Transgenders Continue to Fight for Acceptance

Penang-born Regina Ibrahim advocates the rights of transgender persons through her writings and public appearances. But the conservative climate in the country today makes things quite difficult.

Regina Ibrahim – an author and speaker for the transgender community.

During the TEDxWeldQuayWomen event in May last year, Regina Ibrahim was probably the tallest and sexiest woman in the room. Dressed in a caramel-coloured shift dress, sky-high stilettos and a copper necklace, Regina was asking for public tolerance, if not for acceptance, for the transgender community.

Having lived most of her life biologically as a man, Regina took the plunge to completely assume the identity of a woman at the age of 42; she went for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), which includes the removal of male genitalia and the reconstruction of female genitalia.

Today, the 50-year-old former teacher is the face and voice of Penang’s transsexual community and has published two books to further her advocacy.

Her first, Perjalanan, is her self-expression as a transsexual and aims for readers to take notice of the inner turbulences of a transsexual. Her second book, Mak Nyah, is a guide book for parents, medical practitioners and the transsexual community.

“The teacher in me is still strong,” says Regina. “Trust me that these books will be on the shelf for a long time as a reference. Books pertaining to transsexuals in Bahasa Malaysia always talk about repentance – an ideal that conforms to societal norms. Those books are terrible because they do not reflect the reality of transsexuals. My books come from the horse’s mouth.”

While Regina feels liberated, her fellow transsexuals are not having an easy time.

With PAS’s constant call for Hudud and the nation’s gradual inclination towards Arabian culture, as pointed out by socio-political activist and writer Marina Mahathir in a recent interview1, the current social climate seems to be shifting from pluralism to conservatism, disfavouring the transsexuals.

According to Regina, before 1998, transsexuals who had undergone SRS were allowed to change their names and gender in their official documents – such as identity cards and passports – simply by submitting a “women letter” to the National Registration Department. Back then, the “women letter” was issued by a gynaecologist from a General Hospital. Today, Malaysian transsexuals constantly face the possibility of being stopped, frisked and questioned at the airport of any country due to the mismatch in appearances and gender stated in the official documents.

In Penang, under Syariah law, cross dressing is an offence that can lead to an RM1,000 fine and/or imprisonment of up to 12 months2, while sodomy is an offence that can lead to an RM5,000 fine and/or imprisonment for up to three years and/or six strokes of the cane.


These laws enable religious authorities to constantly haul transsexuals to the Syariah court. In neighbouring Kedah, eight transsexuals were ambushed in a beauty pageant and subsequently arrested for dressing up as women – simply because their identity cards identified them as men3.

However, the punishment under the current Syariah law is a slap on the wrist compared to the Hudud law that is implemented in Brunei, which includes death by stoning for sodomy4. Crimes punishable by Hudud (as set out in the Kelantan and Terengganu Enactments) are amputation of the right hand (for theft), 100 lashes of whipping and i m p r i s o n m e n t (for sodomy or sex between unmarried people) and stoning to death (for adultery)5.

Regina Ibrahim speaking at TEDxWeldQuayWomen.

If the Malaysian law is not making any room to acknowledge and accommodate the transsexual community, is running away from the country the only solution that is left?

Regina disagrees. “It’s not, because not all transsexuals are privileged to live abroad,” she says. “One thing is for certain: educating society about transsexuals will take time. There is even a possibility that this problem will never be solved.”

According to Regina, the first step towards acceptance is to understand that the current social construct is archaic – and thus must be deconstructed. “The current social construct demonstrates that if you are born with male genitalia, then you are a boy and must behave in a certain manner. If you are born with female genitalia, then you are a girl and must behave in a certain manner, too. But the reality is not that easy, and the failure to deconstruct the current social construct leads to stigmatisation as social deviants and discrimination for the transsexuals.

FHDA reaches out to the transgender community in Penang.

“Today, although there are workplaces that practice equal opportunity policies and have hired qualified transgenders, the job market is still very limited for people like us. Most transsexuals are rejected from job interviews. In the end, we have to create jobs for ourselves to make ends meet. The business-savvy ones make a living as freelance make-up artists, hair stylists or emcees. The ones with money go on to operate their own businesses such as beauty salons and spas. The unlucky ones resort to sex work; the transsexual sex trade thrives because there is a demand for it, and the sex workers are never short of clients.”

The perception of being a social deviant also leads to transsexuals constantly being harassed. According to Regina, transsexuals are often called derogatory terms: Mak Nyah, if truth be told, and pondan, if one is more unkind. Some night clubs and restaurants deny transsexuals entrance to their premises. On social media, Regina admits to frequently being asked for sexual favours just because she is a transsexual.

The Other Woman.

“Transsexuals are not demanding total acceptance, but at the very least, we seek tolerance and respect from society. How does a society demonstrate tolerance and respect to the transsexual community? My answer is simple: don’t just confine us to certain segments of your life like weddings, shows, make-up and fashion. Get us involved in your activities.”

When it comes to showing respect, Regina says, “Even in a normal community, there are social norms that we abide to. For example, it is rude to ask someone how much they are earning. It’s the same in the transsexual community – it is rude to ask a transsexual how we make love, if we have plans to repent or whether we have gone for SRS. We don’t ask men if they have been circumcised, so why do we ask if they are post-op or pre-op transsexuals? It is clearly demeaning.

“Today’s society is still very ill-informed about the transsexual community. Terms like transsexuals and transgenders are used interchangeably. If people took the time to educate themselves about these terms, then perhaps we can be more tolerant, because as you learn about transgender people, you will comprehend that being a transgender is not a choice. People are people. Why must one group be treated differently from the other?”


In recent years, the world has witness some progress in tolerance towards transsexuals. In 2011 the Pakistan Supreme Court made a landmark decision to allow an unspecified third category of gender for transsexuals. It also recommended that they be given opportunities in government jobs6. In June 2015 the US made history by legalising same-sex marriage. President Barack Obama praised the Supreme Court's decision to legalise gay marriage nationwide, calling it a “victory for America7.” Although almost two-thirds of Republicans opposed the Supreme Court’s backing of gay marriage8, the new law shows that their society as a whole has achieved total acceptance of the community.

In Penang, the Family Health Association (FDHA), a not-for-profit organisation, is providing easy access to healthcare for transgender sex workers, such as getting tested for HIV and obtaining more information on AIDS.

Tanjung Bungah state assemblyman Teh Yee Cheu appointed Hezreen Shaik Daud, a transgender, as his political secretary, hoping that her appointment to such a post would pave the way for equal treatment of the transgender community9.

“Our struggle will take a long time to resolve. We might even have a place in a conservative social climate once we successfully deconstruct the social construct. A lot of solutions to the current issues can be found,” says Regina.

Cases such as Hezreen’s appointment are encouraging, and while it might be just a small win for the transsexual and transgender community, it is a sure step towards the acceptance of a group that merely wants to belong.

1 marina-mahathir-malaysia-undergoing-arabcolonialism
2 enakmen/State_Enact_Ori.nsf/100ae747c72508e7 48256faa00188094/854644869fd8b359482570d7 00058bcc?OpenDocument
3 hbertempiaranlari/m/mArticle
4 brunei-imposes-islamic-criminal-law-after-uncriticism
6 2F21%2Fnation%2F9297148
7 gay-marriage_n_7671378.html
8 gaymarriage-idUSKCN0PI2NE20150708
9 Transgender-Tajung-Bunga-rep/

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