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“Even if you cry, nothing will change.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

“Any male who wears as woman’s attire in public for immoral purposes shall be guilty of an offense and on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding one thousand or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or both.”
-Section 28, Syariah Criminal Offenses (Federal Territories)

Unlike other majority Islamic countries that have law based on Syariah or have secular laws influenced by Syariah, Malaysia doesn’t allow for sex change operations.  Countries such as Egypt, under the dictatorial secular ND party allow for sex changes for those whom are considered to benefit from such operations; the same with the Islamic Republic of Iran under mullahs of the Guardian Council.

However, in Malaysia this is not the case (even though it used to be until the early 1980s) which has caused much despair and trauma for the Mak Nyah (transsexual) population in Malaysia estimated to be numbered at around 25 to 30 thousand.

Journalist and videographer Poh Si Teng, whom I have the pleasure of calling my friend and have been able to work with, decided to spend some time with Mak Nyahs in Kuala Lumpur to chronicle their hardships, feelings, and thoughts about being Mak Nyah in a society that rejects them with its laws and its homespun take on Sunni Islam.

Her documentary (click here to buy), titled Pecah Lobang (“Busted”), chronicles the lives of Mak Nyah prostitutes in Kuala Lumpur who have taken to prostitution in order to support their families (as they can’t normally find jobs within mainstream society).  Along with putting their lives within the lens of a video camera she also gets them to open up and talk about police brutality, relationships with their families, and their relationship with God.

Poh Si Teng taking questions during her premiere at Kuala Lumpur (photo by Pusat Komas)

Pecah Lobang, which was featured in this years Freedom Film Fest in Malaysia, does more than just show the lives of Mak Nyah prostitutes trying to survive in a society that rejects them and hunts them down; it also tries to put their struggle in the context of over all Malaysian society by going over the history of sex change operations and gender classifications within Malaysia as well as the backlash by the Fatwa Council in 1982 issued a fatwa banning sex change operations in Malaysia.

Due to the interesting way law is set up in Malaysia there are different laws for different sets of groups in Malaysia.  If you were born Christian you are subject to laws that are more British in origin so fatwas would not affect you; however, if you were born Muslim (as the majority of the country is) you are subject to a law code that was influenced by Syariah and thus you are liable to all fatwas issued by the council in Malaysia.

Poh Si Teng does a good job interweaving these facts into the “boots on the ground” context of the Mak Nyahs she interviews in her documentary.  Because it is illegal to switch religions in Malaysia those Mak Nyahs who were born into Islam have to contend with anti-sex ring raids by police as well as by the religious authorities.

Not only are Mak Nyah sex workers targeted by the state and religious authorities but so too are seamlessly innocent activities such as Mak Nyah beauty pageants in which one Mak Nyah, Jada, says. “This is how we show to the world that we deserve to be on this earth.”

Not only do Mak Nyahs born Muslim have to struggle with their religious identity but they have to struggle with a society that rejects them nearly in full.

Dr. Teh Yik Koon, who has been studying Mak Nyahs for more than 10 years and is the only academic to extensively study the Mak Nyah population is interviewed in the documentary and gives us the hard realities of being Mak Nyah in Malaysia.

She found that the vast majority of Mak Nyahs in Malaysia were Muslim and that after the issue of the fatwa in 1982, which abolished the legality of sex changes and transsexualism, the situation of the Mak Nyahs “went down hill.”  More than 50% of the people she studied in her research were sex workers who went into the industry because they couldn’t get good jobs in mainstream society as they could no longer legally change their sex (and better blend in) and thus would face widespread discrimination.  They also got into the sex industry because they needed to support their siblings and their parents; a Mak Nyah, who before the fatwa could have gotten a good paying job in a legal sector, now has to do sex work in order to help their younger siblings get through college.  Along with essentially being forced into sex work they faced not only abuse from the police and religious authorities but abuse from customers as well as receiving high rates of contractions for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

While the documentary is only 30 minutes long it does a good job in condensing all of the information and interweaving it into the context of the lives of those Teng interviews as well as the overall impacts on the society.  The last six minutes are brilliant by interweaving the interviewees’ views on Islam (one believes that Islam is wonderful and that people are the ones who pollute it), their views on Malaysian society, and their overall despair with the outlook for Mak Nyahs in Malaysia in general.

While it ends with a bleak note one quote stood out to me by Dr.  Khairuddin Mohamed Yusof, who performs sex change operations for Mak Nyahs.  In response to people who think Mak Nyahs should change for the sake of society and Islam Dr. Yusof states, “It’s like asking me to change the shape of my nose and my facial attributes.  It’s already set.  For heavens sake, we are different.  And I think we should be enriched by that.”

  1. liza permalink
    Sunday, October 26, 2008 11:30 am

    thanks for this great insight. Hope to get a chance to see the documentary.

  2. Wednesday, November 5, 2008 11:56 pm

    Nice article… thanks for sharing…. ^^

  3. Joe permalink
    Monday, November 17, 2008 5:54 pm

    Nice and an eye opener


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