Transgender Communities in Malaysia And The Invisible Challenges They Face

Trigger Warning (TW): Violence, Sexual Assault

The climate of hostility towards transgender persons in Malaysia has subjected a large portion of the community to harrowing discrimination, injustice and abuse.

In a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in 2014, Malaysia was found to be one of the worst countries to be a transgender person — social ostracism, discrimination and sexual harassment being a few amongst many factors highlighted. In 2019, a SUHAKAM study on the discrimination against the transgender community in KL and Selangor echoed precisely this; 54% of respondents said that they don’t feel safe living in Malaysia, and 72% thought of migrating to countries with better legal protection and recognition of transgender rights[1].  

The recent persecution of Nur Sajat, a cosmetics entrepreneur, is a clear illustration of how grave the situation is for transgender people in Malaysia. Accused of insulting Islam and charged in court for dressing in women’s clothes, the 36-year-old transwoman had to flee to Australia to escape the threat of prison in her home state, Selangor. The charges could have seen her jailed for three years, most likely in a male prison[2]

Source: Instagram, BBC

Arrest and imprisonment are not the only threats faced by transgender people like Nur Sajat. Deeply-embedded transphobic attitudes, often combined with a lack of adequate legal protection, expose transgenders to egregious violations of their human rights.

Continuous persecution against Nur Sajat is a reflection of the climate of repression against the LGBTI+ community. The state has a duty to protect all its citizens, and it failed to do so with Sajat. In her case, it was the agent of violence[3]. – Numan Afifi, LGBT activist

Arbitrary Arrests, Violence and Physical Assault

Nur Sajat has alleged that while she was in custody in January, she was kicked, pinned down and groped by several officers from the Islamic religious authority, JAIS. She was also placed overnight in a male detention facility.

Nur Sajat’s mother, who witnessed the assault, confronted one officer, asking how pious Muslims could do something like that. He responded that it was alright to do so because Nur Sajat was a man.

They think it is justified to touch my private parts and my breasts because they perceive me as a male person. They didn’t treat me with any compassion or humanity[4]. – Nur Sajat

Nur Sajat’s case, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. Being abused by religious and civil police is a lived reality for many transgender persons — especially for transwomen. 

State Sharia enactments provide no guidelines as to what constitutes “posing as a woman.” This ambiguity leads to arbitrary arrests of those who may look effeminate, regardless of whether or not they are dressed in distinctively “female” clothing.

Source: Advocate

There are also reports of civil police extorting money or sexual favours from them. If they are sentenced to prison, transwomen are usually placed in male wards, where they often face sexual assault at the hands of both wardens and male prisoners[5].

The Religious Department officials chased me into a hotel and grabbed me. They hit me, punched me in the face, choked me, and told me I was guilty. One of them tried to stomp on my chest, but I was saved by someone who pulled me away[5]. – Human Rights Watch interview with Serafina, Seremban, January 15, 2014

With such abuses being so commonly perpetrated, it is difficult for the transgender community to obtain justice. Many cases of violence simply go unreported since coming forth puts them at risk of being blamed, harassed, and even worse, re-victimised.

Conversion Therapy

Often shunned and deemed as ‘deviants’ who need to be ‘corrected’, many transgender persons have been forced to undergo conversion therapy upon being arrested by religious authorities. 

In July 2020, the Minister of Religious Affairs announced on Facebook that the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) will be given a “full licence to carry out its enforcement actions” against transgenders. He also suggested that transgenders need to be “re-educated” and be “brought back to the right path”

Source: YouTube

In Malaysia, LGBT conversion therapy often involves ‘seminars’, ‘retreats’ and ‘outdoor boot camps’ combined with courses on spiritual development, also known as the Mukhayyam[6]. In these camps, there have been appalling instances of therapists going to the extent of spraying the patient’s eyes with chewed black pepper in order to ‘get the devil out’.

They do cross-country running, climbing hills, trying to change us — to them we are sissies who haven’t done any physical activity. They think this will toughen us up. Like I’ll climb to the top of the hill and suddenly become Alexander, or Peter. They don’t understand what gender identity is[5].  – Human Rights Watch interview with Manis, Kuala Lumpur, January 19, 2014.

Such practices used to ‘convert’ transgender people are often dehumanising and dangerous. Those who undergo them are found to experience worrying repercussions; significant anxiety, depressive tendencies, self-hatred, social isolation and suicidal thoughts are a few amongst many[7].

Systemic and Structural Discrimination

Despite these shocking instances of arbitrary arrest, violence and conversion techniques, we are only scratching the surface of their troubles — the transgender community faces a myriad of other distressing, unseen challenges that are often left ignored and unaddressed. The truth is excruciating: discrimination extends into nearly all aspects of a transgender person’s life, including access to education, employment, healthcare and more. 

