Mak Nyahs: Transgendered Muslims in Malaysia

Mak nyah is the term that transgendered women in Malaysia use to identify themselves. Mak means ‘mother’, and nyah is derived from the literal meaning of ‘running away’ to refer to ‘transition’. Khartini Slamah, a well-known 49-year-old activist and counselor to other transgendered women, explains how and why this term came about in the late 80s, in her chapter in the book Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and South East Asia by Geetanjali Misra and Radhika Chandiramani (2005):

“First [...] to differentiate ourselves from gay men, transvestites, cross dressers, drag queens, and other ‘sexual minorities’ with whom all those who are not heterosexual are automatically lumped, and second [...] to define ourselves from a vantage point of dignity rather than from the position of derogation in which Malaysian society has located us”.

Mak nyahs do not necessarily have to undergo, have undergone, or plan to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Khartini elaborates on the groups of people that self-identify as mak nyah:

“Mak Nyahs define themselves in various ways along the continuums of gender and sexuality: as men who look like women and are soft and feminine, as the third gender, as men who dress up as women, as men who like to do women’s work, as men who like men, etc.”

Compare this strong and empowering self-identification by Khartini to an article published a few months ago that featured Adam Shazrul’s experiences as a transgendered woman in Malaysia. I found this article as a rather sympathetic portrayal of transgendered women since female pronouns (“she” and “her”) were used throughout. However, the accompanying image seemed to be a bit of a forceful effort to show how feminine she can actually look (“Look Ma, I’m not born a woman but I can still be sexy like a real woman”).

Adam Shazrul. Image via the New York Times.

Despite the fact that Adam Shazrul (I would like to refer to him using his preferred female name, but this is kept from the reader for privacy reasons) identifies as a practising Muslim who “fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and sometimes visits the mosque”, the accompanying image shows the clear outlines and curves of her body in a lighting perhaps more suited to a more shifty kind of story. I’ve yet to come across an article in Malaysia about a practising cisgendered Muslim woman being accompanied with such a photograph.

Last year, the Equal Rights Trust (ERT) published a report about four transgendered Malay Muslim women in their biannual publication. Recently, the ERT helped four Malay Muslim transgendered women present a case to the High Court, challenging the unconstitutional basis of the ban on “cross-dressing”, which was unfortunately rejected. In this report, the testimonies of these women show how gender, race, class and the religio-political system in the state of Seremban (and Malaysia at large) intersect in structural and physical violence towards mak nyahs in Malaysia today.

The justification for this violence towards mak nyahs mainly comes from their race and class. All the four women interviewed explained how it was difficult for them to rent a house, continue their education (the stress of having to room with a male student) or find jobs other than low-paying and precarious ones in the field of administration, food and beverages, or as a last resort, sex work. Even if they looked female (which even the ERT report also tried to emphasise with one of their accompanying images), their identity card revealed their masculine gender and names, as given at birth, resulting in discrimination and ridicule.

Image via Equal Rights Trust.

As they identify as Malay and (automatically) Muslim, they are subject to a section in the Seremban syariah code that makes it an offence for a “man to act like a woman”. Specifically, “wearing women’s attire” or “posing as a woman” is reason for being arrested, having their breasts groped (on the pretext of checking for bras), and being asked to undress in front of other men. The women also state that they do not wear bras because this could be used as evidence of their “cross-dressing”, but sometimes even when they are wearing masculine clothing like football jerseys, they are still arrested for having a “physical appearance [...] of a woman.”

The systematic violations of their modesty as self-identifying Muslim women, by the Muslim male officers from the religious department is something that I am critical of and also ashamed about. Previously on MWW, Alicia pointed out how “sexual immorality is intertwined with class“; these religious officers mostly target the lower classes of Malaysian society for offenses against “Islamic law”. One the scale of class and gender, the mak nyah are arguably on one of the lowest rungs of society, despite belonging to the majority ethnic group of Malays and Muslims, because they fail to act like “real Muslim men”.

As Linda (not her real name) said in her testimony:

“These people arrest us, beat us up and break into our properties. They hunt us down as if we are the biggest murderers, when the only ‘offence’ we are ‘guilty’ of is wearing female attire.”

In short, mak nyah are those who are not “real Muslim men”, but it seems that society still needs to be convinced that they are “real Muslim women”. (Although then perhaps they are subject to a different standard of sexual policing – you just can’t win.)

Even though Khartini has defined mak nyah as a continuum that encompasses a rich diversity of men and women, I find it unfortunate that the photos in the article and report suggest a rigid representation of women (sexy, must wear make-up).

Gender isn’t everything. The case of mak nyahs in Malaysia shows how important it is to consider race and class as well. In any case, it should not stop us from speaking out against violence towards other human beings who only wish to be safe, make a living, and “take care of our people like everyone else.”


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