Tribute to Aleesha (alias Ashraf)

Zaid Ibrahim

When the High Court rejected her application to change her name, Aleesha Farhana, who was born Mohd Ashraf Hafiz Abdul Aziz, was devastated. In recent weeks, she often spoke to her family about there being little time left for her to do much of anything, including celebrating the coming Hari Raya Puasa.

That’s when I realised how important gender recognition and acceptance was for her, and how without it, life was not worth living. I had this strange fear that she was going to take her own life. Of course, the hospital and doctors now tell us she died of a heart problem and low blood pressure. It would not be proper for me to think otherwise.

We as a nation must not let her death go to waste, for we can learn something from this tragic loss of life. If we do nothing, then more lives will be wasted, and more families will be heartbroken or will suffer in silence. Questions about sexuality, gender, belief, faith and personal freedom are important matters to the individuals concerned. To many of us, they constitute the core of our existence. That’s why the Government (and that includes the Ministers, the Registration Department, religious authorities and judges) should handle these issues with care and gentle consideration.

I know it’s difficult for this Government to be gentle and respectful of minorities, or anyone different. They have begun to believe their own spin: that they are the great protectors of the religion, race and general wellbeing of the Malays. They have taken it upon themselves to decide for the Malays (who are by law Muslims) everything under the sun, big and small. For example, if the Malays want to sell a piece of property, chances are the Menteri Besar and his Exco have to approve the transaction. I tried to sell a small shop lot after owning the property for four years,but my application was rejected. Maybe one day during a recession when prices have gone south, I will finally get the approval to sell from these great protectors of my race. It seems that as a Malay, I am not considered fit enough to decide when I can sell my own property. I am not fit to take advantage of the market situation. I must be really incapable and weak, like a walking handicap. My rights as a property owner are restricted, but the Government will say it’s for my own good.

I apologise for the digression, but this same lack of recognition of our right to choose is reflected in Aleesha’s case. In future, if a Malay says she is a woman, whether by birth or by biological transformation in adult life (and scientifically or by hormonal testing one can easily establish that assertion to be largely correct), then I hope the Registration Department will just accept that fact. Why is the Department so interested in denying her proper identity?