Tuesday, December 07, 2021

Mayor Nur Sajat of KL?

Lessons from a transgender mayor’s victory in Bangladesh

Muslim-majority Bangladesh, known for exporting hundreds of thousands of poor workers to Malaysia to do menial tasks, may have inadvertently shown Malaysians that transgender people can make it big if they are not ostracised or marginalised.

Last week, history was created in the rural Bangladesh town of Trilochanpur when a transgender was elected mayor, winning twice the number of votes of her nearest rival, a male.

Nazrul Islam Ritu, 45, an independent candidate, became the country’s first transgender mayor after a landslide victory over her rival from the ruling party.

She declared that her victory showed growing acceptance of what they call themselves, the “Hijra” community or the third gender as they are officially known.

More than 90% of the 149 million Bangladeshis practise Islam and it has the third largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia and Pakistan. Despite this, it is constitutionally a secular nation with Islam as the official religion.

Most of them are Sunni, like Malaysian Muslims.

Rewind to 2018 in Malaysia, also a secular country constitutionally with Islam as the official religion. Our very own successful cosmetics entrepreneur Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman, who was obviously born as a transgender which some may describe as one of God’s creations, was charged with cross-dressing, an offence under Malaysian shariah law.

Apparently she wore a baju kurung at a private religious ceremony. After many court appearances and postponements, the shariah court issued a warrant of arrest after she failed to turn up for one of the hearings.

Nur Sajat then escaped to Thailand where she was arrested but was given refugee status. Subsequently she fled to Australia where she was granted political asylum and given permanent resident status.

Some Malaysians accused her of being an attention seeker and that is why she got into so much trouble. However, the global perception is that she was being “persecuted’ by her own country and the Thai and Aussie authorities “rescued” her.

On the other hand, Bangladeshi transgender Nazrul hogged international limelight for the right reasons, showing a compassionate side in a conservative society willing to accept a fellow human being facing a gender crisis.

I was told reliably that another transgender with an engineering degree from Malaysia became a PR in Australia and is serving the military there. Apparently, a few others there have also found happiness abroad in this manner. Can you blame them? I do not think so.

Nazrul Islam Ritu with her group of supporters during the election. (Daily Star Bangladesh pic)

Nazrul, too, had to struggle in her homeland. She was born into a large Muslim family but fled her rural hometown of Trilochanpur as a child and took refuge at a commune of transgender people in the capital city of Dhaka.

She returned in her late 20s and became a popular figure in the community after helping build two mosques and donating to several local Hindu temples.

“The victory means they really love me and they have embraced me as their own,” she told Aljazeera. “I will dedicate my life to public service.”

Bangladesh’s growing intolerance for the rights of sexual minorities has seen a raft of new laws under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. In 2013, transgender people were officially identified as a separate gender and, in 2018, they were allowed to use “third gender” when registering to vote.

Elsewhere, a huge number of transgender people have also won elections with some holding high positions too.

Unfortunately, not only do certain authorities in Malaysia treat these human beings like dirt including the use of the derogatory Malay term “pondan” on them, many Malaysians make them the brunt of jokes and despise them for their God-given gender.

At a “hearing” at the virtual Women’s Tribunal Malaysia last week, some of them shared their plight at being harassed and discriminated against.

One said the family’s refusal to accept her for her gender identity also affected her mental health. She became depressed and started having suicidal thoughts.

She also called for an end to discriminatory laws against trans women, saying their existence was not a crime. “We’re just trying to live our lives,” she said.

There you go, no one enjoys trying hard to be a woman when they are not especially in conservative Malaysia where the holier-than-thou attitude thrives. The debate of whether they acquire this gender or were born as such has never found an answer.

There are more serious issues involving this gender that our authorities seem to be sweeping under the carpet. Some transgender people suffer from gender dysphoria. This is a serious emotional distress from what they are thought to be at birth and the gender they know themselves to be.

This often results in emotional distress that affects their health and everyday lives if not addressed. So most of them rightly believe they are being ostracised and punished for something that has underlying biological reasons through no fault of theirs.

Well, there are many more Nur Sajats in Malaysia who must be allowed to lead their lives normally so that we can have many Nazruls in our midst. They can be an asset to society instead of turning them into beggars and sexual workers because of our intolerance.

That’s not what our religions teach us.

Bangladesh has allowed transgender Nazrul Islam Ritu (left) to become mayor while Nur Sajat faced ‘persecution’ for cross-dressing. (Daily Star Bangladesh pic/ Instagram pic)


  1. Majority in Malaysia regard the country as Negara Islam, NOT a secular country.
    There is strong support for imposing Islamic rules on overall society.
    Majority support the suppression 9f alcohol availability.

    The Non just have to accept what the majority demands.

    1. U r playing the song of don't-spook-the-melayu-sensitivities!