The secret life of Thailand’s ladyboys from Muslim majority southern provinces
Transgender women in Thailand are more accepted than in Malaysia or Indonesia, but those who live in the southern provinces feel obliged to hide their gender identities at home, only letting their hair down in places like Bangkok and Pattaya
Whenever Ardulmalik Maskul returns from Bangkok to her hometown in Pattani province in southern Thailand, she undergoes a transformation. She removes her make-up, changes into trousers and begins to mind her manners. Mostly, though, she doesn’t leave the house.
Asan Sohoh engages in similar sartorial subterfuge on her return visits to Pattani. “I don’t want to embarrass my parents,” she says.
Ardulmalik and Asan are practising Muslims and they’re also transgender women. “It’s very difficult to be like us,” Ardulmalik says in English. “In Pattani it’s a big bad thing to be transgender.”
In Buddhist Thailand male-to-female transsexuals, known locally as katoeys or “ladyboys”, are free to live like women. “They’re widely accepted,” says Pornchai Sereemongkonpol, the author of Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender. “They may face some disadvantages, but no one harasses them.”
That’s not so in Pattani, one of Thailand’s three southernmost Muslim-majority provinces, bordering Malaysia, where more restrictive social mores prevail.
A separatist insurgency has claimed thousands of lives in the region since 2001. Islamic militants have subjected local Buddhist civilians, government officials, policemen and suspected Muslim collaborators to a stream of bombings, drive-by shootings and beheadings.
“In Pattani I can’t dress like this,” says Ardulmalik, gesturing at her tightfitting navy-blue dress with a plunging neckline and a hemline that sits well above the knees. She’s in a Bangkok shopping centre and no one pays her any attention. “If I did this at home, people would shout insults at me. They might attack me.”
Ardulmalik, 35, who works as an import-export officer at a Bangkok-based company, is bubbly and sassy with a penchant for playful banter. “Even when I’m dressed in unisex style, many people in Pattani look me over from head to toe, toe to head,” she quips with a laugh. “I like to be the centre of attention, but not in that way.”
Her gender identity has been no laughing matter for her family, which claims partial descent from Pattani’s erstwhile sultans and counts imams among its members. When Ardulmalik was in her teens, one of her uncles, taking her feminine ways to be wilful deviance, tried slapping them out of her. “Even as a child I felt like a girl in a boy’s body,” Ardulmalik recalls. “I liked playing with girls, not boys.”
Her father, a policeman, didn’t like that one bit. He was a stickler for rules, and social and religious codes. “My family is quite strict and conservative,” Ardulmalik says. “They always knew what I am. Just look at my mannerisms,” she adds with another chuckle. “But I know they can never really accept me.”
Asan, who is 26, hasn’t had it any easier. “My parents are devout and they forbade me from acting like a girl,” she recalls. So she led a double life: she put on make-up in secret but attended the mosque in boy’s clothing. “Instead of trying to change my parents, I tried to conform and act how they wanted me to act.” Outwardly as a male, that is.
A few years ago she moved to Bangkok to study at a university where she could finally let her hair down – literally. By now her parents have come to terms with her gender identity. Yet no such acquiescence is forthcoming from the rest of her family. “I have 11 uncles and aunts. They’ve all disowned me,” Asan says. “They mock me and deride me, but I can live with that,” she adds. “But I don’t like it that they tell my parents not to have anything to do with me.”
Demure and statuesque, with delicate features and a well-mannered poise just short of hauteur, Asan works in the entertainment business, like many other transwomen in Thailand. Last year she was crowned Miss Mimosa Queen at a high-profile beauty pageant for transwomen in the seaside town of Pattaya.
On a recent afternoon Asan strikes an eye-catching figure in a stylish white dress, turning heads on the streets of Bangkok. Her destinations included a mosque, where she went for Ramadan – after changing in a public restroom into a more low-key get-up out of religious considerations: a frilly burgundy blouse and matching trousers.
No one shouted insults at her. Instead, she was treated as a celebrity of sorts. Several locals came to take selfies with her in the warren of narrow streets that forms a small Muslim enclave opposite a Buddhist monastery. Only a couple of bearded men eyed the transwoman with a hint of disapproval, but they didn’t say anything.
“We don’t have a problem with transgender people in our community,” insists Woranuch Chalaganadacha, 57, a housewife dressed in a black abaya (a robe-like garb with a headscarf). “I have katoeys in my family. We Muslims are all brothers and sisters.”
Such a live-and-let-live attitude is common among Muslims in cosmopolitan Bangkok, but less so in the southern provinces. “We could never do this back home,” Ardulmalik says, referring to her visits to a mosque dressed as a woman.
“It’s hard for us to be practising Muslims in a conservative society. Islamic society is divided strictly into men and women in public,” she adds. “I don’t know where I should be during prayers. Should I join the women or the men? So I don’t go. I stay at home.”
Islam has had mixed views of transsexuals during its history. The fortunes of transgender women, called mukhannathun (“effeminate ones”) in Arabic have waxed and waned over the centuries, often depending on whether they were seen as gay (homosexuality is a sin in Islam) or as members of a nebulous third gender who were assumed to have been born that way.
In many traditional Muslim societies today, transwomen tend to conceal their gender identities for fear of being harassed, or worse. Earlier this year in Aceh, a religiously conservative province in Indonesia, a dozen transwomen were rounded up by police who set out to “re-educate” them. They were taken to a local mosque where they were subjected to religious sermons and publicly humiliated by having their dresses stripped and their hair cut.
“If I’d been born in Malaysia or Indonesia, I’d have more problems,” Asan says.
In Thailand, about a quarter of a million men may be transgender in a country of 69 million, according to some estimates. In freewheeling touristy areas, “ladyboys” are particularly visible. In the three Muslim-majority southern provinces, however, they’re nowhere to be seen.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. One of the brothers of Ardulmalik’s father is himself transgender. Uncle Jiseng has never married but he’s never come out publicly as a transwoman, either.
“He dresses like a man, but he loves pretty things like doing flower arrangements. In his heart he’s a woman like me,” Ardulmalik notes, showing off pictures of a discernibly effete man on her mobile phone.
“My mother is more open-minded and often scolds my father: ‘Why can’t you accept your son? Your own brother is a tootsie!’” she says, and her cackling chuckle erupts again.
Ardulmalik and Asan remain torn between their gender identity and their faith.
“If I were to die, I may not receive a Muslim burial,” Asan says. She prays daily, attends the mosque during Muslim holidays and doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol. “There’s one thing I can’t do for my faith – change the way I am,” she says. “Only Allah knows my heart. Only he can judge me.”
Neither she nor Ardulmalik would undergo sex reassignment surgery, although the practice is popular among transwomen in Thailand. In Islam, sex-change operations are generally seen as haram (forbidden).
“I don’t want to become a woman 100 per cent,” Ardulmalik says. “When I grow old, I want to go on haj to Saudi Arabia,” she adds, referring to the pilgrimage to Mecca that is mandatory for Muslim men.
“We know it’s a sin in Islam to be like us. So before we die we’ll need to return to the way we were born,” she says. “I was born a Muslim and I’ll die a Muslim. But I didn’t choose to be this way and I’m still considered a sinner,” she adds. “I can’t just grow a moustache and work out to have more muscles like a man. That’s not me.”
The two Muslim transwomen wish their relatives would realise that, too. “Some of my cousins are louts and drug users. Yet my family thinks that’s still better than being transgender,” Sohoh laments. “We don’t hurt or bother anyone. We just want to be ourselves.”