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Malaysia, where gay sex is illegal, used to be home to a community of gender non-conforming shamans

Lily Wakefield January 17, 2020
Malaysia gender non-conforming shamans

A group of Iban people. (Wellcome Collection)

Malaysia is known as having harsh and archaic laws that repress LGBT+ people, but an expert is shedding light on the fact that the country used to be home to a community of gender non-conforming shamans.

Homosexuality is doubly illegal in Malaysia as it is banned by the country’s secular, colonial-era legal code, as well as its special Islamic courts.

Punishment includes fines, corporal punishment and up to 20 years in prison. In November, five men were fined, jailed and caned for “attempting” to have gay sex. 

LGBT+ people have no legal protections against discrimination in the predominantly Islamic country, and the government currently runs a gay ‘rehabilitation programme’ and last year claimed it had ‘cured’ 1,450 people of homosexuality.

But Joseph Goh, a gender studies lecturer and researcher at Monash University Malaysia with a PhD in gender, sexuality and theology, wrote a piece for the Malaysian site Queer Lapis revealing the country’s “non-cisnormative and non-heteronormative past”.

The manang bali, a group of gender non-conforming shamans from the indigenous Iban tribe, lived in Malaysian Borneo for hundreds of years before the British colonised the area in the 1800s, bringing Christianity with them.

A manang, a shaman or traditional healer, was responsible for ritual healing. There were many types of manang, and Goh said that the gender non-conforming manang bali were a “minority group of shamans”.

They are also referred to as “‘transformed shamans”, and Goh said: “While there were female-bodied manang bali who lived as men, the majority were biological males who lived as women.”

Some researchers say that they identified with “no gender and both genders at the same time”, and Goh believes that “the gender and sexual transitions that occurred were integral to the initiation process of the shaman.”

Because of their transformation, “the manang bali occupied the highest ranks of shamanhood”.

Goh wrote: “Gender non-conformity may not be the norm for early Iban communities.

“Nevertheless, they were accepting and appreciative of the manang bali because they realised that the transformed shamans were an integral part of their communities who had many gifts and talents to offer.”

He said that the part of Malaysian history is often overlooked, and added: “The reality that the manang bali existed, and were once lauded for their spiritual roles, challenges and disrupts today’s state-sanctioned transphobic and homophobic rhetoric.”

More: Borneo, gender non-conforming, History, Iban people, Malaysia, manang bali, shamans

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