (74 percent) have secondary school education, but only 4 percent have attended institutes of higher learning. The reason many mak nyahs turn to the sex trade is the difficult)- they have in getting relatively well- paid jobs due to discrimination and nonacccptancc by society.

In my research, I found that the mak nyahs had enjoyed a better standard of living during the colonial period as the community faced less stigma and had greater employment opportunities.21 There were fewer sex workers then as compared to the present day. Many were mak andams': (brides' attendants), joget dancers,-3 cooks, or artists. In my interview with a sixty-three-year-old mak nyah, it was related that mak nyahs during the colonial lime were a comparatively happy lot as they were largely left alone to be who they wanted to be. 'lhe police and Islamic religious authorities did not harass them. O11 the contrary, the police were good to them and accepted them as they were— even sometimes giving them a treat, but never asking for sexual favors in return. Many mak nyahs went overseas to have sex-change operations, which they could more easily afford since they were earning good money. 'Ihose who had sex-change operations were able to have their names and gender changed on their identity cards.

At present, Malaysians generally believe that mak nyahs have been socialized into or actively choose to be the way they are. Common myths are that they were brought up in a household of females and therefore had only female role models; their mothers dressed them up as girls because they wanted a female child; or they were sexually abused or sodomized when they were small. These beliefs have been proven wrong in my research. Most mak nyahs come from big families with more than three children, generally including both male and female. Contrary to the myth, it is the female members of their families who strongly dislike them assuming the identity of mak nyahs. Only a small number of mak nyahs had the support of family members when they started cross-dressing. Moreover, the majority of mak nyahs were not sexually abused when they were small. In actual fact, a significant number of mak nyahs realized they were dilfercnt from other male children when thev were as young as preschool age. They liked female toys and played the female role with other female children. With such an early development, transsexualism cannot solely be a matter of preference or a product of socialization.

The changing status of transsexuals in Malaysia is closely tied to changes in the political climate, notably the ability of the community to obtain sex-change operations. Prior to 1983, sex-change operations were carried out in Malaysia, although relatively few in number due to the lack of qualified surgeons specializing in this area. The University 1 lospital (Un iversity Malaya Medical Centre) was one of a few hospitals that performed sex-change operations. The University Hospital had meticulous procedures to be followed before it would carry out an operation. For example, a transsexual patient opting for a sex-change operation had to undergo two years of precounseling to ensure that the operation was really what the patient wanted. They also had to go through two years of postcounscling so that they could adjust to their new roles.

In 1983, two years after Mahathir Mohamad became prime minister and the same year he challenged the Malay rulers, the Conference of Rulers in Malaysia decided that a fatwa-4 prohibiting sex-change operations should be imposed on all Muslims. Under the same fatwa, cross-dressing was prohibited. It was agreed, however, that in the case of khunsa (hermaphrodites, persons having both male and female sex organs), such surgery would be permitted.

Gender categories in Islam[edit]

In the Hadith of Islam, gender can be divided into four groups: male, female, khunsa, and mukhannis or mukhannas. Mukhannis and mukhannas are males whose behavior is similar to that of females. Mukhannis want to assume a gender identity that is associated with women—they loathe their male identity and want to be female. In contrast, a mukhannas is a biological male who is effeminate but does not want to change sex.r Islam permits khunsa (hermaphrodites) to undergo a sex-change operation so that a person can be rendered unambiguously either a female or a male. However, Islam forbids mukhannis or mukhannas, males who behave like females in terms of cross-dressing, wearing make-up, injecting hormones to enlarge their breasts, and so forth, from undergoing sex-change operations. For example, the Hadith in Sahih Bukhari, volume 7, book 72, number 774 states, "Narrated by Ibn 'Abbas: lhe Prophet cursed effeminate men and those women who assumed the manners of men, and he said, Turn them out of your houses'"

The Hadith in Sunan Alni-Dawud, book 32, number 4087, states, "Narrated by Abu I Iurayrah: 'Hie Apostle of Allah cursed the man who dressed like a woman and the woman who dressed like a man."

