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t is a com on experience for investigators to craft interview questions carefully

only to have participants respond with
lengthy accounts, long stories that appear
on the surface to have little to do with the
quesrions. 1 becarne aware of this in the
early 1980s while researching the topic of
divorce. After completing a household interview with a divorcing spouse, 1 would
note upon listening to the tape that a respondent ha gone "on and on." Asking a
seemingly strpightforward question (e.g.,
"What were the main causes of your separation?"), 1 expected a list in response but instead got a "1 ng story." Those of us on the
research team interpreted these stories as
Subsequently, 1realized that participants
were resisting our efforts to fragment their
experiences into thematic (codable) categories-our
atternpts, in effect, to control

meaning. There was a typical sequence to

the moments of resistance: The long story
began with the decison to marry, moved
through the years of the marriage, paused
to reenact especially troubling incidents,
and ended often with the moment of separation (Riessman 1990a). If participants resisted our efforts to contain their lengthy
narratives; they were nonetheless quite
aware of the rules of conversational storytelling. After coming to the end of the long
and complex story of a marriage, a participant would sometimes say, "Uh, I'm afraid 1
got a little lost. What was the question you
asked?" With such "exit talk," the interviewer could move on to the next question.
Looking back, 1 am both embarrassed
and instructed. These incidents underscore
the gap between the standard practice of research interviewing on the one side and the
life world of naturally occurring conversa-

AUfHOR'S NOTE: 1thank Elliot Mishler, Paul Rosenblatt,Jay Gubriurn, andJirn Holstein for cornrnents on earlier
versions of this chapter. The Narrative Study Group provided valuable input for rny analysis of Gita's narrative.


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Gender, Sexuality and Marginal Positioning of the Pengkids and their Girlfriends
By Yuenmei Wong
There are also many transgendered females and women, both crossculturally and historically, whose lives do not fit within a narrow
definition of lesbianismo Due to the multiple layers of oppression in which
heteropatriachal systems have tried to silence the voices of these women,
their experiences have often been ignored or neglected.
Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa (1999:x)
This article is a result of a context-specific research on one of the non-normative female
genders and sexualities in Malaysia, the Pengkids and their girlfriends. This article
focuses on the study of non-heterosexuality and non-normative genders with an emphasis
on the socio-cultural and political processes that underpin its construction or
reproduction. Recent study of non-normative genders and sexualities, especially in
anthropology and history had introduced new interpretations
to enlighten our
understanding of the dynamics, fluidity and diversity of genders and sexualities. One of
its significant accomplishments is to prompt us to re-think or even challenge the
preconceived notions about gender and sexuality. This article aspires to deconstruct the
and "timelessness"
of the binary
heteronormativity, and to provide a more nuanced understanding of gender and sexual
diversity, and its implication on the choices ofthose who embody such gender and sexual
The idea of this research project began of my own curiosity over the visibility of the
distinctive identity of the Pengkids in Malaysian literature on lesbianismo A discussion of
this identity has been featured in Rais Nur and A. R.'s writing, Queering the State:
Towards a Lesbian Movement in Malaysia that was published by Cassell as a chapter in
the book, Amazon to Zami: Towards A Global Lesbian Feminism, edited by Monika
Reinfelder. It highlighted the masculine behaviors of the Pengkids and it identified that it
was believed that the Pengkids identity and community have been around in Malaysia
since 1970s.
Later, a subsequent general verbal inquiry into the Pengkids identity indicated that many
members of the same-sex, transgender or transsexual communities in Malaysia are indeed
quite aware of or even claimed that they are familiar with the Pengkids identity.
Interestingly, there is increasing recognition of the association of the Pengkid identity
with the Malay ethnic group in recent years, and the popularity of branding masculinelooking Malay lesbians as Pengkids is also increasingly recognized among the girls

