Malaysia’s fatwa council explains how ‘tomboys’ become lesbians

Mustafa Ali (R), Fadzil Noor (C) and Mahfuz Omar (L). UPALI ATURUGIRI/AFP/Getty Images

A Malaysian religious leader has spoken for the first time in detail about the ramifications of the fatwa passed last month that ruled against women indulging in activities deemed as ‘masculine,’ including lesbian sex and dressing like a man.

The fatwa is currently at the ‘muzakarah’ stage, which means it has the status of official advice to the Islamic community.

But it could be implemented into the national Sharia law later on.

Malaysia is governed by two different kinds of court – Sharia courts to govern Muslim civil matters and the state’s secular courts, which apply to the 40% of Malaysians who are not Muslim.

Director-general of the National Fatwa Council, Datuk Wan Mohamad Sheikh Abd Aziz, explained the meaning of ‘pengkid,’ which has been translated as ‘tomboy’ by the English-speaking media, as “a married woman or maiden whose appearance or image is like that of a man.”

The fatwa ruling is directed specifically at the ‘pengkid’ woman.

Speaking to the New Straits Times he added that the manner of dress was only one aspect of ‘masculine’ behaviour by women the council sought to condemn.

“Although this also includes the dressing of the person and not just the way she behaves, the way of dressing is just one aspect of what makes a ‘pengkid'” he said.

When asked why the council went to such lengths as to rule on what women could wear, Mr Aziz identified seemingly innocuous actions such as dressing in a masculine way as something that could lead on to greater ‘crimes’ such as lesbianism.

“Not only is the act forbidden, but any act that may lead to the actual act is also forbidden,” he told the NST.

“If we allow this practice (of pengkid) to continue to develop, it will become a tradition, and then a norm.

“When it becomes a norm, then people will think no longer think of it as a wrong. This is something we do not want to happen.

“Actually, we are trying to save these women (from becoming lesbians).”

Under Sharia law in Malaysia, engaging in lesbian activities can incur a fine of up to RM 5,000 (£898), imprisonment for up to three years, a whipping of up to six lashes, or a combination of any of these.

Mr Aziz described how the fatwa was part of a larger aim by the council to prevent the spread of homosexuality which he describes as a “contagious” disease brought into Malaysia from abroad.

Referring to the current trend for more masculine dress among Malaysian youths he said, “I think we have become stuck in a western values trap that makes the dress code an excuse to denigrate our religion and values.”

When the fatwa was passed last month it was greeted with protests from two non-Muslim organisations in Malaysia, Katagender and Food-not-Bombs who wrote a petition to the council.

“The views expressed by the council reflect a deeper discrimination against anyone who does not conform with what is considered “mainstream” and also anyone who does not fit into a stereotypical heterosexual relationship. Everyone has the right to form loving relationships with the person of their choice, regardless of their sex and the sex of their partner,” it said.

Malaysian women’s group Sisters in Islam also criticised the council’s decision in a statement:

“Many Malaysian women sport short hair, wear trousers, shirts and don’t wear make-up. It is culturally normal for Malaysian women to be body comfortable with each other. Many women hold hands, hug their friends or kiss their friends on the cheek.

“And how do the authorities define ‘manly’ behaviour? Not gentle and demure enough? Talking too loud? Who would and how could one define and determine whether a woman is a tomboy or a lesbian?”