Transgender history in a broader sense of gender variance has existed in cultures worldwide since ancient times. As early as the Iron Age period, archaeologists discovered the evidence of a transgender warrior in southern Russia. They’ve found ‘reliable molecular genetic data’ indicating that she was born ‘male’. In the earliest civilizations throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, gender variance was appreciated and respected as the “third gender”. These people were often believed to possess wisdom that cisgender people did not have.
Yes, you were the priestesses that held sacred religious and/or medicinal duty in ancient times. You once played prominent roles in the society such as guardians to harems and sacred places; you were the marriage broker and the entertainer in performance arts in the ancient Muslim civilisation during the Umayyad, Abbasid and Mughal periods. You were known as khwajasarais; the supervisors or custodians of the harem and royal teachers while some of you held important political positions in the court during the Mughal era (1526–1827).
Transgender folks were regarded as an integral part of the society until the rise of patriarchal religion and colonialism that perceived them as invalid and posing a threat to established power, domination and control. In North and Central America, the Native Two-Spirit People thrived until the arrival of white colonisers which led to genocide, and cultural subversion and segregation. In South Asia, the British colonialist considered trans people to be ‘dangerous’ and ungovernable population. This resulted in passing of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871 which persecuted and criminalised khwajasarais causing their “extermination” from the Mughal Court.
Historically, as the image below demonstrates, transgender women were culturally accepted in Malaysian society until the 1980s and were allowed to receive HRT and change their gender marker after having sex reassignment surgery. The biggest contributor to the prevalent discrimination against transgender people started when the National Fatwa Council in 1982 issued a fatwa (ruling) prohibiting sex reassignment surgery under Islamic law, apart from intersex cases.
The British Criminal Tribes Act remains strongly influential within Malaysian Shari’a law that restricts the rights of trans women. Such infringements are not based on the Qur’ān but on archaic colonial legislation. This connection was entrenched through Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism. The pre-colonial Islam in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world practised Sufi Islam where gender-variant people were recognised and accepted as part of Muslim society, as documented throughout the Mughal Empire. The fact that the British supported the power and ideology of Wahhabism for their colonial purposes, directly or indirectly, is enough for the British colonisers to be held accountable.
The effect of this colonial legacy has translated itself in neocolonialism today. It still persist in the form of many conservative religious leaders ascribing to the colonial power values and regulations, or in the form of enforcement of local values that suit the colonisers’ purpose. Today, transgender Muslims in Australia mark up the highest number of trans people fleeing persecution from their own countries, with Malaysian transwomen representing the highest number of applicants. Trans people especially from culturally and linguistically diverse and refugee backgrounds are still facing violence, poverty, unemployed and at risks of suicide.
Transgender Muslims across the globe need to learn how to decolonize their identity by beginning with decolonising themselves primarily. They need to question the structures of value and power that influence how the society perceive their identity today. They need to examine how colonisation, modernity, capitalism and neoliberalism have represented a range of Eurocentric ideas of the Global North (modernity) as the “true” modes of living, thinking and being.
An open letter to trans Muslims:
Let’s learn how to decolonise your knowledge by trying to understand the history of your culture and religion.
Recognise the colonial web of power relations that has reproduced animosity towards your identity. Isn’t that one of Islamic principles that requires you to think, and rethink, and to analyse rather than to submit blindly?
Be an activist as Islam requires you to be, and always remember that Islam has always taken sides with the oppressed rather than that of the oppressor since the day of its establishment.
Learn to challenge your own existential crisis, your very own internal bias and prejudice towards your own existence.
Re-learn your history that the Prophet never cursed you, but as argued by prominent scholars such as Imam An-Nawawi, the curse only applies to deceitful men who want to gain access to women’s spaces.
Embrace the fact that the Quran (42: 49–50) acknowledges your existence as part of Allah’s greatest creation. Dismantle the conservative Wahhabis ideology that invalidates your existence. Those traditional religious scholars are still susceptible to errors because none of us are infallible. Hold on your forefather and foremother knowledge of Sufi Islam that was tolerant towards your identity.
Most importantly, stop pecking on each other by vilifying those who are not within the western cis-hetero standard of femininity. Not all of us are in the same position of privilege.
Be an intersectional feminist and see gender as the primary lens through which various forms of inequalities are experienced. And always be aware of race, class, ableism and sexuality because these issues are fundamentally contributing to the outrageous level of injustices and discrimination today.
Decolonise your knowledge, your body, your moral, your culture, and your sources of happiness outside the colonial web of power.
Reclaim your identity and rights in a way that allows you to be both a Muslim and a transgender.
Rewrite your own narrative because if you don’t, your identity will be forever misrepresented by others.
Let’s ascend together in solidarity, with compassion, care, love, and the desire to heal from the grievances of neocolonialism.
This article is written by Aisya A. Zaharin, PhD Candidate and FDPN Board Director in commemoration of Trans Day of Remembrance 2020. Today, transgender murder rates especially of trans women of colour remain high and their lives are remembered through activities conducted on and for the Trans Day of Remembrance.
Aisya recent publication on Muslim and transgender issues can be found at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/26895269.2020.1778238