“Diversity without Legitimacy” : Gender, Discourse, and Recognition of Transwomen in Malaysia

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Title: “Diversity without Legitimacy” : Gender, Discourse, and Recognition of Transwomen in Malaysia
Author: Saviniemi, Johanna
Other contributor: Helsingin yliopisto, Valtiotieteellinen tiedekunta, Sosiaalitieteiden laitos
University of Helsinki, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Social Research
Helsingfors universitet, Statsvetenskapliga fakulteten, Institutionen för socialvetenskaper
Publisher: Helsingin yliopisto
Date: 2019
Language: eng
URI: http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:hulib-201906132828
Thesis level: master's thesis
Discipline: Sosiaali- ja kulttuuriantropologia
Social and Cultural Anthropology
Social- och kulturantropologi
Abstract: The thesis concentrates on the visibility and the political recognition of transgender women (mak nyah) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Through the theories of recognition, concentrating on the questions of gender and recognition, the thesis looks into how the institutionalized transphobia, the criminalization of transgendered practices and the lack of gender recognition affect the transgender women/mak nyah, often referred to as the most visible part of the LGBT community in Malaysia. The study is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Kuala Lumpur between April and August 2017. The study rests on participant observation – carried out in various LGBT spaces, events, and the facilities of a Non-Governmental Organization – and on semi-structured interviews with a core group of 17 participants, including 14 members of the mak nyah community and three current and former workers of three key organizations working with the issues of sexual and gender rights. Participants come from multi-ethnic and multi-religious backgrounds, of which the majority are Malay Muslims. Since the 1990s, emerging from Hegelian legacy, there has been a resurgent interest in the notion of recognition. Recently in the field of political recognition, after the recognition theorists Charles Taylor’s (1994) and Axel Honneth’s (1995) publications, the new questions concerning the relationship of identity, politics, and gender recognition have been studied by social theorists and scholars such as Paddy McQueen (2015) and Eric Plemons (2017). These scholars discuss how gender is recognized in various surroundings and fields, including legal. Furthermore, they pose important questions, such as what happens when an individual’s lived experience falls outside of society’s 'normative' gender ideal. Taken further, it permits a closer examination of the relationship between individual and society, enables the observation of gendered spaces and their meanings, and allows the scrutiny of the public discourse. Furthermore, like Nancy Fraser (1990) and Michael Warner (2002) have demonstrated, in environments where such subjectivities are oppressed or excluded from the public sphere and the institutional world, alternative discourses and discursive spaces are created, known as counterpublics, serving as social and political areas for the marginalized groups. In the past decades in Malaysia, there have been legal and political constructions toward the non-heteronormative subjectivities and groups. In Malaysia’s two-court system, ‘transgendered practices’ are criminalized by the section of religious (Syariah) law criminalizing “cross-dressing” of Malay-Muslim backgrounded citizens and by a section of the national law that has been used for the arbitrary arrests and raids of transgender-identified persons based on “indecent behavior.” Malaysia that was formerly known as a site of “considerable fluidity and permeability in gender roles” (Peletz 2009), has now taken a completely different political approach to its sexual and gender minorities. This is partly a result of nationalist “Asian values” discourse that took root in the 1990s in various Southeast Asian countries and that views the non-heteronormative genders and sexualities as un-Asian. The political identity struggles that are characteristic of the post-independent Malaysia have had an enormous impact on the gender and sexual minorities of Malaysia and manifested in stigma, discrimination, criminalization, and violence. The thesis demonstrates that while the moral policing has shown signs of acceleration, it has also opened up new channels for the marginalized groups to speak up for themselves and about their issues; thus, the public visibility of their issues has increased. As the term 'transgender' is neither ahistorical nor acultural, it requires closer examination. Through the theories of sex and gender, the thesis looks into how Malaysian mak nyah have absorbed the global word transgender. The thesis also examines the topic of institutionalized ‘erasure’ by emphasizing the interlocutor’s experiences of health care. Moreover, by conjoining the theories of recognition with the concept of gendered spaces, the thesis shows how the interlocutors are altering their subject positions and gendered performances according to the spaces of interaction. Furthermore, the thesis suggests that the lack of institutional care has created self-organizing forms of agency, where the members of the mak nyah community are answering their own needs, because the current institutional services do not. Moreover, access to the 'safe spaces,’ and other communal spaces offer vital breathing spaces for the members of the community and within these spaces, they negotiate their identities and self-organize their institutional needs. More general level, the thesis shows that in spite of the strained social change, the public visibility of the issues of transwomen has created new opportunities for trans-identified individuals, such as opportunities to alter their public image.
Subject: agency
gender identity
gender expression

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