'Women in men's bodies' struggle for basic rights

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(AFP) news feature

In the lavender-scented room in the heart of bustling Kuala Lumpur, Sulastri plays with her waist-length hair and dreams of the day she will enjoy basic human rights.

That, Sulastri admits, is unlikely to be in her lifetime because she is a transsexual.

Transsexuals, or mak nyah as they are known locally, are those whose gender identity does not match their anatomical sex.

Mostly, they are men who feel that they are women trapped in male bodies.

Earlier this year, a small number of Malaysian transsexuals who had undergone sex realignment operations asked to have their identity documents changed to reflect their new gender.

Religious adviser to the prime minister, Hamid Othman, rejected the appeal on the grounds that a recognition of transsexuals as women would "only lure them into the sex trade."

That statement drew criticism from the transgendered community and its sympathisers.

"By not legally recognising them as women, the authorities are closing doors to legitimate jobs and forcing them onto the streets," said Sundramoorthy Pathmanathan, head of sociology at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

HIV concern

With the flesh trade comes the problem of the spread of the HIV virus. The number of HIV cases in the country increased from 778 in 1990 to 5,107 in the year 2000, with the number of deaths rising from 19 to 882.

Sundramoorthy asserted that the only way to combat the problem of AIDS among transsexual prostitutes was to recognise them as a third gender group, separate from males and females.

"Once the law accepts that, yes, these people exist, we can move on to educating them on AIDS awareness," she said.

Sulastri Ariffin, who prefers to be called Sue, is the project manager of the Transgender Programme under the Pink Triangle Foundation (PTF), a non-governmental organisation based on HIV and AIDS prevention and education.

She believes the biggest stumbling block to achieving her vision of basic rights for transsexuals is the prejudice and moral judgement meted out by society and religious authorities.

"All we want is to be able to walk into a clinic when we are sick, and not be turned away because of who we are," she told AFP .

The transsexual community, she asserts, is growing and can no longer be ignored and deprived of basic needs such as the right to health and education facilities.

"In universities, we have administrators threatening to expel "soft" male students. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we are reminded that we are abnormal and not accepted."

Taboo subjects

A government-funded study in 1997 revealed that there were more than 20,000 transsexuals in the country and that more than 60 percent of them were involved in prostitution.

Sue, herself a former prostitute, believes the numbers are much higher in reality and are increasing every year.

"Transsexualism and sex (for sale) are two such taboo subjects that most people involved in them wouldn't want to be known."

Prostitution, she adds, will continue to be a problem for both the community and government if education and working opportunities are not accessible.

While Sue despairs of change for transsexuals in her lifetime, Malaysian women are making progress in obtaining equal rights with men.

In July the country's constitution was amended to include the word "sex" in the list of outlawed grounds for discrimination - religion, race, descent or place of birth.

"We know our place in society, we daren't even dream of being accorded the same rights as normal women. All we are asking for is to be treated as human," said Sue, who turns 40 this year.

Sue, who has been working with PTF since 1993, said the lack of understanding of transsexuals made job-searching an almost impossible task.

"I tried out for so many jobs, but the prejudice against our kind is just unbelievable. I had to pay the rent and feed myself, so the only way was prostitution."

People's perception

Sue, dressed in a long-sleeve blouse and slacks, looked in her late 20's with her petite frame and large eyes, speaking with a soft, slightly raspy voice throughout the two-hour interview.

Women's minister Shahrizat Abdul Bakar has been tight-lipped about transsexualism and declined to comment on the issue, saying only that "everyone should be treated equal".

As much as she hopes otherwise, Sue contends that her community has a long way to go before they will even be accepted as part of Malaysian society, much less be treated as equals.

"To change the law is the simple part; it's changing the mind and perceptions of people that's impossible."



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