transTrapped in the “Wrong” Body?: Transgender Among the Malay Community

by Nabilah Mohammad

This commentary was also published in Karyawan, A Magazine by AMP, April 2019, Volume 14, Issue 2

You know them as the ‘T’ in ‘LGBTQ+’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer), but how much do we really know about the transgender community in Singapore? Transgender people, especially among the Malay/Muslim community, are rather distinct, least talked about, and face a range of different issues and problems in Singapore.

Transgender is a non-medical term that has been used increasingly as an umbrella term describing an individual, whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex to which he or she was assigned at birth. Gender is not the same as your biological sex, although many of us identify them interchangeably. Gender is used with reference to social and cultural differences whilst sex is the genitalia that you are born with, your reproductive organs, and your chromosomal makeup. Gender forms a large and important part of our identities, as we use this social marker to navigate many of our choices, behaviours and attitudes in life.

The topic of the transgender people remains contentious today, and is treated with a high level of social stigma. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the existence and culture of transgender people. Lacking understanding of this community may result in prejudice and discrimination at multiple levels that are present in interpersonal relationships, as well as the social and institutional milieu.

Transgender people experience their transitions in a variety of ways, either opting to undergo the process only socially, hormonally, or for a combination of hormonal changes and surgery. The Karyawan team spoke to four transgender individuals about their transition experiences in becoming the person they believe they always were. This article also takes a closer look at the challenges and treatments transgender people receive in the various aspects of their lives ranging from their homes, religious communities, and the society. Pseudonyms are used for all of the interviewees to maintain their privacy as well as their families’.

A TYPICAL FAMILY UNIT

Not many of us would consider transgender individuals to have a stable family life and even have children. Most of the transgender individuals that we spoke to think of themselves as having strong family values, with children and good spousal support. Consider the case of Andi, a 28-year-old female-to-male (FTM) transgender who lives with his female partner, Dilah, and their three-year-old daughter who was conceived through a sperm donor.

Andi always felt that he was a boy trapped in a girl’s body. He recalled feeling this way since he was nine. As a kid, Andi preferred and enjoyed male-oriented activities including soccer. He always felt uncomfortable when he was made to wear female clothing.

Andi has been on testosterone therapy for about four years now and shared that he is happy with his bodily changes. The prescribed hormonal jabs that Andi takes every few months are used for hormonal “masculinisation” in FTMs and are responsible for promoting “male” physical traits. The effects were quite apparent when the Karyawan team sat down with him; he now sports facial hair and a deep voice. He has officially changed his name on his identity card (IC) although he is still legally a “female” since he has yet to undergo any sexual reassignment surgery.

Andi shared, “It was a great moment to receive recognition as a male after the transition. I can now go to the gents without getting stares. My daughter is also my main motivation for this transition. I want her to see me as a father figure. I do not want her friends to make fun of her for having a father who looks like a woman.”

Coming out as a transman has definitely affected his familial ties but he believes in being honest and not throwing his family aside no matter what.

“My father is a religious person so he still has difficulties accepting how I am now. He would not look me in the eyes whenever we see each other. It is sad, of course. I am aware of the religious rulings on transgender but I never asked to be or feel this way. I was in constant frustration with myself growing up. My mother, on the other hand, has always been open and supportive of my decision. In fact, she accompanied me to one of my hormonal jab appointments,” he said.

Andi hopes to have his sexual reassignment surgery done in the future and to get married to his partner. He also hopes that society will be more understanding and sensitive towards people like him.

He added, “Do not judge someone by their sexual orientation or gender identity. People like myself do not wake up one day deciding we want to be part of a community that is frowned upon by so many.”

The Karyawan team also met Khai who, like Andi, has changed his name but is still “female” on his IC. Khai has been on hormonal therapy for about three years and plans to get a top surgery done so that he will look less feminine.

Khai shared, “As a kid, I feel that parts of my body do not fit with my gender identity. Growing up, I also did not get much attention from my parents. I have a mentally ill sister who requires full attention from my parents so much of their time is spent on her. As a kid, I did not really know which direction to head.”

“I do not have a firm religious upbringing. And although my family are not practicing Muslims, my father is still unhappy with me coming out as a transman. My mother, on the other hand, is more accepting,” he added.

Khai hopes that the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore could be kinder and accepting towards them. He said, “It does not hurt to be nice to us. As much as we choose this ‘path’, do try to understand where we are coming from. You may not know our stories, so please be more sensitive.”

SOCIAL SUPPORT FOR THE TRANSGENDER COMMUNITY

The Karyawan team also met Azri, a FTM ex-Muslim transgender, who is active in advocating for the transgender people among the Malay community and in organising sharing sessions for them.

Azri said, “The transgender among the Malay community do not really know where or who to go to for social support. They also feel embarrassed because of the stigma surrounding the transgender community. That is why we came up with this group to support and empower our community in terms of education and jobs, and basically in organising any activities among ourselves. There is currently no avenue for a Malay/Muslim transgender to seek information on religion.”

According to Azri, bullying and discrimination in school have led many transgender students to drop out of school early, which in turn, negatively affected their employment opportunities. He shared that securing legitimate employment is definitely a lot harder for a transgender person here.

A poll of 41 transwomen in Singapore found that nearly half of them had considered suicide, while about 15 percent actually attempted suicide in the past year. The poll, led by transgender shelter, T Project, and social enterprise, B-Change, also found that 78 percent of respondents felt depressed in the past year.

“One of the misconceptions that people have of us is that it is just a phase. It is actually, rather, a journey of discovering ourselves. Get to know us from a human perspective rather than just reading about us. Instead of coming up with your own opinions, try to listen to us, our struggles, our contributions, and maybe you will understand why we are striving for more acceptance. We did not choose to be this way. I mean, who would want to pay money to be happy with themselves only to be criminalised, discriminated or rejected?” Azri shared.

