Thursday, May 12, 2016

When transphobia blocks justice for survivors of sexual violence

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussion of underage rape and of transphobia


Four months ago, the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times ran a few articles on a case involving Malay Muslim transgender man Zunika Ahmad, 39. He had been charged with 20 counts of sexually penetrating a girl, a minor who was between the age of 13 and 14 at the time of the offenses between April 2012 and December 2013, with a dildo.

Last week, the same newspaper ran several more articles to update on the decision of the High Court. High Court Senior Judge Kan Ting Chiu, acquitted Zunika of six charges (although Zunika was convicted of one charge of sexual exploitation and sentenced to eight months’ jail). The judge said that Section 376A of the Penal Code implies that only a person with a penis (i.e a man) can be guilty of sexual penetration: “The reference to a person who has a penis cannot be construed to include a woman without doing violence to common sense and anatomy.”

What’s interesting about this case is that while the offender is a man and should be considered as one, the sex he was assigned at birth was used to erase his sexual offenses.

Earlier coverage of the story in December 2015 spoke of Zunika as a person with “gender dysphoria” and describes a transgendered man as someone “who was born a woman but identifies as male“. The newspaper’s representation of Zunika as a trans person is mixed; it uses the wrong pronouns throughout, but in other ways it could even be considered sympathetic: Zunika felt “betrayed by her [sic] own body” when he entered puberty.

Not being able to express his gender identity is portrayed as a source of mental distress (“When her mother forbade her from going for a sex change operation, she cut her forearms […]”). Zunika was expected to be able to go for sex reassignment surgery and “rebuild” his life.

While a medical diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ suggests that this condition is something innate and fixed, words and phrases used in the newspaper’s language, such as “bogus persona“, “disguised as man“, “fooled” and “her real gender” imply that transgendered people are also deceptive and manipulative. Furthermore, the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ are used consistently throughout all articles – even if the term “transgender man” is used – to further emphasise that transgendered men are actually still women.

What is the purpose of law when it cannot bring about justice?

There is also a tone of incredulity at any type of marriage that is out of the heteropatriarchal norm. This is shown by the putting in apostrophes the words “married”, “husband” and “wives”. Such marriages cannot possibly be real or recognised because they do not involve the union of two people of opposite biological sexes.

The most important issue at hand, however, is the sexual exploitation of a minor. The first article describes the sex as “consensual” even though the victim was below 16 years old, the age of consent in Singapore. The purpose behind legal ages of consent is to protect minors, who are presumed to not be able to give informed consent due to unequal relations of power. Sex with a minor under 16 is an offence with or without the minor’s consent, let alone a 13- or 14-year-old having sex with someone more than 20 years older.

More disturbing perhaps is the squabbling over legal definitions (i.e. sexual offender must be a man, must have penis, etc) over the actual application of the law to derive justice (protecting a victim who was a minor at the time of the crime).

“If a court were to interpret A to include a woman, it would be rewriting the law, said [High Court Senior Judge Kan Ting Chiu]. [He] said the ‘better course’ was to leave it to the legislature to amend the provision to make it clear that A includes a woman, if that was indeed the intention.”

While the subject of this analysis is a Muslim transgender man, the insistence of the media on framing him as a woman raises several interesting points.

First, representing transgendered persons in the media only in relation to sexual offenses serves to strengthen the link between being a sexual minority and a moral deviant. In this case, Zunika not only committed the moral crime of deception, but also adultery (“cheats on wives“), paedophilia and deviant sex acts (“using sex toy“) in addition to a whole list of other charges.

“Besides the sexual offences, Zunika is also accused of four counts of using a forged Indonesian passport at Singapore checkpoints, and one count each of voluntarily causing hurt and permitting a false entry to be made at the registry of births and deaths. She will be dealt with on these charges separately.”

Second, we should be vigilant of the use of religion to provide a cover for sexual abuse. The victim, known as R, said: “My family trusted her because she has her own family and seemed very religious. She taught me and my siblings how to pray and made me wear a hijab.” Apparently Zunika also wore an “ankle-length robe and turban during religious occasions,” Arabised items of clothing that give the wearer more religious legitimacy.

Third, we need to be aware of the history of laws. The Penal Code was enacted in the late 19th century in British colonies, based on British law and understandings of society at that time. While British law today may have evolved through amendments, many former colonies remain with fossilised versions of colonial-era law that limit sexual offenses to sexual penetration with a human penis, for example.

As a mirror to Section 376A, the Penal Code also does not recognise men or boys as victims of rape, since Section 375 of the Penal Code states that a victim of rape must have a vagina. This eliminates many other types of sexual offenses that may not involve penetration, or that may involve the violent use of other objects.

Ultimately, such laws fail to protect the underage victim, whether it is a boy or girl. And what is the purpose of law when it cannot bring about justice?

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