Mak Nyahs: Transgendered Muslims in Malaysia

Published: December 10, 2012

Mak nyah is the term that transgendered women in Malaysia use to identify themselves. Mak means ‘mother’, and nyah is derived from the literal meaning of ‘running away’ to refer to ‘transition’. Khartini Slamah, a well-known 49-year-old activist and counselor to other transgendered women, explains how and why this term came about in the late 80s, in her chapter in the book Sexuality, Gender and Rights: Exploring Theory and Practice in South and South East Asia by Geetanjali Misra and Radhika Chandiramani (2005):

“First […] to differentiate ourselves from gay men, transvestites, cross dressers, drag queens, and other ‘sexual minorities’ with whom all those who are not heterosexual are automatically lumped, and second […] to define ourselves from a vantage point of dignity rather than from the position of derogation in which Malaysian society has located us”.

Mak nyahs do not necessarily have to undergo, have undergone, or plan to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Khartini elaborates on the groups of people that self-identify as mak nyah:

“Mak Nyahs define themselves in various ways along the continuums of gender and sexuality: as men who look like women and are soft and feminine, as the third gender, as men who dress up as women, as men who like to do women’s work, as men who like men, etc.”

Compare this strong and empowering self-identification by Khartini to an article published a few months ago that featured Adam Shazrul’s experiences as a transgendered woman in Malaysia. I found this article as a rather sympathetic portrayal of transgendered women since female pronouns (“she” and “her”) were used throughout. However, the accompanying image seemed to be a bit of a forceful effort to show how feminine she can actually look (“Look Ma, I’m not born a woman but I can still be sexy like a real woman”).

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