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schools, youth groups, social workers, health care providers and police officers around
the cities in the country.
Another significant source for anecdotal accounts of the Pengkids is coming from the PT
Foundationl which is based in the Chow Kit area in Kuala Lumpur especially through its
Women on Women (WOW) prograrnme which was active in the late 90s and early new
millennium. This particular account of the Pengkids has a tendency to highlight a rather
highly marginalized group who have a visible presence in Chow Kit arei and who were
struggling with poverty, substance abuse, homelessness and unsafe sex work. It is also
because of the nature of the types of social services provided by PT Foundation that have
attracted a specific group of Pengkids to be identified and documented as a rather
ghettoised community in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur.
The objectives of the research are threefold: Firstly, this research aims to identify the
major characteristics of the Pengkids and their girlfriends in the capital city, Kuala
Lumpur by looking at the intersection of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and religion;
Secondly, this research also will examine the particular social conditioning emerging and
choices they have made in response to its challenges; Thirdly, this research would
identify the pattern of interactions between Pengkids and their girlfriends within the
particular social space of Kuala Lumpur and its embedded social meaning for this
This research adopts ethnography as its main research methodology, which combines the
research methods of participant observation and in-depth interviews to obtain primary
data for analysis. In particular, oral histories and relevant oral tradition are highly taken
into account in this research project considering the lack of written record due to the
marginal position of the Pengkids identities in Malaysian society. Their oral stories are
very peculiar in outlining a historical account of the community. A snowball sampling
and convenient sampling were used. In the initial stage of the research, PT Foundation is
the major focal point to gain access to the individuals of the community. Informed
consent was obtained through writing and a sample of fifteen participants has been
interviewed in this research project with age ranging from 22 years old to 45 years old.
Apparently, 1 presumed that distinctive labeling of Pengkids and their explicit masculinefeminine coupling patterns would have generated much interest to other people and
1 PT Foundation (previously known as Pink Triangle Sdn Bhd) is a community-based,
voluntary non-profit
making organization providing HIV/AIDS education, prevention, care and support programmes, sexuality
awareness and empowerment programmes for vulnerable communities in Malaysia. The 5 communities
are- drug users, sex workers, transsexuals, MSM, or homosexual men, and people living with HIV/AIDS.
(See http://www .ptfmalays ia.orgl)
2 It is reported that Chow Kit Road gets it name from a tin miner (Chinese) ofthe 1890s, Loke Chow Kit.
The area of the 100 metre road includes Haji Taib Lane, named after ofthe richest (Malays), Haji
Mohamed Taib at that time. Chow Kit, in its glory days, was a popular shopping area, immortalised by the
singer Sudirman who sang his famous to Chow Kit Road before a huge crowd in the middle ofthe bustling
area in 1986. But Chow Kit Road f1anked by Tuanku abdul Rahman Road, Raja Laut Road, Raja Alang
Road, and Raja Bot Road had fallen on hard times, and is now better known as a red light district and haven
for drug pushers and addicts (See "Faded Glory ofOld Shopping Area", in New Straits Times, Wednesday,
December 31, 2008)

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attracted considerable attention and speculation. I was also interested to find out whether
religion and ethnicity would be deterrnining factors that rendered the Pengkids being
stigmatized and despised as deviants and social outcasts in a Muslim country, Malaysia
whereby same-sex sexuality is highly politicized and moralized in the pretext of Islam.
The interview process began with the self-identified Pengkids associated with PT
Foundation in Chow Kit area and the emphasis of this research weighed more on the
contextual understanding of this specific identity-oriented group. It has to be noted that
even though on one hand Chow Kit area has been made some sort of a signpost for
marginal communities such as sex workers, drug users, undocumented migrants including
the Pengkids, the inherent bias in selecting this particular group of Pengkids might be
restricting if not limiting at times.
Transgender Practices and the Ambiguous Pengkids Identity
In general, the meaning of the term Peng/ad was largely determined by when, where,
who and how the people have encountered its usage and implicit meanings in a specific
social-historical context. It was agreed that the terrn is generally assigned to and acquired
by women who are masculine in appearance and erotically attracted to women. A more
specific identification by the Pengkids themselves would reveal that the sexual preference
of breast binding and dislike to be touched intimately by their partners as a major criteria
for determining a Pengkid identity. Nonetheless, due to the popularity of the masculine
look of the Pengkid identity, many women who love women in the cornmunity also
randomly conflated it with the identity oftomboy, butch, or any masculine look lesbians.
Analytically, I find Michael G. Peletz's
helpful, which
conceptualization of the prefix "trans-":

builds on Aihwa Ong' s (1999:4)

I take my reading of the prefix "trans-" from Aihwa Ong (1999:4), who
has written, "Trans denotes both moving through space or across lines, as
well as changing the nature of something" (as in "transformation" or
"transfiguration") or going beyond it (as in "transcen"), be it a bounded
entity or process or a relationship between two or more phenomena. Ong
goes on to say that the prefix "trans-" also alludes to the transactional and
transgressive aspects of "behavior and imagination that are incited,
enabled, and regulated" by the logics of culture and political economy.
Concerning "transgender", Pengkid is apparently included in a broader category of
"transgendered" people in Joanne Meyerowitz's (2002:10 in Michael G. Peletz,
2006:311) definition:
In the popular lingo used today ... "transgendered" people ... [is] an
umbrella term used for those with various forms and degrees of
crossgender practices and identifications. "Transgendered"
among others, some people who identify as "butch" or masculine lesbians,

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as "fairies," "queen," or feminine gay men, and as heterosexual

