In what will serve as a historic moment for transgender communities across the world, a young Malaysian woman, Nisha Ayub has been awarded with the prestigious US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award
Nisha was among 14 awardees made up of women from across the globe who received the award by the US Secretary of State John Kerry at the US Department of State in Washington DC yesterday.
Nearly 100 women from 60 different countries have been recipients since the inception of the award in 2007.
In her Facebook post last night, Nisha admitted that she was "extremely excited" to be nominated by the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur but did not expect to be awarded as there were many others who were nominated.
"It’s truly an honour to receive such international recognition from the United States Of America."
Nisha is the first transgender in the world to receive the prestigious award.
"Nisha Ayub, for your extraordinary work to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, we honour you as a woman of courage," said US Secretary of State John Kerry when presenting the award.
The Secretary of State's annual International Women of Courage Award was established in 2007 by then Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice to honour women who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in championing women rights and progress.
Over the years, the award has honoured a number of women that have gone through an unspeakable amount of cruelty and repress from authorities in their countries. From acid attacks to assassination attempts, these women have lived through some of the worst experiences one could possibly imagine.
One of the recipients of the courage award in 2014, Laxmi Agarwal, was brutally attacked at the age of 16 when she refused the romantic advances of her brother's acquaintance. The 32-year-old man threw a beer bottle of acid on Laxmi's face, disfiguring her face.
Wanting to put an end to acid attacks that have become increasingly common in India, Laxmi joined the Stop Acid Attacks Campaign, pleading for a ban on the sale of acid that is freely available in local Indian shops. Thanks to her persistence, she has managed to petition the supreme court to order the Indian government to regulate the sale of acid.
While Laxmi was punished for rejecting the attention of a stranger, Nisha on the other hand, was brutalised for being herself, a transgender.
Arrested at the tender age of 21 by a gang of religious officers in Melaka and barbarically abused for three months, Nisha's story is one that will leave an imprint on your mind.
The courageous young woman shared her traumatic experience in a Facebook post, on 24 October 2015. The 21-year-old Nisha had just completed her breast augmentation surgery, had a fulfilling job and was happy with the fact that she was able to live life on her own terms.
Unfortunately, all that changed on that fateful day, when she was taken to a religious office in Melaka and eventually sentenced to three months in prison for cross dressing. According to Sharia laws, all 13 states in Malaysia prohibits Muslim men from dressing as women.
The nightmarish experience started when she was forced into a male prison in Kajang. First her hair was shaved off, then she was forced to strip naked for an 'anal drug examination' with the warden assuring her that it wouldn't hurt as he would only be using his fingers.
Bear in mind that these unlawful acts were done in front a group of inmates and prison wardens. She was then lead to her cell which was located at the end of the block. On her way, the warden made her stop at every cell along the way, open up her shirt and show her breasts to the other inmates.
That was just the beginning of Nisha's harrowing experience in prison. The day after, while queuing up for breakfast, she was pushed to the ground, molested and forced to perform oral sex on a gang of inmates.
After learning from a fellow transgender inmate about the only way to keep herself from being attacked by other inmates, Nisha found a warden that took a liking to her. In return for her safety, she was asked for daily sexual favours from the man.
Nisha revealed how the experience had made her feel like killing herself, but the only thing that kept her going was her mother who visited her every week, for three months.
Her mother's acceptance and love kept her going and when she was finally released three long months later, Nisha was stronger than ever. Instead of letting the ghastly experience ruin her life, she turned it into a precursor for her fight against the brutality towards LGBT community.
Fast forward 11 years, Nisha is the co-founder of two separate NGOs, the Seed Foundation and Justice for Sisters, both of which aims to repeal the draconian laws against the transgender community in Malaysia.
Justice for Sisters focuses mainly on providing assistance and protecting the local transgender community and raising public awareness about issues surrounding violence and unjust persecution against transgenders. They organisation also runs campaigns to raise funds to finance court cases against transgenders.
SEED or Pertubuhan Kebajikan dan Persekitaran Positif Malaysia, on the other hand, is a community based organisation that aims to provide a safe haven for the less fortunate, educate and help them to improve their lives.
Along with that, these organisations also provide sex workers and HIV patients counselling, job training, health services and social welfare.
Reiterating secretary of state John Kerry, despite the constant threats and inhuman treatment she has been subjected to, Nisha has stayed true to her commitment of fighting for the LGBT community
"My hopes for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Malaysia is basically for the government to recognise and to accept and to acknowledge that we are a part of society."
"And at the same time, I hope that we will be protected, just as equal as other citizens. As a transgender woman, the only thing we ask for is our right to education, our right to employment, our right to every single thing that is for all citizens," the Muslim activist added.
This isn't the first time Nisha has been recognised for her work for the LGBT community. In 2015, she was awarded with Human Rights Watch's Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism.
Human Rights Watch's Alison Des Forges Award celebrates the valor of individuals who put their lives on the line to protect the dignity and rights of others.
"Nisha Ayub has been the victim of grave human rights abuses by the authorities in Malaysia. Instead of becoming despondent and fearful, she decided to become a human rights defender. Tirelessly she defends the rights of transgender people in a positive and respectful way, inspiring others to follow in her footsteps," said Boris Dittrich Advocacy Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program.
"You can cut my hair. You can strip me naked. And you can take my dignity away from me. You can even kill me. But you cannot take away my identity as a transgender person."
While we are on the topic of transgenders and Malaysian laws pertaining them, read about how Sharia laws against transgenders breach basic human rights on gender equality and freedom of movement:
While certain parts of local community are determined to disrupt the lives of transgenders, these extraordinary women have proven that success is possible, even if all the odds are stacked against them: