Barely a week after she received the International Women of Courage Award at the White House in Washington DC, Nisha Ayub found herself huddled over her laptop in her hotel room in San Diego in the United States, trying to put out a fire back home in Malaysia.
This time it was a raid by the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) on a fund-raising event for the transgender community at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Though thousands of miles away, Nisha was sending emails out to lawyers to try and rally support for her sisters back home.
This, says Nisha matter-of-factly, is a regular form of harassment that transgender people in Malaysia have come to expect.
“I think this particular case was highlighted because I had just received the award, actually. The truth is these sort of incidences happen all the time.
“Just before I flew off to the US, I had to deal with another similar case and I am certain this won’t be the last of its kind either. I hate to say this but incidents like these are normal for me,” says the transgender activist in an interview at Seed Foundation a few days after she returned from the US.
Seed Foundation and Justice for Sisters are two non-government organisations Nisha founded to repeal laws that criminalise transgender people based on their gender identity as well as provide support services to transgenders, sex workers and people living with HIV.
Nisha is the first transgender woman to receive the award and its significance is not lost on her.
“It’s a validation for all of us transgender women in Malaysia and all over the world. It recognises our identity as women. When the US embassy in KL told me a few months ago that they were nominating me for the award, I was honoured but I never expected to be an actual awardist. I mean, lets face it, it’s the International WOMEN of courage award. Women, you know,” exclaims Nisha, who is Malacca-born.
“So when I was selected it was a complete shock. It sends a message of recognition that transgender women do exist in Malaysia and we have issues that need to be recognised and addressed,” adds Nisha who left for Japan just days after this interview to accept another award, this time the Human Rights Watch’s Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinaty Activisim.
Her painful past
It’s hard to imagine that 15 years ago, Nisha was ready to give up on life. When she was 21, Nisha was rounded up by religious officers while she was going out for lunch with some girl friends in Malacca. She was working as a front desk officer in a hotel at the time and had come to meet some colleagues for lunch on her off day.
“All of a sudden, these people from the religious office came and took me to their office. I didn’t know who they were. I thought they were the police. I didn’t know my rights at all and so I went with them. The held me at their office overnight and I was taken to the Syariah court the next day. I was scared, of course, but they assured me that it was a ‘small matter’ and I would probably have to go for counseling or something like that. And so I pleaded guilty without knowing any better.
“Then the next thing I knew, the judge was sentencing me to three months in prison. When I pleaded with him, he told me that he sentenced me to jail as he wanted me to come back a real man. He wanted me to change but I didn’t change,” says Nisha, with pride.
She was sent to the a male prison where she went through the most painful experience of her life – she was forced to strip for the prison authorities and her inmates who made fun of her and forced her to fellate them.
“I will never forget or forgive them. People tell me all the time that I should let it go and forgive those people. I have let it go but I will never forgive them,” says Nisha who shares that she tried to take her life while in prison but was stopped by an inmate.
After serving her time in prison, Nisha went home a changed person.
“I wasn’t the happy, cheerful Nisha anymore. I was depressed and full of hate. I wanted revenge. I stayed home for months and barely came out of my room. When I did, I had to wrap a towel to cover my bald head – they shaved me before I went to prison. I was an ex-inmate, what was I going to do,” she recalls, admitting that she resorted to cutting herself to ease some of the pain inside her.
Eventually, Nisha realised that she had to work to sustain herself. But she wasn’t herself still. She worked in a dangdut club as a guest relations officer.
“I was earning a lot of money but I wasn’t happy at all. I realised that I was still very angry. I wanted to tell my story and to share my pain. I started to search online about transgender rights and so on which led me to the PT Foundation,” she muses.
That marked the start of Nisha’s activism.
“I realised that this fight is not just mine. It is for all transgender people. I hear such horrific stories everyday about trans people being beaten up in prison, asked for sexual favours by the authorities, hate crimes … and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to do something,” she adds.
One of her career highlights has to be in 2014 when the transgender community won a court ruling that challenges the Syariah law which bans them from cross-dressing. The three-judge panel of the court of appeal unanimously ruled that the Syariah law in Negri Sembilan was discriminatory and deprived trans people the right to live with dignity. The Federal Court later overturned the ruling because of a technicality but this doesn’t change anything, according to Nisha.
“We still won,” says Nisha adamantly.
Part of her advocacy work has Nisha raising awareness among the public about transgender issues.
“People don’t know what a transgender person is and so they are afraid. My main goal is to break the boundaries and remove the fear people have of transgender people.
“When you don’t understand something, you fear it. And when you fear it, you react negatively towards it and that’s what’s happening here,” she explains.
Attitudes are changing, however, especially among the younger generation who are more exposed and open minded.
“There are so many negative stereotypes and myths about transgender people. People think that transgender women dress up to attract men. They think that transgender people are sex workers. But that’s so far from the truth. It has nothing to do with men or with sex. We dress up like women because we are women. It’s our identity and the only way to change that is if you transplanted our brain,” says Nisha.
She is often invited by colleges to speak about transgender activism to students whom she says are the hope for a more tolerant society.
“They are a lot more open to listen and to question and learn. Whenever I give talks, I take questions as a sign of whether or not the session has been effective. If there are a lot of questions, it means there is a conversation going on and people are interested and engaged. Often with these youngsters, the sessions go on for hours because they are curious to know about transgender people and our issues,”adds Nisha.
It’s a long journey ahead, she is aware, but the increasing willingness of people to learn about transgender issues spurs her on. And the international recognition doesn’t hurt either.
“Doors have definitely opened for me and for the community. We now have so many people who want to help and work with us and it’s great,” she enthuses.
Nisha also admits that she has been invited to work for organisations abroad. She is flattered, of course, but she isn’t going anywhere … for now.
“I am Nisha from Malacca and my office is in Chow Kit. People tell me I should leave Malaysia … that I would have better opportunities and all but why should I leave? I am Malaysian and this is where my work lies. I will not leave until Malaysian trans people are recognised and have their rights,” she concludes.