crossdressers as well as those who identify as transsexual. The categories
are not hermetically sealed, and to a certain extent the boundaries are
The oral accounts collected among the senior Pengkids (around 40 years old of age) in
this study showed that the PengKlds identity was already visible in the capital city, Kuala
Lumpur since the beginning of early 1980s. Such identity was widely recognized
specifically in the English-curriculum Girl Schools and entertainment venues. It was then
called the "Punk Kids". It was at the time in which the British Pop Culture was embraced
internationally and permeated the major cities in Malaysia largely through the music
industry. Seemingly, the term was then derived from its association with the young
people who were visible at the entertainment venues especially the "tea dance" culture.
Interestingly, the gendered term Pengkid did not stay on with young boys who embraced
the pop culture since 1980s for long but has been re-appropriated by masculine looking
same-sex women as a distinctive identity that prescribe its implicit meanings of her
gender identification and sexual preference. Probably, the punk culture was fairly
androgenous in its fashion and presentation and thus provided an alternative cultural
setting for the young women to explore their self-image and same-sex desires that would
transgress the stereotypical or normative identity of a (feminine) heterosexual woman.
The visibility of the Punk Kids in the capital city in turn attracted other same-sex women
in the region who migrated to Kuala Lumpur believing that they will be more accepted
At the same time, the Pengkid identity was also visible among the emerging young
working class in various entertainment industry in Kuala Lumpur that are more tolerant
of alternative representation of the self and body. These were also the places that would
provide job opportunity to young people without high qualifications. Most ofthe Pengkid
within this particular category has an inclination to have their girffriends working as the
Guest Relation Officers (GROs). Many Pengkids involved in the entertainment industry
have a tendency to be involved in drug use and are frequently jobless and financially
dependent of their girlfriends. Some Pengkids claimed that their girlfriends were
apparently attracted to both women and men whereby they were attracted to the
masculine physical look and behaviours of the Pengkids while being appreciative of the
gentleness of them. One of the Pengkids, M [Malays Malaysian] interviewed in this
research said,
We like to smoke, hang out. Many Pengkids work in the lounge or clubs.
Many of them were jobless but they were gentle or soft (lembut).
Sometimes when they work, they will meet some good women and then
they stop working and the women provide for her. So the Pengkids will
stay at home and take care of her gir/friend like doing house chores, for
example sweeping the floor, cooking, some are very good. Even though
they are rough (kasar) and looked like Pengkids, but they are gentle so the
women don't care (not bothered by her ambiguous gender identity

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[PenghaD. Pengkids can sew, cook and take care of their girlfriend's
heart, no fights. (Translation)

It is believed that when the term Punk Kids eventually evolved to be come a local term
'Pengkids' with the influence of our Malay language, many people started to presume
that Pengkid is also a ethnic identity oriented termo Intriguingly, the Pengkids interviewed
in this study testified that this identity was also widely recognized and adopted by the
masculine same-sex women with a particular sexual preference among the Chinese and
Indian individual in the more mixed cultural settings in the 1980s.
Apparently, Pengkid identity is more visible among girls and young women ofthe Malay
ethnic group, nonetheless it is not an ethnic -based or race-based identity which is limited
to the Malay ethnic group, but rather a sociological or class-oriented one. Several
interviews in my research have indeed confirmed that there are Pengkids coming from
different ethnic backgrounds, and this is especially evident among the Pengkid
cornmunities in the late 70s and early 80s. In addition to that, the adoption of the Penglad
identity in a multi-racial social setting is also more significant among the women inmates
in the prison. Such scenarios are clearly illustrated by two specific cases gathered in my
Case MT (pseudo name [Malays Malaysian]): MT identified herself as a
Pengkid since she was in the secondary girl school in Kuala Lumpur. MT
learnt about the term "Pengkid" in Kuala Lumpur about 25 years ago, the
term was used to refer to girls or young women who dressed up like boys
and hang out in groups in the city, including Malay, Chinese and Indian.
Even though according to her there was only a very small number of
Indian Penglads visible in the capital city.
Case J (girlfriend, [Chinese Malaysian] of a Pengkid): J carne to know
about the existence of Penglads since year 2000 in the women's prison.
Before that, J has heard about 'same-sex love' or 'same-sex sexuality'
('tongxinluan' in Cantonese) but she didn't know what it's like and how
they behave. She only saw it (the Pengkids and girlfriends phenomena)
when she entered the women's prison. She was detained in the prison for
five and half years with a charge for eight-year jail sentence. J testified
that "There are Indian, Chinese and Malay Pengkids (in the women's

The Discourse of "Love" as a Metaphor for Transgression

In this article, 1 use the term "transgression"
conception of "transgress":

with reference to Chris Jenks's (2003:2)

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To transgress is to go beyond the bounds or limits set by a commandment

or law or convention, it is to violate or infringe. But to transgress is also
more than this, it is to announce and even laudate the commander, the law
or the convention. Transgression is a deeply reflexive act of denial and
Analytically, the relationship of Pengkids and their gir/friends are useful in
helping us to look at the dynamic and fluidity of the prevailing binary sex/gender
and heteronormativity in Malaysian society. As pointed out by Chris Jenks's
An analysis of the concept 'transgression' will take us along a series of
continua, both vertical and horizontal, ... It is critical to realize that these
continua can be understood and acted in relation to as if they were
absolute, as if they were indices of stratification, and as if they were
dichotomies .... Such paradoxes contribute further to the complexity of the
idea. Although always appearing to make reference to clear-cut
distinctions transgressions are manifestly situation-specific and vary
considerably across social space and through time.
My research of the Pengkids and their gir/friends share some similarities with Malu
Marin's (1996) study of the pars and mars in the Philippines, and Megan 1. Sinnott's
(2004) study ofthe Toms and Dees in Thailand, especially in areas ofthe gender dynamic
in intimate relationships. In my interview with the Pengkids and their gir/friends, they
have used the binary cultural categories of "man" and "woman" to describe the
characteristics of Pengkids and to differentiate Pengkids from women and lesbians.
Although the binary sex/gender system plays out in these relationships, deploying the
normative notion of femininity and masculinity, reproducing certain heterosexual
practices in intimacy, nonetheless such dynamic may not necessarily reproduces
patriarchal norms.
In Megan 1. Sinnott's (2004:140) study ofthe Toms and Dees in Thailand, she found that
the masculine identity of tom is not simply an imitation of the heterosexual norm; it is
rather a social construct in response to the normative notion of masculinity which is
constantly being appropriated and negotiated by tom herself, his partner dee and by other
toms and dees in the community. Even though "gender role playing" in female same-sex
relationships have often been a point of critique by feminists, I am inclined to agree with
Megan 1. Snott that the masculine- feminine coupling pattern among women who love
women may not necessarily be repressive. For example in the case of toms and dees in
Thailand, Megan J. Snott suggests that,
Both repressive and liberating aspects of tom and dee identity are possible,
and toms and dees participate in contentious debates among themselves
over their identities and community rules. The meanings of their gendered
identities may indeed be imbued with repressive norms, but these norms

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are not simple appropriations of dominant gender hegemonic

contradictory and novel ways." (2004: 134-135)
Toms and Dees did not directly
found space within the social
and dimensions of masculinity
practices were partial and were
hegemonic order. (2004: 161)

codes In

challenge social restrictions on women but

norms to express sexuality, assertiveness,
that were liberating. These transgressive
largely structured by their own alternative

Predominantly, the discourse of "love" has become a metaphor for sexual transgression
for the gir{friends interviewed in this research. It is clearly demonstrated in my interview
with J (pseudo name [Chinese Malaysian]), a girlfriend of Pengkid about her
transgression from a heterosexual woman to having an intimate relationship with
1 like her (Ah Nik, pseudo name [Malays Malaysian]) because
along well. 1 have had one boyfriend before. This is my
relationship and it's with a Pengkid (Ah Nik). 1 do not easily
someone, when 1 like/love someone 1 will give my whole heart

we get
fall for
to her.

Many girlfriends who are interviewed in this research claimed that they were not aware
of their same-sex sexual desires before they engaged in a love relationship with Pengkid.
Some of them do not perceive the change of the erotic subject in their intimate
relationship as an indication of a change of their sexual orientation, although some
girlfriends do acknowledge themselves as bisexual after experiencing a same-sex sexual
relationship with Pengkid.
Although Malaysian women of same-sex sexuality often self-identified or are identified
with identity-based labeling including gay, lesbian, women-who-love-wornen; Pengkid
stands out as a distinctive cultural category for masculine women who are erotically
attracted to women and in sexual aspects, commit to breast binding and untouchability in
sexo For example, J who has been interviewed in this research could associate herself
with the lesbian identity although she does not normally address herself as a lesbian, after
she has experienced a romantic and sexual relationship with Pengkid. Nonetheless, she
insisted that there is a clear distinction between the lesbian identity and the Pengkid.
Case J (pseudo name [Chinese Malaysian]): J has a rather intriguing if not
confused understanding of the lesbian identity, and she differentiates
Pengkid from lesbian. To her understanding, Pengkids and lesbians are
different. Lesbians are women who can have sex with women and men.
But Pengkids only like women and act, behave, think like men. Pengkids
are women who want to be "man" in their hearts and behaviors. Penglcids
are aware of their sexual desires for women when they were very young
(childhood), since small they do not like 'female toys', only like to wear
pants and shirts (not skirts or dress), they frequent Men's Wear session for

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c1othes. Pengldd identity is based upon the physical build of a woman broader shoulders, short hair cut, flat chest and penetration (sexual
preference) Also, in her opinion, Pengkids are like the men who like to
save face (''jaga'' face) as they like to win.
In one particular case, the girlfriend of a perceived-Pengkid justified her acceptance of
most of the masculine behaviours of her partner because of her appreciation of the love
that the Pengkid had for her:
Case Su (pseudo narne [Indian Malaysian]): This is the first relationship
Su (wife in this case) has ever had with a woman. She appreciates M's
(perceived Pengkid) love (sayang) for her. M will 'scold' (marah) her
when she did wrong. She said that (behavior) does not bother her because
she thought that man (refer to her former husband) also will scold her
when she did wrong (kind of used to it). M will pick her up every night
(from work). They have satisfactory communication and sex (tidur pun
baik juga). In return, she will take M to the doctor when she is sick. She
likes that they are sharing everything together, even coming to the office
(PT Foundation) to work together, Su is happy about it. Su revealed that
M would demand anything from her like a man or a husband in the
relationship, such as in sex (tidur). Su said: "Even when she (M) carne
home late and wanted to play, 1 willlet her, anything she likes, (because)
she works hard. For exarnple, she is taking up ajob here.
Untouchability as the Marker of Female Masculinity
In Malu Marin's research of the pars and mars in the Philippines, she finds that gender
dynamic of masculine- feminine coupling among female sarne-sex relationships are
derived from heterosexist pattern, especially in the sexual aspect of the intimate
relationships. Malu Marin (Malu Marin in Megan J. Snott, 2004: 133) points out that,
The pars play out the male (dominant) role more pronouncedly in the sex
act, priding themselves as the "doers" or "givers" in sexual intimacy. This
means that they alone are responsible for the sexual pleasure experienced
by the mars, and therein lies the power, that they can be as equipped as
"real" men in making love to women. One of the most sacred tenets of this
dynarnic is that pars do not allow themselves even to be touched by their
partner. To allow this would mean becoming "women" themselves, and as
"women" they would be stripped of their power over the mars in the
relationship. The par provides awe while posturing as aman, with male
privilege and power extended to her as part ofthe illusion.
Similarly, in Megan J. Sinott's research of toms and dees in Thailand, "untouchability" in
the sex act constitutes the core of masculine identification among toms, and often
reinforced by the peer pressure of the loms community and the expectations of their
feminine partners. Among her findings is that,

