There are no photos or decorations hanging on the whitewashed walls. A queen-sized bed lined with a brown blanket, a small bedside table and a wooden dresser complete the sparse furnishings. The kiblat sign in the corner is the only spot of colour on the white ceiling. This is the room she takes her customers to. Anya, 28, smiles at us hesitantly while we ponder what to say.
It’s been three years since she had a series of gender confirmation surgeries. The buxom beauty shyly brushes her dyed blonde locks away from her heavily lined eyes while she tells us how she became a working girl. ‘I wanted to become a woman and now I am happy. I got what I wanted.’ She cups her breasts and her buttocks as she explains the process. “I did my boobs and my buttocks. I have to take hormone pills.” Seeing our amazement at the absence of her Adam’s apple, she smiles widely, “It was removed.”
Raised as a Muslim in the Philippines, she moved to Malaysia after the operations in Thailand and Singapore. Now, she works at the salon and as a makeup artist during the day and as a working girl at night. Dressed in a one-shouldered blue dress that reveals the underside of her breasts, offering a tantalising glimpse to potential clients, she reclines on the bed.
“We,” she gestures, referring to transgender sex workers like herself, “are less expensive than real chicks.” According to Anya, locals pay two hundred ringgit for one session while Japanese and South Korean customers pay three hundred. A white person forks out more at a fee of four hundred ringgit a session. Anya enjoys the security the money provides her. She doesn’t, however, want to be richer. Nor does she want to be poor. “I just want to be comfortable.” If given a chance, would she become an escort? “No, this is enough for me.”
She furrows her brow when we ask about the johns. Nothing, in particular, stands out in her memory. Asked if she’d tiger-strip, she claims, “All are okay as long as they pay.” Anya’s eyes become more animated as we talk about her experiences. She laughs when we ask about clients who seek BDSM-sex. “Kinky? You’re talking about kinky, right?” She gestures wildly imitating the whipping motion, “They’d tie me to the bed and whip me.” Sometimes, she serves more than one customer at the same time. Couples, married or otherwise, seek her out for titillating threesomes. She’s never participated in orgies though nor is that on her agenda for the future.
It’s easy to keep her emotions in check. This one knows it’s just sex and fun. She won’t fall in love. Over and over again, she tells us that she just wants to ‘enjoy’. In fact, Anya has three boyfriends – one white, one Iranian and one Arab. Each doesn’t know that he’s not the only one. They’ve accepted that this is what Anya wants to do.
“My family has accepted the operation. I told them, ‘If you still want me as your child…,'” She trails off, a mixture of sorrow and frustration in her voice. Both her parents are religious Muslims and it’s been a tough road to acceptance for Anya. Though her family is important to her, she has no wish to start a family of her own.
Discrimination and prejudice get her riled up. “Even though I’m like this,” she points to herself, “I’m just looking for food.” As sweet as she is, she hates it when people make fun of her. “I’m not disturbing you, so what? These people are orang tiada sekolah, orang kampung, bodoh!” The frustration is clear in her eyes as she claims, “There’s no point being ashamed. As they say in English, ‘How dare you?’ I am a person. Bukan binatang!” Prostitution is what it is to Anya. She knows this is sex for hire and she’s perfectly alright with it.
Sex Workers Are Humans Too
It’s a common misconception that pimps are always involved. Her eyes markedly confident, she says, “There are no pimps. If anyone harasses us, I can just call a gangster and pay him off. He’ll handle it for me.” This is a form of self-defence, at least to the working girls in Changkat. The police do, however, frequently raid clubs and nightlife areas, looking for sex workers. In 2011, the Malaysian police raided a club in Penang and marked 30 working girls’ chests with X’s then chained them together. Though eight men were also arrested, only the sex workers were branded. The scandal caused a huge ruckus nationwide. Sex workers are being branded like cattle. Outraged Malaysians yell, “Sex workers are humans too!” Yet, the actions of the Malaysian police reveal a deep layer of prejudice against sex workers amongst law enforcement officers.
Soliciting customers for the purpose of prostitution and exploiting others for the purpose of prostitution are both illegal under Section 372 of the Malaysian Penal Code but only the sex workers are punished socially. Forums such as DecentPlayboyForum abound with customers who boast of their sexual exploits with trans women in Malaysia, reducing them to mere objects.
The social stigma is stronger than ever. And this stresses Anya because it’s not easy being Muslim and a transgender sex worker. It makes one wonder how sex workers such as Anya will be treated if arrested by the local police or the religious authorities. In the early 1980s, gender confirmation surgeries were available to transgender individuals at the University Malaya Medical Centre though they were few and far between due to the lack of specialists in the field. However, in 1983, the Conference of Rulers in Malaysia issued a fatwa forbidding gender confirmation surgeries. However, they were still available to intersex individuals as Islamic jurisprudence recognised the khuntha or intersex individuals.
Being Transgender and Muslim
There are historical precedents of transgender Muslims in the infancy of Islam. Accounts from the hadiths showed that the prophet Muhammad was aware of the mukhannathun. The mukhannathun were generally considered effeminate men who harboured no sexual desire for women and were allowed to enter the women’s quarters. In fact, they often acted as matchmakers or as go-betweens for potential lovers.
