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What it’s like to be a queer woman in Brunei…

Generally speaking, “living in Brunei as a woman – no matter what background, what orientation – everyone knows that being a woman is hard… and its definitely not any easier being a queer woman.”

As a queer woman in Brunei, Naz always expressed herself in a stereotypically masculine manner. That is, she has short hair and doesn’t always present herself in what’s deemed “feminine”.

Perhaps because of this “classic assumption that a girl is queer or a tomboy by the shortness of her hair”, Naz was sexually harassed at work. And when she told the story of her harassment to her sister, the latter just (dismissively) told her: “He probably knows you’re gay so its ok for him to touch you.”

This dismissiveness, this disregard is (apparently) but an example of how – in Brunei – women (and particularly queer women) “tolerate sexism and homophobia everyday,” said A.B., who produced and directed “The Visible”, a documentary that looks at how women are treated in Brunei. Included in the interviewees is a queer woman and a transgender woman.

Brunei made the news recently, of course, with the implementation of a dated, and even barbaric law that will see the stoning to death of members of the LGBTQIA community, along with adulterers. The laws, parts/elements of which were first announced in 2013 and adopted in 2014 (and have been rolled out in phases since then), will be fully implemented this month. Ruled for 51 years by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the Southeast Asian nation plans to implement a severe interpretation of Islamic sharia law. Under the strict laws, adultery, sodomy, robbery, rape and insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad would all be punishable by death. Those who are caught having gay sex or committing adultery would be executed by stoning.

Upon hearing the implementation of this law, “I was honestly very surprised; at first I thought it was just old news being brought up again for whatever reason,” A.B. said. “But as it turned out, the law was put on hold from 2013 due to international criticism and is just now being implemented.”

For A.B., “it’s messed up because it seemed like no one in Brunei knew.” Her family, for one, “found out through international news. If you look at news articles about Brunei it’s all about the Sharia law; but if you look at news from Bruneian newspapers, there’s nothing about it. I’m living abroad and found out from friends sending me articles, it was only after a few days when there had finally been an official statement from the prime minister’s office.”

Brunei made the news recently, of course, with the implementation of a dated, and even barbaric law that will see the stoning to death of members of the LGBTQIA community, along with adulterers.

A.B. was born in Brunei, but she was raised abroad. And “it was only recently that I got to experience what life was really like for a queer woman like me in Brunei. For years I would view it from a distance, visiting for a few weeks once a year and always thinking ‘I can put up with it, I’ll be back home (in France) in two weeks.’ But moving back changed everything for me.”

It changed because – in her experience in Brunei – women and queer women of tolerate sexism and homophobia everyday.

Naz’s case, for instance, rattled A.B., who said that “it’s unacceptable how issues like this are still predominant in Asia.”

“It’s a bit hazy with the law when it comes to that,” A.B. said, “because, in fact it is being caught in the act of (gay) sex that is banned, not just being LGBTQIA.”

If being LGBTQIA means living under scrutiny in Brunei, how do LGBTQIA people express themselves (if at all)? “It’s a bit hazy with the law when it comes to that,” A.B. said, “because, in fact it is being caught in the act of (gay) sex that is banned, not just being LGBTQIA. I always found everyone was capable of expressing themselves, to an extent; meaning, private accounts on social media (are available) but not necessarily changing the way you dress or express yourself. It’s more a ‘show don’t tell sort of situation’.”

Generally speaking, though, “living in Brunei as a woman – no matter what background, what orientation – everyone knows that being a woman is hard… and its definitely not any easier being a queer woman.”

Producing the documentary, by itself, was challenging.

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“When we were in pre-production, I was unable to attend a meeting due to my family because ‘a woman is not allowed to be picked up by a man in Brunei’. During a production meeting I was stopped halfway by a family member because ‘a woman is not allowed to hang around with just men in Brunei’,” A.B. said. “So everything had to proceed with caution.”

But even if things are challenging, “we pushed on. I was not going to let the opinions of others stop me from voicing a story that needed to be told. You find loopholes, you get back up again and keep going…”

A.B.: “I always found everyone was capable of expressing themselves, to an extent; meaning, private accounts on social media (are available) but not necessarily changing the way you dress or express yourself. It’s more a ‘show don’t tell sort of situation’.”

A.B. also noted the “bravery” of women in Brunei – in particular, her cast, who “really set an example for the women and the LGBTQIA community in Brunei, (explaining) to me that they never felt a sense of ‘danger’, just a sense of being cautious.”

Naz, for one, said that “despite the law, religion and her sexual orientation, she is still a muslim and won’t be doing anything to break the law.”

A.B. added that “it’s also important to note that no one has been executed in Brunei for anything since 1957.”

All the same, A.B. is pushing for the opening of minds.

“Being LGBTQIA is just who you are, it’s what you feel, it’s what you know, it’s something you should never be ashamed of,” she said. “The only ‘Western imposition’ is the fact that being LGBTQIA is a crime, which was brought by the British when they decided to colonize half of Asia. It’s like how our generation are standing up for gender quality; yes, in Brunei, that’s considered an influence from the West because you’re supposedly ‘going against the tradition’ of being a slaved housewife, when in reality it’s not just women of the West that have been fighting for rights, women all over the world have.”

And in the end, “it’s not really for me to say what’s right and what’s wrong (for Brunei). Brunei really is a lovely and beautiful country, but it also has a way to go… like all of Asia.”

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