The fatwa decreed by the Conference of Rulers also prohibits Muslim surgeons from carrying out sex-change operations. Since khunsas are allowed to seek out sex-change surgery so that the person can be either a female or a male, they can obtain permission from the Syariah Department. However, they will need to produce a report from a doctor in a government hospital to prove that they are true hermaphrodites. They can then have the operation performed overseas or in Malaysia by non-Muslim surgeons.

The immediate effect of the fatwa was to increase the somatization of the transsexual community. Muslim mak nyahs were now considered violators of the tenets of Islam and consequently less moral. At present, many Muslim mak nyahs are afraid to undergo the sex-change operation even though they may have the means to do so. 'I hey also fear that nobody will carry out the burial rites for them when they die: in Muslim burial rites, the body of the deceased must be bathed before burial, and the body of a female can only be bathed by another female, which docs not include mak nyahs, even though they may have undergone a sex-change operation. They are also not sure whether they will be accepted as females or considered males in heaven. Some even believe that their souls will float aimlessly when they die if they have had the operation because their bodies will not be those that God originally gave them.

As Islam is the official religion in Malaysia, the somatization of the community is sustained via the enforcement of religious edicts by the police and Islamic religious authorities. 'lhe fatwa allows Muslim mak nyahs to be charged under Islamic Syariah law for indecent behavior, which includes cross-dressing or behaving like a female. In addition, they can also be charged under the Minor Offences Act of 1955 according to the civil law.2" Mak nyahs can be subjected to Section 377a and 377b of the Malaysian Penal Code. Section 377a states, "Any person who has sexual connection with another person by the introduction of the penis into the anus or mouth of the other person is said to commit carnal intercourse against theorder of nature," and Section 377b states, "Whoever voluntarily commits carnal intercourse against the order of nature shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to twenty years, and shall also be liable to whipping." Fortunately, these laws have not so far been used against the mak nyahs. lhe last time these sections were invoked was in the infamous Anwar Ibrahim case. Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister of Malaysia at the lime, was charged with sodomy under these two sections of the Penal Code in September 1998. The chargcs were overturned on appeal by the Federal Court in September 2004. However, it is clear that neither the Syariah law nor the civil law in Malaysia accept transsexual and homosexual practices. The existence of these laws has also contributed to society's negative perception of sexual minorities.

Discrimination against mak nyahs[edit]

Mak nyahs face increasing harassment from the police and religious authorities. About half of the 507 respondents in my 2001 study had been apprehended by the police, and about 28 percent had been caught by religious authorities. Many had been apprehended more than once. Although this persecution has not discouraged the Muslim mak nyahs from cross-dressing, many have opted not to have the sex-change operation, primarily due to the religious belief that they may not be accepted by God when they die. Indeed, some of the older and more elderly Muslim mak nyahs have reverted to wearing male clothing even though they had cross-dressed full time when they were younger since they want to be able to receive a proper burial as men. This clearly shows that the Muslim mak nyahs have a high respect for their religion, which has had a strong influence on their culture and tradition.

The religious nonacccptancc and somatization of mak nyahs have increased discrimination against them. In addition to being teased and called derogatory names, they have problems getting decent-paying jobs, renting a place to live, getting bank loans to purchase homes, and legally adopting children as they are considered unfit parents.-* Furthermore, mak nyahs who have had a sex-change operation cannot change their names and gender on their identity cards to that of females. Although they arc permitted to add their new female names beside their original names on their identity cards, their official gender remains male. The lack of a genuine official gender status creates problems; for example, they cannot purchase health insurance because they have female organs while their identity cards state that they are males. They have problems at immigration checkpoints, as they look female but their documentation states that thev are males. Thev cannot get bank loans. The impact of these various forms of discrimination has negatively affected the quality of life of this community. Generally, Muslim mak nyahs today have accepted that they are transsexuals who arc female at heart but do not opt to undergo sex-change operations. Those who do opt for surgery, which is only a small number, have it done overseas, particularly in Thailand. Since the operation is illegal for Muslims in Malaysia, this has limited the ability of mak nyahs to get necessary and adequate psychological support, and they do not receive counseling either before or after the operation. As a result, some have problems adjusting to their new roles, and most lack adequate social support.

Non-Muslim mak nyahs[edit]

In contrast, non-Muslim mak nyahs, mainly Buddhists, Christians, and Hindus, do not face the same level of somatization. Thev are allowed to be mak nyahs and are able to undergo sex-change surgery overseas if thev can afford it (as there are 110 trained surgeons in Malaysia at present). Despite the fact that their own religions may also prohibit the operation, these prohibitions are not enforced by official religious rulings. In the absence of state-sponsored religious rulings, non-Muslims usually allow mak nyahs to be who they are. Reverend Wong Kim Kong, the secretary of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, stated, "Christians should not condemn nor judge transsexuals ... they do not allow the transsexual activities to perpetuate. Thus, Christians will try to help transsexuals to accept themselves and lead a fulfilling life, but without going against the teachings of the bible. The transsexual, however, has a choice. 'Hie pastoral care will be carried out by Christians, but ultimately the choice is left to the person concerned."

In general, Buddhists and Hindus are even more accepting of mak nyahs than Christians as they believe in the concept of karma.31 K. Sri Dham-mananda, the chief Buddhist high priest of Malaysia, explained that transsexualism was not a religious issue as long as it did not involve behavior that was immoral, harmful, or unethical/2 In Buddhism, the term "immoral" is not related to transgressing divine edicts but to behavior that has deleterious effects on the well-being of others; and the term "harmful" refers to causing harm to oneself as well as to others.

Occasionally non-Muslim mak nyahs are apprehended by the police for cross-dressing and charged with indecent behavior under section 21 of the Minor Offences Act of 1955. What constitutes indecent behavior is not defined in the act, so it is up to the discretion of the police who generally define indecent behavior as that which is offensive to the general public "according to the standard of a reasonable person."33 The police claim that their role is simply to arrest the mak nyahs, and it is up to the prosecutor in the court to charge them with wrongdoing. For those who have had their sex-change operation, they are subjected to the same treatment as the Muslim mak nyahs under Malaysian law concerning their identity cards. They will still have their original gender written on their identity card even though physically they are of the opposite gender. Although this has created problems for them in many areas, they are generally not deterred from cross-dressing or undergoing sex-change surgery. Generally, non-Muslim mak nyahs facc less discrimination and stigmatization from the non-Muslim community. As a result, there are more non-Muslim mak nyahs who have professional jobs, and they are thus able to integrate better with the society.


The status and position of male-to-female transsexuals in Malaysia has declined since Malaysia gained its independence from the British, particularly after the fatwa condemning the behavior was decreed by the Conference of Rulers in 1983. This decline is tied directly to the revival of Islam, which has become increasingly politicized and institutionalized. The competition between rival political groups to be seen as more Islamic to gain support from the Muslim community has resulted in greater discrimination for the transsexual community. 'lhe discrimination and lack of acceptance that the male-to-female transsexuals in Malaysia face have contributed to self-destructive behavior among the community, like drug abuse/' It has been estimated that about half of the mak nyah community and about 80 percent of transsexual sex workers are addicted to drugs. About 14 percent of the mak nyah community has tried committing suicide.35 If this situation is left unchecked, it will get worse. The transsexual phenomenon is a complex one that involves both biological and social factors as has been demonstrated in many studies. Almost all mak nyahs want to continue to live their lives as they do since they have a deep feeling that they are women, despite the fact they are not accepted as such by society. Instead ofpushing the 10,000 or so mak nyahs to the fringes of society, it is time to accept them back into the fold of society by understanding and helping them. Malaysian society will only change its negative perception of the mak nyahs if the government first takes the lead to change its own negative perception of them, afford them equal rights, and give them the much needed support that is due all other citizens of the country.