However, there were several accounts of the prophet chastising and cursing the mukhannathun for several deeds. According to various authorities, a mukhannath was present when the prophet was with one of his wives and the mukhannath was heard describing the folds of a woman’s belly, saying, “She comes forward with four and goes away with eight!” In response, the Prophet said, “Do not admit these into your presence!”‘ And these accounts have often been used to demonise transgender individuals since then. Some Islamic scholars would go on to add that effeminate men must make efforts to stop being so or they would become blameworthy.
As such, there is no textual justification for gender confirmation surgeries for transgender people. In 1982, a psychologist in Egypt diagnosed a student with psychological hermaphroditism or what would be called gender dysphoria today. Chaos arose when the trans woman who had undergone gender confirmation surgery was refused re-admission by Al-Azhar University whether as a male or female student. The notion of a sense of incongruence between one’s body and gender identity was hard to comprehend. She was considered a gay man. Egypt’s Grand Mufti Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi then issued a fatwa proclaiming that “It is… not permissible to do it at the mere wish to change sex from woman to man, or vice versa.”
Iran appears to be more liberal. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1983 fatwa permits sex reassignment surgeries and that it was not hindered in Islam. Trans individuals diagnosed with gender identity disorder* are issued certificates which offers some protection from legal and religious authorities. Since there are no official laws recognising the rights of Iran’s trans citizens, transitioning is forbidden in some cities and many judges do not allow legal changes of name and gender. Gay men are also being forced to undergo the surgeries as the regime seeks ways to heteronormalise these men’s sexual desires.
Over the past decade, Pakistan’s khwaja sira have scored a series of victories. A 2011 Supreme Court ruling gave them recognition as a separate identity on their national identity cards. It also allowed them to vote. Pakistan also joins Bangladesh, Denmark, Germany, India, Nepal and many countries which allow a third gender category on citizens’ passports.
Despite these victories, transgender individuals face a great amount of discrimination and stigma. Many Iranians who have transitioned are abandoned by their families. They lose their jobs. Some become sex workers as employers perceive them as unemployable. There are also reports of trans individuals being sexually assaulted by security forces.
Likewise, the mak nyahs of Malaysia experience intense discrimination and exploitation. All thirteen Malaysian states prohibit Muslim men from “dressing as women”. And since transgender individuals are not allowed to change their legal gender markers, Muslim transgender women are often prosecuted for being who they are. Under Section 28 of the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997, they may be fined up to RM1000 and imprisoned for one year. Mak nyahs, Muslims and non-Muslims, can also be arrested under the Minor Offences Act 1955 for indecent acts. And if they’re imprisoned, they’re assaulted, mocked, stripped naked, and forced to have sex with wardens.
In 2013, four men dealt multiple blows to a Thai mak nyah and migrant worker’s head and body. She received seventy-three stitches on her head and face. In February this year, a local trans woman was brutally murdered though the police claim that her murder wasn’t a hate crime. And accounts of personal suffering, assault, and discrimination experienced by Malaysian transgender rights advocates Nisha Ayub and Sulastri Ariffin are widely known.
Is Sex Work Empowering at All?
Many people also make the assumption that sex workers suffer from a myriad of STDs. The truth is, Anya visits the clinic around the corner as and when the need arises. She nods insistently, “I’m clean. My records are clean.” She insists that her customers use condoms. In fact, condoms are provided in the foyer of the little guesthouse.
Nevertheless, it’s an uphill battle. Many sex workers are often pressured to forgo condoms. Some, like Anya, will insist on their clients using condoms. The ones who are more desperate will cave in or they’ll lose business. According to the Malaysian Aids Council’s website, there were only 904 HIV/AIDs-related deaths in 2010 and there were only 23 reported HIV/AIDs cases and related to them. In July 2016, Malaysian Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said that there were about 40,000 female sex workers at risk of contracting the disease. Nevertheless, absolute certainty about the numbers of current infections is elusive.
Gay escorts are an open secret. Anya feeds us lots of information. Blue Boy, a club in Changkat, Kuala Lumpur, is a popular haunt for gay escorts. Scores of ads featuring women in lingerie and bikinis line the pages of websites such as City of Love. Dates, threesomes, anything goes as long as money is paid. Most white escorts charge at least three hundred ringgit for one hour whether sexual activity occurs or not. The really good escorts go globetrotting. The clients pay for their plane tickets, accommodation and spending. Some pay really well. In Brunei, escorts are flown in from Russia, UK, US and Sweden. Not everyone passes the mark though. Some escorts are turned away. Even then, they get sent home with 2000 USD. The ones that stay… well, their banks are sure to receive deposits numbering in five figures.
The “real chicks”, Anya says, “hang out at Beach Club”. They bring in higher figures than Anya does. Donning halter-necked dresses and three-inch stilettos, their sultry gazes promise nights of unlimited pleasure. Prolific writer Gerrie Lim reveals secrets of the Singaporean sex trade in his books Invisible Trade and Invisible Trade II. High-end sex workers, the escorts and hostesses, have different rates than the girls working out of the brothels in Geylang. Clients pay hefty booking fees to the agency. If a client wants to spend more time with the girl, he has to extend the session. Intercourse is optional. Some girls receive SGD $600 in ten minutes for strangling their clients with their thighs. The kinkier the action, the more the client pays.
The reality is things aren’t always what they seem to be. There are many myths surrounding prostitution. It isn’t always despicable; it isn’t always glamorous. Not every sex worker is wasting away in an STD-hotbed. Sex isn’t always involved. Not every sex worker is a victim of human trafficking or their drug habits. Some find their work empowering; some find it exploitative. Some activists want the sex trade eradicated. Others want it decriminalised, arguing that the sex workers sell services, not their bodies. Come what may, the world’s oldest profession is here to stay.
By Zoe Liew.
Images are only for illustration purposes unless otherwise indicated.
Sex: At birth, we are designated as male or female based on what is visible of our external anatomy. However, sex is more than what is visible externally. It is actually a combination of many bodily characteristics including: chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs, and secondary sex characteristics.
Transgender: A person whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. Transgender is a broad umbrella term and is good for non-transgender people to use. “Trans” is shorthand for “transgender.” (Note: Transgender is correctly used as an adjective, not a noun, thus “transgender people” is appropriate but “transgenders” is often viewed as disrespectful.)
Transgender man: A term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a man. Trans man is shorthand for transgender man.
Transgender woman: A term for a transgender individual who currently identifies as a woman. Trans woman is shorthand for transgender woman.
Mak Nyahs: Transgender women in Malaysia are known as mak nyahs.
Pak Nyahs: Transgender men in Malaysia.
Hijras: Transgender individuals who are assigned male at birth in many countries in South Asia are known as hijras.
Khwaja sira: A formal term used to refer to transgender individuals whose gender identities diverge from those of their assigned male sex. Khwaja sira is used interchangeably with the more commonly known and informal term hijras in Pakistan but the term hijras can be considered derogatory in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan depending on the context.
Khuntha/khunsa: a term used in Islamic sources to describe individuals born with sexually ambiguous genitalia or intersex individuals.
Mukhannathun/mukhannath: a term used in Islamic sources to describe effeminate men. In academic scholarship, the term is also used to describe transgender individuals.
Transsexual: An older term for people whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth who seeks to transition from male to female or female to male. Many do not prefer this term because it is thought to sound overly clinical.
Cross-dresser: A term for people who dress in clothing traditionally or stereotypically worn by the other sex, but who generally have no intent to live full-time as the other gender. The older term “transvestite” is considered derogatory by many people worldwide.
Gay: An adjective used to describe a person who is attracted to another person of the same sex. The common term for men who are attracted to other men.
Lesbian: An adjective used to describe a woman who is attracted to other women.
Gender Identity: An individual’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else. Since gender identity is internal, one’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others.
Gender Expression: How a person represents or expresses one’s gender identity to others, often through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.
Sexual orientation: A person’s physical, romantic, and/or emotional attraction to members of the same sex and/or the opposite sex.
Sex Reassignment Surgery: Surgical procedures that change one’s body to better reflect a person’s gender identity. These surgeries are medically necessary for some people, however not all people want, need, or are able to have surgery as part of their transition. “Sex change surgery” and “sex change” are considered derogatory terms by many. Some members do not prefer the term sex reassignment surgery as it sounds too clinical and the transition encompasses more than a series of surgeries.
Gender Confirmation Surgery: Surgical procedures that change a person’s body to better reflect or align it with their gender identity. This term is preferred as it is more affirmative.
In this article, the term “sex reassignment surgery” was used when referring to the procedures conducted upon Iranians. Some of these Iranians are transgender individuals who desire their physical bodies to match their gender identities. However, some of them are gay and lesbian individuals who are perfectly comfortable with their biological sex and yet are forced to undergo a series of surgical procedures due to the stigma against gay people. Therefore, in this case, their gender identities are not being confirmed by the surgeries. Instead, by forcing these individuals to have these surgeries, the Iranian government and society are denying their gender identities and their sexual orientation. Hence, the term “gender confirmation surgery” would not be accurate when referring to such procedures.
Gender Identity Disorder: gender identity disorder is a conflict between a person’s physical sex and the gender he or she identifies as. For example, a person identified as a boy may actually feel and act like a girl. The person is very uncomfortable with the sex they were born. The term leads to a mischaracterization of trans people as mentally ill. In Iran, the term is still currently being used to diagnose transgender individuals.
In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) which replaced the outdated entry “Gender Identity Disorder” with Gender Dysphoria, and changed the criteria for diagnosis. The necessity of a psychiatric diagnosis remains controversial, as both psychiatric and medical authorities recommend individualized medical treatment through hormones and/or surgeries to treat gender dysphoria. Some transgender advocates believe the inclusion of Gender Dysphoria in the DSM is necessary in order to advocate for health insurance that covers the medically necessary treatment recommended for transgender people. The World Health Organisation is currently working to declassify gender dysphoria as a mental illness.