KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 20 ― About a year ago, Rania Zara signed up for a programme that would eventually lead her and 17 others on a life-changing journey.
They underwent training on topics such as legal rights, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and HIV/AIDS.
That year-long journey culminated last Sunday when Rania was chosen as Ikon TW.
Ikon TW, organised by Pertubuhan Kebajikan Sinar Pelangi (PKSP) and supported by the Malaysian AIDS Council, is a platform to create awareness among younger transwomen on pertinent subjects that affect them.
It is also designed to create the next echelon of transwomen to be part of advocacy and educational programmes.
And Rania, armed with her fluency in seven languages, is determined to help in being the voice of her community.
“This is not a beauty contest. It is a programme for my community and I love joining any programme that concerns us,” said the 25-year-old, who speaks English, Malay, Cantonese, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi and Spanish.
“It is great to have won the title although it is symbolic. There are 18 of us and we had the same journey. In the end, it is up to the judges to choose.”
Rania said it was a two-year programme — a year of training and a full year after to be involved in various programmes.
She will do this together with first runner-up Nik Rahamah and second runner-up Fazelyn Jaafar.
Rania added prior to joining the programme, she had volunteered for programmes run by non-governmental organisations such as PKSP, myISEAN and Seed Foundation.
Ikon TW, she said armed her with knowledge to defend herself and the community.
The transgender community is often marginalised in Malaysia, leaving them disadvantaged and at a higher risk of being infected with HIV/AIDS.
The Health Ministry’s National Strategic Plan for Ending AIDS 2016-2030 estimates there are about 24,000 transgender sex workers. Although HIV infections are not reflected in the surveillance system, studies in 2012 and 2014 indicate prevalence is on the rise from 4.8 per cent (2012) to 5.6 per cent (2014).
Rania, who currently works as a model and make-up artist, pursued her university studies in language locally.
“It is a huge challenge in Malaysia to be a transwoman because of the societal constraints.
“For some, it is a man is a man and a woman is a woman. They cannot accept anything else.”
Her mother, she added, continues to be a source of support aside from friends and former teachers.
“Some teachers kept on asking me why I transitioned and the more I talked to them, the more they understood,” she said.
“My mother is proud of me and my win. She said, ‘my daughter made it’.”
PKSP president Gisele Rimong said the organisation’s aim to have Ikon TW was to create awareness for the transwoman community and Malaysian society.
Finalists were also taught public speaking and given tasks such as spreading awareness online about HIV/AIDS.
“Selection of contestants is not based on their body shape although the age limit is 35 because we want to reach out to the next generation,” she said.
Gisele added while they had 40 turn up for the programme, most dropped out after finding out it was not a beauty pageant and would need a year’s commitment to undergo training.
“This is a just a small step (to change public perception). But we hope it will help to educate people,” she said.
Nik Rahamah said she joined Ikon TW to gain more knowledge in health and legal related matters besides how to face the public through the experiences from activists and friends involved in the programme.
“Getting first runner-up is enough for me. I didn’t even target myself for the top three because all the finalists have their own talents and strengths,” she said.
“I want to fight with other activists to help our community in order to get a better and safer living environment.”
The Ikon TW experience, said the 35-year-old PhD student was valuable as she learned how to respect other people’s opinions and views, empathy and to be firm on her choices and stance.
“My family and those close to me are proud with what I have done in my life, including entering Ikon. They support me,” she added.
Fazelyn, 32, said it was important to break the silence when it came to disrespecting transwomen as human beings and denied rights as a citizen.
“These days, issues involving transwomen are often used by society to offend and insult on social media,” said the financial data analyst.
This, she said affected their lives in aspects such as family life, education and work.
She emphasised there were many transwomen who were well-educated, adding she wanted to change the perception that the community were outcasts.
“We are also able to succeed and live happily and contribute to community development,” she said.
She said it was not easy convincing her family and friends about the programme but their opinions changed after she explained it to them.
“This is not just a one-night beauty queen contest but about spreading love. To stand up for our rights and keep advocating,” she said.