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Toms and dees have constructed an alternative hegemonic structure within

its codeso Ting, a tom, described how good it felt to be masculine and to be
the pursuer in sexual relationships rather than the passive recipient of a
man's attention, as is expected of Thai women. The trade-off for gaining
sexual agency as /oms, explained Ting, is that toms are expected to adhere
strictly to the ideas of toms' untourchability. To break away from rigid
feminine social roles and be the one who pursues is a good feeling, said
Ting, but the role you must playas a tom has its own rules.
Interestingly, in my research ofthe Pengkids and their girlfriends, "untouchability" in sex
act and breast binding are also the distinctive criteria of a Pengkid identification as the
marker of their female masculinity. Nonetheless, apparently, there are more layers of
meaning being assigned to the practice of "untouchability" in sex act and breast binding.
Even among people who are aware of the existence of Pengkids cornmunity and identity,
the generally upheld belief is that most of the Pengkids would think of themselves as
women who are trapped in a man's body', and therefore they are inclined to deny their
physiological female sexual identities, especially their breast and genitals. While this
phenomenon might be relevant to the young Pengkids, many senior Penglads have
somehow grown out of it over the course of their life. Especially after going through
various experiences in their different stages of life, they may change their self-perception
about their gender identification and sexual desires. For example, in my interview with J,
she discloses how desires and pleasures in her intimate contact with a Pengkid (her
partner) had led to a transgression ofthe Pengkid's masculine sexual identity.
Ah Nik (Pengkid) is like aman. 1 treated her as aman, not a woman
because she exactly like aman, her look, her body, her feelings, her
behaviors, just that she has a vagina. For Pengkids, you cannot touch her;
only she can 'play' yOU. But when you are (living) together as husband
and wife, she love (saying/trust) you, she will let you touch her. They
won't allow you to touch her when she first met you, it was merely
playing, unless they really love you, then only they will allow you to touch
her. Pengkids' feelings are different (from us, women). They only trust
you after they have known you for a long time. (Translation)
Correspondingly, while breast binding remained as a marker of gender transgression, it is
not necessarily derived from a heterosexist perspective. Some Pengkids find a more
liberating space in the practice in which allowing them to acquire a bodily experience that
transgress the physiological limits of a female body. One of the quotes of a Pengkid, MT
(pseudo name, [Malays Malaysian]) clearly explained the liberating aspect of breast
1 like to wrap myself up (breast binding) because 1 felt more comfortable
with that, especially when 1 involved in sport activities in which the
There is a brief illustration ofthe 'hard-cord' Pengkids featured in the chapter written by Rais Nur and A.
R. (1996), which is not discussed in this article.

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binding reduces the movement of my breasts. I also experienced a higher

level of self-confidence when I bind my breasts. I like my appearance as
flat-chested and look tough like aman.
In Judith Halberstam's (1998:9) book on Female Masculinity, she produces different
gender taxonomies that built upon multiple forms of female masculinity drawing from
various material s ranging from diaries, courts cases, novel s, letters, films, performances,
events, critical essays, videos, news items, and testimonies. In particular, she points out
Within lesbian context, female masculinity has been situated as the place
where patriarchy goes to work on the female psyche and reproduces
misogyny within femaleness. There have been to date remarkably few
studies or theories about the inevitable effects of a fully articulated female
masculinity on a seemingly fortified male masculinity. Sometimes female
masculinity coincides with the excesses of male supremacy and some times
it codifies a unique form of social rebellion; often female masculinity is
the sign of sexual alterity, but occasionally it marks heterosexual
variations; sometimes female masculinity marks the place of pathology,
and every now and then it represents the healthful alternative to what are
considered the histrionics of conventional femininities.

Moral Policing, the State and Islam

I began researching on the Pengkids in mid-February of2008 in the wake ofthe political
tsunami in Malaysia. On March 8, the opposition parties took over five out of thirteen
states in the 1ih General Election. This research was conducted during a time whereby
new political elites were assigned or appointed to various local authorities. However, the
capital city, Federal Territory ofKuala Lumpur is still controlled by the old regime under
the governance of the federal government. During the course of the interviews in midJune 2008, in the capital city, a "Clean Operation" (Operasi Kemas, Bersih dan lndah)
was being carried out by the Security and Enforcement Department of the Kuala Lumpur
City Hall in cooperation with the police in targeting various red light districts in the city
According to the social workers at PT Foundation, sexually marginalized groups
inc1uding sex workers, transsexuals, gay men and Pengkids coming from underprivileged background s, have been threatened by similar raids in the past and present,
especially those who are involved in sex work and drugs. In December, when the Federal
Territories Minister together with the Kuala Lumpur City Hall launched a "Focused
Action Prograrnme" (Program Gerak Tumpuan)" under the budget of the Ninth Malaysia
The programme, under the N inth Malaysia Plan, will cost a total of RM8.6 million. In the first phase,
completed in April at a cost of RM14 million, Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman was turned into a one-way
street. Tenders are being called for the second phase, to improve Jalan Raja Abdullah up to Jalan Tun
Razak at the cost of RM40 mili ion