These barriers have very practical repercussions: a growing body of evidence shows that anti-transgender discrimination translates into lower educational attainment, higher unemployment rates, poorer health outcomes, as well as homelessness and poverty among transgender people.

Let’s unpack these issues one by one.

EDUCATION

Source: Heckin’ Unicorn

In terms of education, transgender persons face the risk of being prohibited from attending school because their NRIC does not align with their gender expression. They are also disproportionately targeted as victims of abuse.

In the SUHAKAM report, 55% of respondents admitted to having felt fearful in school. A staggering 72% reported having suffered bullying while attending educational institutions[1].

Some of the bullying incidents reported include hate speech, derogatory name-calling and physical violence such as pushing, beating, punching and kicking[1]

Emotional bullying is also common as transgenders are often humiliated in the classroom not just by their peers, but school administrators and lecturers too. For instance, during science class, a transwoman was told by her teacher that she would not get pregnant if she was raped and that was made into a joke[1]

It doesn’t stop there: there were also instances of sexual assault. Some respondents reported having experienced unwanted sexual gestures, molestation, the threat of rape and coerced sex during their time in school by peers and teachers alike. 

The impacts of bullying are dire and traumatising, causing many to lose interest in education. To make matters worse, most institutions do not have any redress mechanism that transgender children can trust to discuss the unique challenges faced by them. This causes them to be unfairly and involuntarily excluded from the educational system, the consequences of which extend well into their adulthood.

In school, other boys teased me and made sexual advances. They would grab my hand and touch my chest area. I went to the boys’ toilet but I was always disturbed there… pinching me and calling me names like pondan[5]. – Natasha, a 33-year-old transgender woman in Penang

EMPLOYMENT

Source: The Ithacan

Ultimately, exclusion from education reduces one’s employability, which in turn diminishes one’s career prospects. This, coupled with patriarchal religious narratives, anti-LGBT rhetoric and absence of legal protection, leaves many transgenders unemployed and turned away during job interviews. 

Beka, from the northern state of Kedah, told Human Rights Watch she had been rejected on the basis of her gender identity more than 10 times by prospective employers, including an international corporation[5]

Even if they made efforts to neutralize their appearance and blend in, they would still be discriminated against.

When I go for an interview, whether a factory, shopping complex, hotel, or anywhere, I dress in a simple way—no make-up; if I have long hair at the time I bun it up. [But] they would tell me, ‘No, we don’t want transgender women.[5]Natasha, a 33-year-old transgender woman in Penang

The discrimination doesn’t stop at the job application stage. In cases where transgenders do manage to land a job, they are still mistreated by employers, colleagues and even customers. 

According to the SUHAKAM report, 35% of respondents were not allowed by their employers to express their authentic gender identity at work. 53% stated that their colleagues tend to ask them inappropriate and intrusive questions, and 25% faced sexual harassment when dealing with customers[1].

With such barriers to employment and unsafe work environments, transgender persons are often forced to resort to more precarious work.

When I go for an interview, if the interviewer is male, the first thing he asks me is, ‘Are your breasts real? When did you decide to change?’ I explain I’m a transsexual woman. ‘Do you have a penis or a vagina? Do you have sex with men or women? Did you do your operation? Why did you choose to take hormones?’ It’s nothing relevant to the job. And it’s not just one place — this has happened at almost every interview I’ve gone to[5]. – Human Rights Watch interview with Sharan, Kuala Lumpur, January 13, 2014

The consequences of economic marginalisation are fearsome: it embroils the trans community in deep financial struggle, which in turn impedes not only their health and wellbeing but also their right to live with dignity.

Such barriers and discrimination trap many transgenders under the poverty line.

The data from SUHAKAM revealed that more than 60% of respondents fell in the B40 category[8]. 9% earned below RM900 per month and 10% indicated that they have no income altogether.  

HOUSING AND SHELTER

Source: Zula

Apart from barriers to education and employment, transgenders also face housing discrimination due to the incongruity of their NRIC and gender expression.

In the SUHAKAM study, 25% of respondents shared that they had been denied room or housing due to their gender identity. Some also shared instances of landlords cancelling their initial agreement upon meeting them face to face, despite not expressing any problems prior[1]

Even if a transgender person ends up signing a lease, they may still face discriminatory fees from landlords. 7% of respondents reported having to pay higher rent because they were transwomen. In one instance, the landlord justified the imposition of higher fees by alleging that the property would be used for “sex trade activities”[1]

Reports of name-calling and violent threats by neighbours are also common for transgenders — 31% of respondents shared that they experienced discrimination from people living in their vicinity. This includes being criticized for the way they dress and walk, sexual harassment, being accused of being criminals and humiliated for their gender identity, among others.

