Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Entrenching Stigma: Malaysia’s Cross-Dressing Law

This post was originally published on Muslimah Media Watch on 8 Jan 2014 


2013 ended with another decision, somewhere in the world, to entrench the persecution and ostracisation of a minority group. I’m referring to a new syariah law introduced by the Pahang Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (MUIP) in early December 2013, which would imprison for a maximum of one year or fine up to RM1000 (USD 304) a man who dresses like a woman, or a woman who dresses like a man.

The deputy director of the Pahang Islamic Religious Department (JAIP) added that the ruling aimed to “discourage such activities from being rampant” because existing systems of detention and advice are ineffective. In local news, the main reason for prosecuting “cross-dressers” is because they create the “tendency to sway the community towards immorality“. The mufti of Pahang explained further:
“Usually these mak nyah, they are men resembling women and what is their aim of appearing like women? Because they want to tempt other men. This means that they are inviting others to immorality.” [translated from Malay]
A proposal for a similar law in the neighbouring state of Negeri Sembilan waspreviously challenged in 2012 by four transgender men, but was rejected by the federal court. The lawyer who represented these men saw this decision as a “dangerous precedent… effectively saying that state-enacted Islamic law overrides fundamental liberties.” Negeri Sembilan has been enforcing the RM1000 fines for “cross-dressing” that Pahang has just newly enacted.

In the Malay-language news, the terms translated as “cross-dressers” are mak nyah and pengkid (an umbrella term referring to women imitating men; also includes lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered men).

Although the transgender community in Malaysia is a very small minority and hardly constitutes any kind of significant political coalition, in the local news they are spoken of as a threat to other men and women, especially by getting “braver” at openly showing their identity. This is because of the “confusion” that they create about notions of masculinity and femininity.

The transgender community is spoken of as a “social problem”, with the National Fatwa Council even squarely banning the phenomenon of pengkid, calling them haram back in 2008. In May 2013 the mufti office of Selangor in charge of matters pertaining to haj also stated that it was haram for pengkid to go for haj because neither men nor women would want to share rooms with them (which is just a terribly confusing problem).

One worry is the lack of definition surrounding cross-dressing. For a law that allows the religious police to indiscriminately arrest Muslims on the streets of Pahang based on their own perception of cross-dressing, for such an offence, held as equal to other offences such as khalwat (close proximity), consuming alcohol and not fasting during Ramadan, the focus seems to be on how effectively it can be enforced, instead of the purpose it serves or the implications it has on a minority group.

Women’s Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah expressed her doubts about the enforcement and purpose of the cross-dressing law.
“Modern attire is eclectic in nature and many women these days wear trousers and sport short hair. How do we even define what cross-dressing means? [...] There is also the question as to why we are focusing on behaviour that is basically harmless. Cross-dressing is not about hurting other people or taking property from anyone. It’s a personal choice.”
Another issue is that the religious authorities seem to want to calm any backlash with the reassurance that these laws only apply to Muslims. However, we have seen in previous incidents that the conflation of the ethnic grouping Malays with Islam, in Malaysian law, has resulted in the restriction of the freedom of expression and religion for certain people in Malaysia.

In response to NGOs, activists and even syariah lawyers who call this law a violation of basic human rights, the mufti gives his own dose of logic:
“We have to understand. Mankind with God’s laws, Allah knows better. If we say that people are better than God, that’s shirk. Our Prophet said that Allah curses men that resemble women and women that resemble men, we have to agree. If we don’t, this means we don’t believe in God, don’t believe in Allah’s laws.” [translated from Malay]
In the end, what will be the outcome of such a law, with the resources needed to enforce it being better off allocated to the needy, according to a syariah lawyer. Thilaga Sulathireh of the NGO Justice for Sisters, concludes that it will only reinforce “stigma, discrimination and violence towards the transgender community and gender non-conforming individuals“, especially by placing them in opposition to Islam.
“The transgender community has suffered violence in the past due to state prosecution. Instead of prosecuting them, it is the state’s duty to protect and promote the rights of all, regardless of one’s gender identity and expression. When the stance of the government is that individuals who ‘cross dress’ are criminals, this oppression will shut down access to their other rights – for example, recognition of gender which directly affects their access to healthcare and employment.”
It is extremely disheartening to see so many state resources being put towards the prosecution of an already marginalised group, using Islam as a reason for such oppression. Despite this, I hope that people will continue to speak truth to power against such authorities who claim to speak in the name of God.

Pregnancy and midwifery: Between modernity and indigenous knowledge

After a long hiatus of starting a new job and growing a human being (both equally hard work), I'm back and feeling more eager to write, especially since I have more free time now (yay for maternity leave).

The Malays have a saying, setiap anak ada rezekinya (lit. each child brings its own provisions). Needless to say, that these provisions come from God. I always thought this was an excuse for couples to not space their births and have as many children as biologically possible, ruining their health and finances.

That is, until the Dutchman and I decided to have a child. It was May of last year, and I was still freelancing and looking for a permanent job (in the bleak economy of the NL). I had always planned to have a kid right after I signed a nice contract with decent health benefits. Seeing how companies are not likely to hire a (visibly) pregnant woman, I figured that if I was going to be pregnant, I'd rather be paid for it.

In the end, the job front seemed to be going nowhere so I figured that there are just some things we can plan for, and some things that we cannot. And lo and behold, a month after I got pregnant, I also got a full-time job that I can work at from home, where I can write and edit -- pretty much the perfect job ever :) So I've definitely rethought setiap anak ada rezekinya since then.

In preparation for what will happen in the next few weeks, I've been reading a bunch of really interesting books, and I feel really lucky to have stumbled upon the natural birth movement, by chance. Like many others, my idea of labour and birth came from television -- a highly medicalised, interventionist and masculinist version. That these human processes are inherently dangerous and require active management by obstetricians and machines. God forbid one hired midwives (possibly the oldest profession ever): those nasty, dirty, uneducated and foolish women.

Even as a feminist, I never gave a second thought to this. Medical and technological advancement is good, right? Women should not have to go through the pain of childbirth (which are variously framed as a punishment for Eve eating the apple, or as a potential channel for martyrdom) so go ahead and use all these forms of pain relief available today!

Until my mother told me two stories: one about how my siblings and I were born by Caesarian section, and another about a midwife named Fatimah who worked in the kampung, or village, where she grew up.

Our births

Due to concerns about her high blood pressure, all three of us were born by C-section around 37 or 38 weeks (that's why I know I'm probably not going to give birth at this time because she didn't go into spontaneous labour yet). No one else was allowed into the operating theatre, and my mother underwent general anesthesia. She remembers only being dropped off at the hospital by my father, who came back the next day when she woke up.

Although the hospital was pro-breasfeeding in theory (evidenced by their constant screening of films to new mothers), things were different in practice. My mother recalls the social pressure to choose the kind of formula milk to feed us with (Australian milk powder being viewed as more superior than Malaysian milk powder).

At night, babies were sent to the nursery instead of being roomed in with her. Because babies definitely needed night feeds, they were probably being fed formula milk in the nursery -- something my mother was not even aware of. Not being able to nurse regularly, she had problems with demand and supply, causing her a lot of pain from engorgement a few days after birth with one of us.

Three C-sections was the limit in those days (circa 80s), because of the risks of such major abdominal surgery.

Bidan Fatimah

She was about 40 years old, and she was a midwife for the area of Kampung Melayu (area from the borders of Geylang to Jalan Eunos). My mother recalls that she was friendlier and more pleasant than another older midwife who also worked in the area at that time. She was medically trained and carried about a bag with all her equipment, during her prenatal visits (of which women had only 1 or 2 during their entire pregnancy).

Before urbanisation and the migration of most of Singapore's population into high-rise apartments built by the HDB (Housing Development Board) in the 70s and 80s (great read about that phenomenon here: Part I and Part II), my mother lived in a wooden kampung house in Jalan Ubi (now Eunos Crescent). Her mother gave birth to 11 children (9 survived) in that home, with the help of a midwife). My mother recalls that her eldest sister also gave birth to 3 of her 4 children in that same home, in the 70s.

Kampong houses were made of wood, and had metal grills on the windows. A favoured position for birth was to kneel on a mat and hold on to the grills. This way the birthing woman could stay upright, helping her baby descend and still support herself.

I loved hearing these stories from my mother. In part, they helped me to cement my decision to give birth at home. Not a popular decision, surprisingly even here, where I thought that a third of women gave birth at home (according to my midwife, the figure is more around 5-10% today). We've had to deal with well-meaning family members suggesting, hinting and asking why we don't want to birth in the hospital (Dutch directness seems to fly out the window in this case, I wonder why).

I think it's safe to birth at home in NL, by the way (duh, why would I do it if I didn't think so). All pregnant women on basic insurance automatically get midwifery care (and I've met the nicest Dutch people -- who knew they were all working as midwives!) and only get transferred to an ob/gyn at the hospital if there are medical complications. A friend in such a situation told me that she longs to go back to the care of midwives, because the level and quality of care in a hospital just doesn't match the one-on-one attention at a midwife clinic.

When we decided to birth at home, one of the midwives from the clinic came to inspect our house and make sure that it's suitable. Since we live on the first floor, with one staircase leading to our house, it's considered convenient enough in the case of a hospital transfer (we also have to ensure that the hallway is clear). Home birth is also only possible if one lives within 15 minutes of a hospital -- and we live 5 minutes away. To me, it makes total sense to stay as long as possible in a comfortable and familiar place (also where one is immune to germs!).

As a feminist I support women to make their own choices about where and how they want to birth. It's a human right, according to this film, although enforceable only in the EU. My own principles lead me to favour less intervention by the dominant modern science of obstetrics, and more empowerment to exercise what the indigenous knowledge of my own culture and that of others'.

More on indigenous knowledge for pregnancy diets, supplements, and birth stages in upcoming posts!


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