Twilight life of Malaysia's Muslim transsexuals

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With her tight jeans, elaborate make-up and flowing hair, Tasha looks for all the world like a striking young woman. But her all-important Malaysian ID card declares she is a Muslim man.

"In Islam, there are only men and women, there are no transsexuals, and this is an Islamic country so that makes life very difficult for us," says the 28-year-old who has been cross-dressing since she was a child.

Like many transsexuals in Malaysia, a conservative and mostly Muslim country, the clash between ID card and appearance means Tasha is shunned by employers, and forced to make her living as a sex worker.

"It's a hard life, people don't like us, they're always making fun of us," she says as she prepares for another night in the grimy alleyways of Chow Kit, the red light district of the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Pecah Lobang: Muslim transsexual sex workers in Malaysia from Poh Si Teng on Vimeo.

Tasha endures drunken clients, violent pimps, and aggressive competition from other transsexual prostitutes, but what really frightens her are the raids mounted by police and religious authorities.

Enforcement officials from the Islamic Affairs Department (JAWI) -- notorious for swooping on nightclubs and motels in search of Muslims drinking or having extramarital sex -- regularly descend on the streets of Chow Kit.

Sex workers are sent scattering on their high heels, and those who are caught and hauled off face jail or intensive "counselling" sessions like a two-week interrogation Tasha once endured.

"They asked me why I didn't want to be a man, how I became like this and why I behave like this. But it didn't change my mind!" she says as she layers on make-up before hitting the streets where she has worked since she was 15.

Tasha puts on a brave face, but the the pain is clear when she relates how she has struggled for acceptance from her family, her religion and her country.

Although she is on the margins of society, she continues to perform the Muslim prayers, fasts during the holy month of Ramadan, and respected her mother's wish that she not undergo sex-change surgery.

"Of course I still believe I'm a Muslim, it's just that the religion cannot accept us transsexuals," she says.

"Why can't Islam accept us? We are human beings as well. I am also one of God's creations."

It was not always this way for transsexuals in Malaysia, where they are known as "mak nyah".

"Until the early 1980s transsexuals were usually accepted in Malaysia, they could go for a sex change and amend their identity card," says Teh Yik Koon from the National Defence University who has written a book on mak nyahs.

"At that time quite a few had sex changes, some became happily married and even adopted children."

But in 1983 a "fatwa", or Islamic ruling, that prohibited gender-reassignment surgery as well as cross-dressing was imposed on all Malaysian Muslims, who make up 60 percent of the multicultural population.

"So now they're not accepted, there's no such thing as transsexuals according to Islam in Malaysia," says Teh, who estimates there are in fact at least 20,000 in the country.

"The biggest dilemma for a Muslim transsexual is the ID card, because it states they are a Muslim man but when you look at them they look like a woman," she says.

Some do manage to find regular work, typically as hairdressers, make-up artists, and boutique sales assistants, but advocates say that at least 70 percent resort to prostitution.

"At 15 I ran away from home and to Chow Kit. I cried at first, but luckily I had other transsexuals who helped me find a place to stay," says Tasha.

On a good night she can earn 500 ringgit (142 dollars), a huge sum by Malaysian standards, but since the economic downturn she now gets only two or three clients a night who may pay as little 50 ringgit a time.

Now that her mother has died, she plans to go to Thailand later this year and have sex-change and breast augmentation surgery.

"If you want to become pretty quickly, then you can't be afraid," she says. "Only then will I feel like a complete woman."

Transsexuals do not need to be selling their bodies in order to attract attention from authorities.  Last year, Islamic religious police arrested 16 for taking part in a beauty pageant at a beachside resort.

Influential Islamic cleric Harussani Zakaria, who helped establish the 1983 fatwa, defended the strict approach and said that transsexuals should use their "willpower" and adopt a traditional lifestyle.

"Of course they won't get a job if they turn up wearing a woman's dress. All religions are opposed to this," he said.

"You cannot be transsexual, you are either a woman or a man. Why do they want to go against Allah?" he asked. "If God has created you as a boy, then act like a boy."

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