With the pervasiveness of such anti-LGBT sentiment, obtaining housing proves to be a dehumanising endeavour for the transgender community.

HEALTHCARE AND WELLBEING

Source: Pexels

Due to widespread stigmatisation, many transgender people also experience bias when seeking healthcare. This includes unnecessary hostility from healthcare providers, such as deadnaming, being laughed at and being called derogatory terms by hospital staff.

Here’s what’s more alarming: 13% of respondents noted they were refused to be examined by healthcare professionals at least once. 21% were asked intrusive and irrelevant questions regarding their sex life and 37% reported instances of being ridiculed and mocked by healthcare professionals[1]. There were also instances of sexual harassment.

In 2010, I went to the local clinic. The doctor asked me to lie on the examination bed. I said, ‘I have a migraine.’ He then checked my crotch area, put his finger in my belly button, and said, ‘I’m checking to see if you have any stomach upset.’ .. I just walked out — he just wanted to feel me[5]. – Human Rights Watch interview with Sharan, Kuala Lumpur, January 13, 2014

Ill-treatment by hospital staff greatly deters transgender persons from seeking healthcare, causing many to resort to self-diagnosis and self-medication. Pushed into a corner without oversight, it is no surprise that they face higher risks of overdosing and are more likely to experience adverse side effects from their treatments.

INSURANCE AND SOCIAL PROTECTION

Source: The ASEAN Post

Although there are no laws forbidding health insurance plans from covering transgender persons, it is still difficult for the transgender community to obtain health coverage as their appearance do not match their identification cards.

Several insurance companies consider transgender persons as high risk and therefore subject them to more stringent tests before they are able to obtain approval for insurance coverage. This intrusive scrutiny, on top of other deterrent factors, ultimately discourage transgenders from getting the coverage they need.

According to the study by SUHAKAM, 60% of respondents chose not to subscribe to insurance schemes due to concern about disclosing their gender identity, distrust towards insurance companies and the fact that they do not cover trans-specific healthcare needs, among others[5]

To make matters worse, the eligibility for social protection systems (e.g. EPF, SOCSO and KWAP) are largely dependent on one’s employment status. This leaves many transgenders unable to access such protections due to employer prejudice as priorly discussed[9].

Consequently, a large portion of the Malaysian transgender community does not have sufficient savings to support themselves during unforeseen circumstances and income shocks such as those caused by COVID-19. Even for those who do participate in the labour market, most are self-employed or in the informal sector where they have lower rates of EPF coverage and lower balances compared to their cisgender counterparts.

Recognising Transgender Rights

The culmination of all these challenges and barriers ultimately cause many Malaysian transgenders to live in fear, uncertainty, and indignity. It is apparent that much needs to be done towards the recognition and protection of the transgender community. 

Source: Getty Images

Active steps must be taken to uphold their rights as human beings. This includes establishing a comprehensive legal framework prohibiting the perpetration of abuse against transgender people — including arbitrary arrests, sexual assault and systemic discrimination in schools, workplaces, hospitals, and more. A comprehensive and holistic make-over of government policies and programs is also necessary to ensure greater inclusivity of the transgender community. 

A sustainable and developed society understands that it cannot fully progress while excluding others. Inclusion of all Malaysians, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender expression or any other identity marker, is key to creating a more empathic, egalitarian and cohesive community.

My hope for the LGBT community in Malaysia is basically for the government to recognise and to accept and to acknowledge that we are a part of society. As a transgender, the only thing we ask for is our right to education, our right to employment, our right to be treated equally as citizens[10]. – Nisha Ayub, transgender activist and founder of SEED Foundation

Explore Our Sources:

  1. SUHAKAM. (2019). Study On Discrimination Against Transgender Persons In Kuala Lumpur and Selangor. Link
  2. SCMP. (2021). Why is Malaysia so fascination with Nur Sajat, the transgender tycoon who fled to Thailand? Link
  3. The Straits Times. (2021). Transgender entrepeneur trigger outcry among Malaysia’s conservatives. Link
  4. NYTimes. (2021). Trangender woman flees Malaysia after prison threat for wearing hijab. Link
  5. Human Rights Watch. (2014). Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Malaysia. Link
  6. SAYS. (2018). Here’s how Malaysia ‘cures’ LGBTs with conversion therapy. Link
  7. IFEG. (2020). Statement on conversion therapy. Link
  8. Justice for Sisters. Submission on poverty. Link
  9. Coalition of Transgender and Cisgender Individuals. (2020). Leaving no one behind. Link
  10. IFEX. (2020). Transgender activist Nisha Ayub. Link

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