RECOGNISED LEGALLY BUT CHALLENGES REMAINS 

Singapore performed its first sex change operation on a 24-year-old man in 1971 and two years later, allowed those who undergo the operation to change their gender legally. According to the transgender individuals we spoke to, despite decades of official recognition, transgender individuals are prone to the debilitating discrimination that prevents them from a ridicule-free life.

The male-to-female (MTF) transgender community, for instance, is largely associated in the public’s eye with prostitution. With this albatross hanging around their necks, many MTF transgender person often face difficulties in getting a decent job. The lucky ones ended up in the fashion, hairstyle or the cosmetics trade, much like our next interviewee, Amy.

Born a male, Amy, now 52, started identifying as a female at the age of eight and has always dreamt of being a model. Amy’s mother passed away when she was seven. She dropped out of school at the end of Primary 6. At the age of 13, Amy ran away from home because she could not get along with her new stepmother when her dad remarried. That was when Amy started mixing with the transgender community, who also helped her in her transitioning process. Amy started taking hormonal pills at the age of 14 and got her first breast implant at 17. When she turned 21, Amy went to Bangkok to undergo a full sex change operation before returning to Singapore and officially changing her gender to female on her IC.

Amy then successfully pursued her dream to be a model. She signed with a famous model agency and became one of the top local transgender models during her time. She eventually retired from modelling as she got older and worked for a friend in a production company. Amy also enjoys cooking and in fact, has started a very well-received cooking show on her Facebook fan page. Her cooking videos, which accumulated hundreds of likes each, while her fan page which has garnered over 10,000 likes, are testament to her widespread influence and popularity especially within the LGBTQ+ community.

Touching on religion, Amy said, “Yes, as a Muslim, we are not allowed to change our identity but what is done, is done. The only way to repent is not by changing again, as procedures will make it even more complicated, but instead, to keep our iman (faith) strong and move forward with the teachings of Islam.”

TRANSGENDERISM WITHIN THE MALAY/MUSLIM COMMUNITY

The Karyawan team met Ustaz Ashraf Anwar who shared his religious perspective on the issue surrounding the transgender community in Singapore. Ustaz Ashraf is a graduate from the Faculty of Theology and Islamic Culture at Al-Azhar University, and the Faculty of Arabic Language and Islamic Studies at the American University of Cairo. He is also pursuing a master’s degree at Nanyang Technological University. Ustaz Ashraf Anwar is certified under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS).

Ustaz Ashraf shared that the attitude of Islamic scholarship with regard to transgender was and still is a challenging and an intricate issue. The topic has not been dealt with conclusively and quite comprehensively within the Islamic institutions, and needs to be explored further and deeper, taking into consideration the challenges and stigmatisation transgender individuals face on a daily basis. He said, “There are undoubtedly opposing views in this matter and there is no fatwa or clear rulings on transgenderism or gender dysphoria in Singapore. We cannot simplify this issue, for with technological advancements and new findings, the issue should also be seen in an evolutionary way. We need to also consider the medical aspect of transgenderism holistically in relation to the religious aspect. Each issue should be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

According to our interviewees, there are many cases where transgender people are being barred from entering the mosques. The team asked Ustaz Ashraf for his opinion on this:

No transgender should be shunned from the mosque. From my personal experience, most of the time when it happened, the mosque officers probably have no experience or capacity in dealing with the individuals. They probably did not mean to shun them away. How can any Muslim shun their brothers and sisters from praying and connecting to Allah? I currently teach and sit at the board of the An-Nahdhah Mosque, and transgender people are always welcome to pray at our mosque,” he shared.

Ustaz Ashraf advises the transgender community to continue to pray, have faith and always strive to be closer to Allah. He also hopes that the Malay/Muslim community would be more understanding and receptive to engaging the transgender people by exemplifying and following the footsteps of the Prophet (pbuh).

“Try to talk to the transgender community and treat them like a fellow brother and sister. Look beyond their physicality for they too hold the same sanctity and value of life like us. There is a hadith that says, ‘If you show mercy to those who are on the earth, He who is in the heaven will show mercy to you’,” he shared.

The Karyawan team also spoke to Mr Azfar Anwar, an Oxford-trained scholar in Islamic Studies and History, with an interest in Islam and homosexuality. According to him, scholars of modern contemporary Islam have not comprehensively addressed transgenderism. Those of pre-modern Islam, however, accepted transgender individuals as part of the community. Whether undergoing sex change is permissible in the case of transgender individuals or not is situational.

Mr Azfar shared, “I know a lot of transgender persons who are practising Muslims. The question we should all ask is why have they chosen to remain a Muslim despite the social stigma they face. There are a number of individuals from the LGBT community who left Islam because they felt that the Muslim community has failed them. The transgender people, like everyone else, are part of our community. They are not second-class citizens, and their faith should not be questioned. They should be lauded for having such strong faith, despite the adversities they face in this world. Because on top of homophobia and transphobia they face from their own community, they also have to deal with Islamophobia alike other Muslims. Complex issues such as gender reassignment surgery should be addressed by the medical practitioners and not asatizah, who are not trained to diagnose gender dysphoria.”

Transgender people have always existed in every society, culture, and religion. Their nonconformity to the prescribed gender roles should, however, not exclude them from the mainstream community and subject them to harassments and abuses. There is no scope of discrimination, harassment, and violence on the grounds of gender in Islam. Human beings, irrespective of their gender, class, ethnicity, and religion, are entitled to respect and lead their life with dignity.

 

Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.

Photo Source: The Karyawan

 
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