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sponsored by RocKijeller Fozll1daliol1


Plan that aims to end the association of drugs, prostitution and "other vices" with Chow
Kit Road;' both the Malaysian Aids Council (MAC) and PT Foundation had voiced their
concems over the negative impact of such measure on the sexually marginalized
communities and their outreach work on HIV prevention."
Although most of these operations were justified by the City Hall with their good
intention in helping to ensure a c1ean metropolitan capital and to improve on tourism,
police raids always subject sexually marginalized people to vulnerable position in which
violation of the Penal Code can be used against them. The moralistic tone of these
campaigns inevitably reinforces the 'disgraceful'
position of the marginalized
communities in the country; its "sanitization" agenda justifies the need for an eradication
of the representation of sexually marginalized communities and identities in our social
space. As observed by Michael G. Peletz's (2006:323),
institutionalize policies of heterosexism and homophobia and the cultural
sensibilities associated with them has had the effect of disciplining all
individual s involved in transgendering, inc1uding those who do not
necessarily engage in "deviant sexual practices" but are nonetheless tarred
as "gay" or "lesbian."
Since the beginning of the decade of nineties, non-conforming sexualities have largely
being criminalized in the Syariah laws in Malaysia, the legislation of the Syariah
Criminal Offences Enactments/ Acts in various states in Malaysia c1early set off to
discipline and punish same-sex sexualities, namely liwat (sodomy) and musahaqah
(lesbian sex) in Arabic language." Michael G. Peletz ((2002:257-258) argues that
stigmatization and criminalization of transgender practices are part of state' s strategies in
creating and reinscripting an essentialized "Orient" identity bearing on the discourse on
Asian values. He further contends that they are also "key features of the contemporary
strategies aimed at legitimizing and erasing the profoundly dislocating sociocultural
transformations effected by state projects of modemity in conjunction with the boorn-bust
cyc1es of global capitalism to which the state projects in question are ambivalently wed."
Nonetheless, criminalization of transgender practices and sarne-sex sexualities in the
country does not necessarily lead to direct oppression experienced by the Pengkids. Even
though the notorious case in which in December 1996, a Malay Muslim woman, Azizah
Abdul Rahman in the state of Kelantan was prosecuted (under secular laws) for
impersonating a man (in order to marry another Muslim woman)," and the controversial
See "Cleaning Up The Image of Chow Kit", in New Straits Times, Monday, December 1,2008.
See "NGOs Fear City's Plans Will Affect Sex Workers", in New Straits Times, December 30, 2008.
7 The contention is that these state enactments/acts
are in conflict with the Federal Constitution and in
conflict or overlap with the Penal Code and other federallaws (See Shad Saleem Faruqi (2005) Jurisdiction
of State Authorities To Punish Offences Against The Precepts Of Islam: A Constitutional Perspective.
Unpublished research report commissioned by Sisters In Islam (SIS).)
8 See Tan Beng Hui (1999) Women's Sexuality and the Discourse on Asian Values: Cross-Dressing
Malaysia, in Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa (ed), Female Desires: Same-Sex Relations and
Transgender Practices Across Cultures, New Yrok: Columbia University Press.

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case later attracted a nationwide media coverage whereby Azizah was described as a
'tomboy' in the news, the term "Pengkid" was never mentioned or coined in that
particular episode.
Debates on Fatwa against Tomboys: Producing a Subversive Subject
In the course of my fieldwork, on October 24, 2008, the National Fatwa Council issued a
fatwa ruling against Tomboys in the precept of Islam. Immediately, resistance from the
civil society and individual Muslim women were featured in both the print and electronic
media. But at the same time, many supportive votes were present in the local newspapers.
For example, a few letters to the editor appeared in the English daily, New Straits Times,
c1aiming that nowadays the fluid gender identity of males and females, namely
effeminate men and masculine women has become a serious 'social problem' in our
society in which they are prone to have same-sex desires or engage in 'homosexual
activities'. They argued that such behaviours are against religious tenets and would pose
a threat to the institution ofmarriage (heterosexual) and family." Such arguments not only
reinforce the essentialist binary conception of sex and gender, but also instill the
moralistic perspective to condemn such non-conforming gender identities and sexualities
within the tradition of religion.l''
At the initial stage ofthe controversy, while the term 'tomboy' was being used widely in
the English dailies pertaining to the discussion of the fatwa, one of the local Malay
language dailies has systematically used the term 'Pengkids' in their media coverage!'.
On November 9,2008, Sunday, Pengkidhas be come the headline ofthe front page ofthe
Metro Malay newspaper followed by two full-page coverage of the fatwa against
tomboys and the responses of self-identified Pengkids to such fatwa rulings. Both Malay
and English media had carried out interviews with the religious authorities. Eventually,
the Islamic religious authorities picked up the term to refer to the non-conforming
Muslims "tomboys" that the fatwa rulings were directed at, especially in an interview
with the New Sunday Times one month after the release of the fatwal2. The Malaysian
Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) director-general Datuk Wan Mohamad
Sheikh Abd Aziz spoke to New Straits Times on a Sunday Interview about his
understanding of the Pengkid identity and their practice of lesbianismo The interviewed
was titled: Fatwa on 'Pengkid' to prevent lesbianism.13

