A trans woman openly acknowledging her gender is seen as a threat in the context of increasingly rigid and polarised identity politics in Malaysia. Only Sajat, a successful entrepreneur and social media influencer in Malaysia, has been targeted by the government and the public for years - mostly because of her gender identity.
A woman’s courage to live honestly and openly has rendered her a threat to the increasingly rigid and polarised identity politics in Malaysia. Nur Sajat, a successful entrepreneur, and social media influencer in Malaysia has been the subject of intense scrutiny by the government and the public for years, mostly revolving around her gender identity.
In 2018, Sajat was pressured by the Islamic religious authorities to undergo a verification process to determine her gender and the question of her gender identity was sensualised on mainstream media and social media. Again in 2021, she was arrested, detained, and charged by the religious authorities for allegedly insulting Islam by wearing women’s clothing while hosting a religious event. While she was in detention, she was sexually assaulted and humiliated by the law enforcers. When Sajat did not show up for a court proceeding, the religious department employed a total of 122 personnel to hunt for her - a decision that has been widely criticised by civil society as disproportionate and extreme. Many politicians, religious leaders and law enforcers have insisted that being transgender violates Islamic values and the current treatment of Sajat is therefore needed to uphold the sanctity of Islam. The relentless abuse and torture eventually drove her out of the country and Sajat is now granted asylum in Australia.
The hysterical obsession over a single woman is symptomatic of the interplay of race and religious identity politics in Malaysia, where the people’s sense of nationhood is signalled through a moralistic idea of the nation that are appended to the Malay Muslim identity.1 The narrative of a true or native Malay Muslim, often defined by the Malay elites and the larger heteronormative Malay society, is pitted against the idea of “us” versus “others” – others who are not Malay Muslim or not Malay Muslim enough. Gender and sexuality then become an easy category to galvanise around the “us versus others” narratives: male or female, married or single, heterosexual or homosexual, natural or perverse.2 The relegations of gender and sexual diversity to the realm of otherness and pervasion has been proven to be an important weapon in maintaining a hierarchy of citizenship wherein heterosexual and cis Malay Muslim men are deemed to be superior and entitled to special rights in Malaysia.
The heightened anxiety towards Sajat and many other LGBTQ persons3 has been argued by scholars as a consequence of politicisation of race and religion rather than inherent to the Malay society or the Islamic teachings. The institutionalisation of Islam within the public administration in the 1990s through the formation of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) produced a powerful meta-narrative that reifies heteronormativity and its abhorrence of sexual and gender diversity. The step to institutionalise Islam was a key step by the then United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)-led government to further its self-interest in securing the Malay Muslim voters by positioning itself as the protector of Islam and Malay special privileges.
Islam is instrumental in the reconceptualisation of gender and sexual relations, in which the production of Malay Muslim identity is materially organised against a rigid idea of heteronormativity that embraces the domination of women and girls, compulsive heterosexuality, exclusive religiosity, and right-wing nationalism.4 The narrative of Sajat practicing the religion Islam through her acts of donning a hijab and performing umrah5 in Mecca was deemed as transgressions, but more importantly, one that posed a threat to the Malay Muslim community and the nation at large. Sajat’s public expression of herself as a Malay Muslim trans woman was her very own way to redefine the dominant narratives for Malay Muslim identity in Malaysia. Like many others who tried to present a different conception of Malay Muslim identity, they face stigma, discrimination, intimidation, arrest, and torture.
While the impact of such narrow identity politics has hit the Muslims the hardest, non-Muslims are increasingly targeted, a practice that was hardly seen in the past. Yet another religious controversy was raised over a locally produced whiskey brand called Timah. Conservative Muslim groups were protesting against the use of the name “Timah” which is said to be short for “Fatimah”, the name of Prophet Mohammad’s daughter and is deemed inappropriate as alcohol is banned in Islam. Non-Muslim Tik Tok content creators, particularly women and girls often found themselves being the subject of moral policing and were told to cover their “aurat” as Malay Muslims are watching.
The idea of Malay Muslim supremacy has been particularly infectious and has been mobilised by politicians through a populist political discourse, and social media has been an effective vehicle for such mobilisation. Most notably, it is one of the core factors that led to the downfall of the Pakatan Harapan government in 2020 in what has been hailed as the hope for political reform. The Pakatan Harapan was only in power for 22 months, where the people saw the first regime change after being ruled by the same UMNO-led political party since the nation’s independence in 1957. Disappointingly, the regime change failed to realise the many aspirational reforms that were promised pre-election, let alone addressing the polarisation of identities and the much-needed reform of the religious institution.
With their first-ever defeat, UMNO joined forces with their long-time political nemesis Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS; Malay translation: Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) to form the National Consensus Charter, a political pact that champions the rights and special privileges of Malay Muslims, further fragmenting the divides within the nations. In three by-elections won by UMNO/PAS, the two parties tapped into racism, resentment over economic disparity, resistance towards political reform (i.e. ratification of International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ending child marriage etc.). While the Pakatan Harapan government was painted as “liberal” and therefore a threat to Islam and the Malay special privileges.
During the Women’s March held in conjunction with the International Women’s Day in 2019, the presence of rainbow flags and demand for non-discrimination on the basis of SOGIE were weaponised by oppositions and their cybertrooper6 to legitimise Pakatan Harapan’s failure in protecting the interest of Islam. The then Prime Minister has publicly said that Malaysia cannot accept LGBTQ rights as “Malaysia has its own culture, and it cannot accept anything that contradicts its culture, traditions, and religions.” Under the Pakatan Harapan ruling, the religious authorities continue to exercise free rein over LGBTQ persons - two lesbian women were canned publicly under a Syariah enactment that punishes sexual relations between women for attempting to have sex; five men were sentenced to jail for six to seven months, six strokes of the cane and a fine after the religious authorities raided a private apartment. The lack of intervention by the government and the deafening silence among Pakatan Harapan politicians, despite their pre-electoral promise to uphold and promote human rights, was indicative of their priority to appease the Malay Muslim voters over political reform.
Ultimately, it was the deeply entrenched divisions over racial-religious politics and secularism among key leaders within Pakatan Harapan that led to the internal division and the inevitable end of their power.
The issue of race, religion, gender and sexuality is entrenched and likely to stay with the nation for many more years to come. Any political and institutional reforms or move towards achieving gender equality cannot be done without simultaneously addressing the underlying polarisation of race and religion. More than anything, the pandemic shows us that identity politics can be dangerous and get in the way of addressing the very real problem. With the Covid-19 pandemic surfacing the muted flaws in our political, economic and social system, it is ever more critical that we start rethinking and reimagining a roadmap towards a better nation for us.
3) ‘LGBTQ persons’ is used as it is the language commonly used and cited by conservative groups in Malaysia.
4) Basarudin, A. (2016). Islam, the State, and Gender: The Malaysian Experiment. Humanizing the Sacred (pp. 39-72). United State of America: University of Washington Press.
5) Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca undertook by Muslim.
6) Cybertrooper is understood as person hired by state actors or political parties to manipulate political discourse or to disseminate political propaganda.