Culture History Translation

46 years ago, the Johor Mufti allowed a Malay Trans-woman to marry the love of her life

(Artikel asal ditulis dalam BM oleh rakan kami di SOSCILI. Klik sini untuk baca!)


If you were to look at recent news coverage regarding the Malaysian authorities and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual/Ally (LGBTQIA) community, you’ll likely get the impression that Malaysia may not be a very welcoming place.

However, there was one piece of news 46 years ago that was a little different.

Between 1974 to 1975, there was a transgender woman who made it to the front page of the news. Her name was Sari Katrina binti Abdul Karim and she made headlines after being allowed to marry the love of her life (a man, just to clarify) by the Johor deputy mufti (aka the religious legal expert)!

But not just that…


Kartina is the FIRST Malay to undergo a sex reassignment surgery

Note: A bulk of information in this article are based on clippings from Newspaper SG, a digital newspaper archive by the Singaporean Government. 

Sari Katrina was originally born as Mohd Fauzi bin Abdul Karim in Jalan Padang tiga, Stulang Baru, Johor. According to her sister, Sarah, Kartina has always been more feminine ever since she was younger.

“When she turned 13, her behaviour changed. She didn’t want to mix around with boys anymore, not even her own brothers.” – Sarah, as quoted from Newspaper SG. Translated from BM.

Sari Kartina. Img from @EllinLareina Twitter

Being uncomfortable around boys also ended up affecting her studies – Katrina dropped outta Institut Teknologi Mara (now known as UiTM) because the male students there made her feel uncomfortable.

“I had to leave ITM after two years of studying there as I was uncomfortable being around the male students there.” – Kartina, as quoted from Newspaper SG.

In 1970, she flew to Indonesia to look for a job and managed to secure a job as a dance teacher at an entertainment agency. She worked there for two years before flying to Singapore where she became a hotel receptionist.

Throughout her journey, Kartina was pretty much a man dressed in woman’s clothes but she said NOBODY noticed it.

“When I was in Indonesia and Singapore, none of my friends suspected I was a man at that time.” – Kartina, as quoted from Newspaper SG.

It was also around this time when Kartina met a businessman, Abdul Razak Othman at a nightclub in Singapore, and they both fell in love. Abdul Razak, who owns a canteen at an office at Anson Centre, was a widower (although some news reports state he’s a divorcee) with a child.

Sari Kartina and Abdul Razak. Img from @EllinLareina Twitter

After being with Abdul Razak for quite some time, Kartina expressed her intentions to undergo sex reassignment surgerynow referred to as Gender Affirming Procedures. Just to let y’all know, Abdul Razak was the first person to know about her intentions (nope, not even her family knew about it then!) and he was actually very supportive of her.

So, on the 24th of October 1974, Kartina started the first of 6 months worth of surgeries and treatments at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital in Singapore. After recovering from the surgery, Kartina then took a bold move to meet her family. It wasn’t an easy process but thankfully her family was very accepting of her.

“I’m thankful to Allah for everything that has happened, especially when my family was able to accept me as a woman.” – Kartina, as quoted by Newspaper SG.

However, it wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine after that because…


Kartina had to swear on God’s name that she wasn’t forced to be a woman

Img from Newspaper SG

Despite being accepted by her family, Kartina soon found herself facing another challenge when she decided to get married to Abdul Razak. As you may have already known, being transgender is difficult enough in Malaysia, so it’s a no-brainer that getting married as one is even harder.

Her family seemed like they were supportive of her decision. In fact, her father, Abdul Karim Anang was willing to marry her off to Abdul Razak. However, the conflict arose when Abdul Razak’s family was somewhat reluctant about it. Although one of Abdul Razak’s siblings mentioned that he “brought a girl to meet the family,” his family was shocked to learn that he was keen to marry Kartina.

This was why Kartina brought the matter to Deputy Mufti’s office in Johor Bharu. She even brought along several documentations, including her declaration letter from the Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Surgery, University of Singapore, Dr. S S Ratnam to show the then Deputy Mufti, Datuk Syed Alwee Abdullah.

Datuk Syed Alwee. Img from Persatuan Bangsa Johor Facebook

In the declaration letter, she wrote…

“I hereby swear on Allah’s name that I am not being coerced by anyone, at this time I have become a woman and my desires are towards men.” – Excerpt from Newspaper SG.

Upon seeing the documentations and conflict at hand, Datuk Syed Alwee sat with a few other religious leaders to discuss the issue. It took them three hours before deciding to allow Kartina and Abdul Razak to get married.

Just like most married women, Kartina planned to have a child with Abdul Razak but she wasn’t able to get pregnant at that time. So, they adopted a child instead.

“I really wanted to get pregnant but I was told that it’s impossible. If I really wanted to, I will have to undergo another operation in America.” – Kartina, as quoted from Newspaper SG.

Kartina also wanted to get back to work after getting married but she wasn’t able to do so either because most of her documentations – the ones from school, especially – all had her previous name.

But wait. Why did Johor’s Deputy Mufti decide to allow Kartina to get married?


The Deputy Mufti said that Kartina was a real woman

The Deputy Mufti’s statement. Img from Newspaper SG

According to Datuk Syed Alwee, he was convinced that Kartina was a real woman when she applied to get married, adding that the decision was made based on science and medicine.

“Only those who don’t believe in science won’t believe what happened to Kartina.” – Datuk Syed Alwee Abdullah, as quoted by Newspaper SG. Translated from BM.

He also opined that there are several factors for a person to change their gender if it is allowed to be done in the first place; and once a person has legally become a woman, there’s no reason to stop her from getting married to the man she loves.

One of these might have been how Islam views Intersex – born with sex features that don’t fit typical male or female definitions – persons. If a person was born intersex (Khunsa), they’re allowed to undergo procedures to live a normal life. Of course, this falls into a much deeper conversation into Islamic belief than we can cover, but you can read more about it here and here.

Although there’s no proof or indication (that we could find, anyway) that Sari Kartina was born Intersex, it’s noteworthy that there were people who were skeptical of the whole issue like the then-Mufti of Singapore, Syed Isa Semait, who didn’t wanna give his statement on the matter because he believed that Dr. S S Ratnam would know better.

“I believe the issue should be reviewed more closely before making any decision.” – Syed Isa, as quoted by Newspaper SG. Translated from BM.

This seems to be the final note on the story and, while there’s no news on what happened to Sari Kartina in later years, we’d like to imagine she went on to live a happily married life.

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