Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Kak Juwita and lessons on identity

Will we make it a crime to express our being?

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A line of sweat streams down Kak Juwita’s heavily rouged face. Dressed in a black two-piece, her wavy hair parted to the left, she is the picture of glamour but her anxiety and longing to be somewhere else is palpable even through the drizzle in Kuala Lumpur.

She fans herself as I nervously ask her questions.

“Tanyalah apa-apa, akak jawab,” she says, her feminine intonations overlaid with a subtle tenor tone.

Her invitation puts me at ease although I still scramble while figuring out what questions to ask her.

Trans-sex workers are always approachable. Perhaps it is somewhat ingrained in them, as a way to attract potential customers if their physical appearance is not enough. An aloof demeanour is only reserved for those who can catch men through a glance alone. Pacing walkways and waiting at stairs are the routine of street-based sex workers.

“Apa asal usul kau dulu?” she asks me. She does not mean my place of origin or my upbringing, but my being.

It is not often that the interviewer gets interviewed, but I welcomed it.

Before I was able to answer, unaware of the true depth of her question, she replied herself, speaking of identity and “jiwa”.

She was only in primary school when she was first exposed to sexual misdemeanour. Her remarks on this experience were nonchalant and short on detail. She was simply too young when it all started.

But a sexual lifestyle is not sexual nature. Young Juwita was aware of her effeminacy, and so was her family. She was raised in a religious family with a patriarch overlooking the rituals of the Muslim household.

Nevertheless, her femininity remained unwavering in the face of beliefs. She could not lie to herself, even though she was perhaps unable to follow through with her need to express herself.

“Aku tak rogol perempuan, perempuan yang nak rogol aku.”

Her joke evoked roars of laughter that broke the otherwise grim nature of the walkway. But it was also to recollect the nature of her adolescence.

The fad of feminine-looking men was around even in the 90s. Girls were pulling her left and right, but she knew even then that they were not what she wanted. She was never keen on looking at the femininity of others or womanliness other than the ideal she wished for herself. Once the display of masculinity was shed, femininity manifested and her true self arose.

Juwita revealed herself in her truest form when she turned 20 in the late 90s. She was attached to a club, a hostess and an exceptional figure as she was one of the few trans-women allowed to perform that role. Her nightly task was to necessitate the desire of club-goers, and she was good at it. But her time there was short-lived as the club closed down just two years after she joined.

Her next 23 years were spent in various parts of Kuala Lumpur, but her identity remained singular: that of a trans-sex worker. There are few options for trans-individuals due to the discriminatory nature of society, but many do not understand the condition and nature of their being.

Some may be kind enough to show compassion and refrain from stone-throwing, but they are the minority who can do little to improve conditions for trans-individuals.

Thus, Juwita’s nature as a trans-individual was synonymous with sex work. She frequented the Chow Kit and Bukit Bintang areas in the early days of her sex work life, but later settled in an unnamed walkway in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, citing comfort and security as her reasons.

Juwita was never a devout Muslim. Her birth and upbringing were constantly filled with teaching but this was shown less concern than that of being a fully formed woman. The thought of turning to God never arose much as she lived her life and fed herself with the findings of the night, until it budded after the death of the family of the patriarch.

“Walaupun ayah akak dah meninggal 7-8 tahun lepas, akak masih rasakan macam ayah akak masih hidup.”

The constant thoughts instilled in her daily prayers embalmed her father in her memory. With these prayers, her identity as a Muslim resurfaced and strengthened as the nature of belief that would lead her in life.

Since her father’s death, her life has been in pursuit of goodness. It was never easy as a trans-individual, but she did not find herself conflicted over her nature as a trans-woman and her identity as a Muslim. If being effeminate was what was supposed of her, then so be it, and let the discourse of the people not limit her discourse with God.

She was proud of her journey in striving to perfect her beliefs. Although she was still a sex worker, she did not feel that this diminished her relationship with God.

“Kalau kau tengok akak waktu pagi, kau tak akan kenal akak,” she said in an allusion to the dual identity she sees in herself.

Her dawns after her nights as a sex worker are spent in prostration and the contemplation of scriptures. Prayers are never missed, even as she prepares to occupy her usual spot.

She plans to put an end to her work as a sex worker as she became more reluctant to live her lifestyle with her changed understanding and given the connotation of her work. It is now her nature to shy away from what she was before.

Juwita’s life is a culmination of selves that surfaced in various periods of her life. Her identity is the intersection of her many natures. But this is not the only variable in her life. The nature of societal norms bound her to the places she had been, those she is still in, and those she will be in.

What about our nature? Will we make it a crime to express our being? Will individuals be made to identify themselves against their own jiwa for what we deem best for all of us? Will we continue to be the way we have been, and what we are now?

Until we figure out how to inch closer to an answer, semoga kita terus berbakti.

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