The authors further proposed that penalty and counseling perhaps are the better approach to tackle the root
causes of these 'social ills'. These suggestions implied that they are thinking about having reorientatation
programme to change the gender-based behaviours and sexual practices ofthe Tomboys and Pengkids. (See
Hamdan Ibrahim "Look Hard At The Root Causes In Tomboy lssue", Letter to the Editor, New Straits
Times, Tuesday, October 28, 2008 and Tam Yong Yuee, "Treat Tomboys With Cornpassion", Letter to the
Editor, New Straits Times, Thursday, October 30, 2008.)
10 See Nurul Hijja Mazian,
"A Clear Definition ofWhat A Tomboy Is", Letter to the Editor, The Star,
Thursday, October 30, 2008.
11 See "Ancarn Institusi Keluarga, Masyarakat
Sosial.", Metro Ahad, November 9, 2008, p.ll.
12 See the Sunday Interview, "It's To Prevent Lesbianism", New Sunday Times, November 23,2008,
p. 6.
13 See Aniza Damis, Sunday Interview: Fatwa on 'Pengkid' to Prevent Lesbianism, New Sunday Times,
November 23, 2008.

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It is a lttle surprising that during this time, at the height of the debates on the fatwa
rulings against tomboys, a few Pengkids were not deterred by the new regulation and
agreed to be interviewed by the Malay Mail. The headline on the front page says,
Pengkid(s) Challenge Fatwa: Continue to Practice Activities (Pengkid Cabar Fatwa:
Terus Ama/kan Aktiviti Songsang), a caption accompanied the colour picture of a Pengkid
couple also states that,
"Even though there is a fatwa and for whatever action taken, it does not
change anything. Maybe we will change the way we wear, but our desires
remain the same." A Pengkid named Asni said, challenges the fatwa
issued by the National Fatwa Council recently. (Translation)
Seemingly, the rebellious upwardly mobile younger Pengkids nowadays are more
empowered to affirm their sexuality and to reclaim the term "Pengkid", as lesbians did
with "dykes" in the west, although they are aware that current political climate in
Malaysia is not in favor of their sexual practices. In this special coverage, the Malay
language newspaper focuses on the love lives of the Pengkids, the reactions of the
Pengkids towards the new fatwa rulings and the Fatwa authorities' definition and
perspective of the Pengkids. In spite of the poltical nature of such rulings to criminalize
transgender practices and same-sex desires among Muslims women, the Pengkids (Malay
Muslms) interviewed by the press at that time appeared to be rather indifferent to such
regulation. They openly declared that their transgender practices and same-sex desires
are ingrained in their hearts and souls even though they are aware that they are acting on
their desires, which is against the existing societal norms and religious regulations.
However, this is the true feelings and desires of mine. I accept the reality
(who I am), I am still a woman although my appearance looks like aman.
Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to accept men in myself. My feelings
are only for women. This is hard to explain." (Translation)
Nonetheless, at the cultural level, Peng/ads are still confronted by the heterosexist social
conditioning particularly compelling them to assert themselves against the societal norms
and family expectations of marriage. One of the Pengkids interviewed did say that she is
constrained by the institution of (heterosexual) marriage, especially when her mother
pressured her. The quote below is her original words extracted from the interview in the
press report,
Many people do not understand uso Since young until now, I do not have
any desires for men, and my parents are not bothered that I wear like a
mano I know that I can not be like this forever. One day I may change. If it
is destined that my mum will request me to marry with aman, I will force
myselfto get married':'. (Translation)

14 See Fuad Hadinata Yaacob and Shamran Sarahan, "Terus Tinggal Bersama: Walaupun Fatwa
Dikeluarkan Mengharam Pengkid", Metro Ahad, November 9, 2008, p. 10.
15 Ibid., p. 10.

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Certainly, Pengkid is a new Malaysian cultural category that is now being brought into
the official political domain. In general, even though Peng/dd identity is affectionately
adopted for the masculine-looking younger women of same-sex desires, it is being
suspected as a term intended as a more derogatory labeling by the people around them,
especially in the formative years of such identity in the late seventies. Apparently, with
the new fatwa ruling on tomboys, sensitivity of the public especially among Muslims
inevitably increased on transgender practices and same-sex desires of the Pengkids. In the
press report, a few Pengkids testified that people around them have directed more
negative altitudes and stigmatized perceptions towards them since the fatwa rulings
against tomboys was publicized in the media. At times, the Pengkids were treated with
scorn and ridicule by their colleagues at work as indicated in the quote below:
At the beginning, my family was not bothered, (but) now (they are)
prejudiced against and confused with my appearance like this (cross
dressing or transgender practice). They are ashamed and do not want to
accept me if I am not willing to change. Same with my colleagues in the
office, sometimes I cannot bear being scorned and ridiculed because of
this appearance of mine. Everyone around me looks down on me.
However, It is hard to change because my desires hinder me (from
Whereas in the English daily, some (heterosexual) women voiced their strong
disagreement over the conflation of gender performance and sexual orientation created by
the proponents and supporters of the fatwa rulings against tomboys. In particular, some
female Malaysians spoke to the press about their own experiences in changing their own
gender identities in the past, and to reiterate the fact that non-conforming gender
performance would not necessarily necessitate same-sex sexual desires or relationships.
A testimonial story featured in a local English daily clearly illustrated the distinction
between gender performance and sexual orientation of a (heterosexual) woman.
As a child I was considered a tomboy and enjoyed many of the activities
that were considered the preserve of boys. Then, as a teenager, I ended up
as the only female in my university course. Later on, my job was in a
male-dominated environment, where overalls, hard hats and safety boots
were the norm. No, I didn't end up being a lesbian. Far from it, I love my
high heels, my dresses and the attention of opposite sexo I am happily
married to aman and have two children. Some girls go through this phase
in their growing-up years. Not all tomboys end up being lesbians. 17
Apart from the objection to the conflation of gender performance and sexual orientation
created by the fatwa rulings against tomboys, some Malaysian women also questioned
the violation of their freedom to dressing and gender-based behaviours mooted by such
rulings. They argued that the traditional expectations of 'feminine dressing' indeed could
Ibid., p. 10.
See Mariam Mokhtar, "A Yoga Ruling Is Quite Unnecessary",
Thursday.Novernber 6,2008.


Letter to the Editor, New Straits Times,

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be constraining to the movement of women in their social environment. Given the social
reality that women have already taken up an active role at work and in their social lives,
the stereotypical gender-based dress code has a loose grasp to the needs of the women
nowadays. The respondents in the news reports further argued that women chose to dress
up in a way that is convenient, safe and comfortable, such choice of so-called "nonfeminine" dressing indeed has no connection to one' s sexual desires or orientation."
This artic1e does not pretend to be a comprehensive history or anthropological research
on Pengkids and their girlfriends, although it provides a historical overview of such.
While it is believed that Pengkid identity has been around in Malaysia especially in the
capital city, Kuala Lumpur for more than three decades starting from late nineteen
seventies, certainly this subject matter deserves a lager scale of study that would map out
more details of the diversity and complexity of its existence and development. This
artic1e only provides glimpses of some significant characteristics of the Pengkids and
their girlfriends especially in relation to the topics of female masculinity, same-sex
desires, c1ass-oriented social backgrounds and the increasing challenges faced by them in
the wake of political Islamization and moral policing in the country.
Apparently, urbanization and industrialization processes during the modernization period
of Malaysia have contributed in providing more social spaces for girls and young women
to partake social activities in public, and more work opportunity for them to take on in
the cities. Such social cultural settings in the cities are rather conducive for the emerging
Pengkids identity and community in the last decades. Apart from the enabling
environment, the increasing mobility of girls and young women during the era of
modemization also motivates and facilitates the movement or migration of women of
same-sex desires from the nearby rural areas or other cities to the capital city, Kuala
This finding corresponds with Michael G. Peletz's study of (male)
transgenderism in modem Malaysia'" in which he posits that New Economy Policy ofthe
1970 has indirectly facilitates the large scale movement of young people in Malaysia
especially ofthe Malay ethnic group, inc1uding the (male) transgender.
In general, the adoption of the Pengkid identity allows many girls and young women
enjoy the freedom and a social space to transgress the prevailing normative (feminine)
gender expectations that were likely to be imposed onto their female sex and body.
Nonetheless, the fixity conferred by Pengkid identity at times also traps girls and women
into another gendered identity with all the underlying presumptions and social
expectations. Some of the Pengkids eventually have to term with the limitations of such
identity, especially after they have acquired more life experience and have ventured into

18 See Tan Choe Choe, "Sexuality Has Little To Do With Dressing", News Report, New Sunday Times,
November 23,2008 and Terence Fernandez, "A Little More Consultation, Please.", Feature Article, The
Sun daily, November 25, 2008.
19 Michael G. Peletz's (2002) highlights the importance ofNew Economic Policy in facilitating and
contributing to the increasing mobility ofthe male-to-female transvestites, transsexuals or transgenders of
the Malay ethnic group in Malaysia.

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deeper exploration of their "self', needs, desires and pleasures in the course of their lives.
Therefore, although as an identity, Pengkid still denotes a specific set of female
masculinity among women of same-sex desires, the boundaries embedded in such ideal
could be transgressed in the lived experience of the Pengkids, and such transgression in
turn rendered the definition of the Pengkid identity rather prescriptive and not absolute or
This artic1e refuses the cnticism of female masculinity long associated with the
masculine- feminine coupling pattern in female same-sex relationships and instead seizes
on the opportunity to recognize and ratify differently gendered bodies and subjectivities.
Drawing from the oral accounts, narratives and lived experiences of the Pengkids and
their girlfriends, this artic1e argues for the recognition of alternative perspective on
transgender practices and women' s same-sex desires that attempt to intervene in the
dominant discourse of lesbianism among Malaysian girls and women. 1 am inc1ined to
agree with Judith Halberstam (1998:2) that "a sustained examination of female
masculinity can make crucial interventions within gender studies, cultural studies, queer
studies, and mainstream discussions of gender in general." The empirical data on the
Pengkids and their girlfriends presented in this artic1e might in a way enhanced our
understanding of the variable ways in which female masculinity is structured, embodied,
and experienced.

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