Ima, a 32-year-old trans woman in Malaysia has been arrested and charged on several occasions for "posing as a woman," with religious department officers cutting her hair and clothes to force her to conform to the gender she was assigned at birth: male. Yet, it is the violence and mental abuse she suffered throughout her childhood at the hands of her father and older brother that had the greatest impact on her life, setting her off on a seemingly endless cycle of running away from home and being dragged back and handcuffed or locked up until she could run away again.
Ima's testimony is one of more than 230 interviews with lesbians, bisexual women and trans individuals gathered by researchers in Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, that will be released in the report "Violence: Through the Lens of Lesbians, Bisexual Women and Trans People in Asia" by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) on May 12. In fact, while many of those interviewed spoke to societal discrimination and repeated experiences of exclusion in public spaces, at work and at school, the family was reported to be the primary perpetrator of violence against the lesbians, bisexual women and transgender (LBT) people interviewed for the study.
Violence by family members ranged from emotional and physical to sexual violence, and included beatings and being forced to wear hair and clothes aligned with societal gender norms. Many of the LBT individuals had been subjected to prolonged silent treatment, verbal abuse and isolation, emotional and material neglect. Several were forced to end same-sex relationships, or to enter heterosexual marriages. Other common punishments were restricted socialization with friends, condemnation in the name of religion and financial deprivation. Perpetrators were mostly parents and dominant male family members. In all five of the research countries, many of the women and trans individuals recounted sexual violence as children, perpetrated by family members, often for many years.
Perpetrators made it clear that they saw their LBT family members as disobeying cultural and social expectations, defying parental authority, insulting religion and bringing shame on the family. They saw the violence as "corrective" -- forcing women and trans persons towards the heterosexual and gender norms they were seen to transgress.
In this sense, violence against women, generally, is more prominent in those regions where the family is a powerful enforcer of social norms, morality and respectability, and where women and girls are seen as bearers of these norms: South and Southeast Asia, Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean region. In these contexts, the insidiousness of family violence is that it is treated as "a private family matter," is easier to ignore, and is normalized by perpetrators and even victims because of societal and religious condemnation and a legal system unresponsive to violence against "transgressive" individuals. In these regions including in Asia, legal reform will not be enough to overcome the decades of discriminatory stereotyping of both women and men with non-conforming sexual orientation and gender. There has to be a shift in thinking about gender and sexuality not just by supreme courts and legislatures but by civil society and families as well.
That said, law reform is urgently needed -- as a bottom line -- against abuse, because family violence, public violence and state violence are inter-related. Violence in the family is a reflection of the government's failure to prevent this violence and protect LBT people. Intolerance endorsed, even encouraged by government leaders translates into impunity on the streets and at home.
Ima's visibility as a trans woman subjects her to daily public exclusion as an "outcast." She cannot change the gender marker on her identification papers and she is targeted for abuse because of how she looks. Like Ima, lesbians, tomboys and trans men in Asia are daily subjected to what can be called a campaign of systematic ostracism and abuse because they are perceived as "sick" or "dangerous" or "impersonators."
One hope of the research is to promote accountability among civil society groups, non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions and national women's commissions. It should not be the expectation that individual LBT victims need to be self-reliant and resilient to deal with violence on their own while waiting for state action to curb violence and discrimination in all spheres of society.
Published on May 12, 2014 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization