Thoughtful and eloquent, Emellia Shariff is rarely at a loss for words. But finding the right ones is a daily challenge in her quest to get Malaysians talking about gender.
The 28-year-old lawyer founded The G-Blog (pun intended) two years ago to spark frank conversations on everything from body image to sexuality to religion. Online discussions soon spawned offline public forums also hosted by the blog, together forging a new space for debate on subjects often deemed controversial in the Muslim-majority nation — such as child marriage, women in politics and the gender pay gap.
Emellia’s widening pool of mostly Anglophone contributors navigates complex gender identities in their posts, flitting between the fast-evolving vocabulary of gender and raw personal narratives. In a recent piece, a transgender man contemplates a “non-cis” future — “cis” is short for “cisgender.”
This story is part of a series about the intersection of gender and language, “From ‘Mx.’ to ‘hen’: When ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words aren’t enough,” a collaboration between Across Women’s Lives and the World in Words podcast. Read about the first episode: A British ‘Mx.’ tape.
Unpacking words like cisgender (when gender identity matches the sex assigned at birth) or “nonbinary” (gender identities outside of male or female categories) is key, says Emellia, who asked that her first name be used in subsequent references, so as not to carry on a tradition favoring male lineage. She is part of a growing global movement toward greater gender inclusivity. But one of the biggest challenges she faces is translating these concepts into Bahasa Malaysia, Malaysia’s national language, to reach more of the country’s multiethnic and multilingual population.
“Translation is one of our biggest concerns. A lot of the words we need to use to talk about gender simply don’t exist in Bahasa,” she said.
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“Take ‘gender’ itself. In Bahasa, the word for “sex” and gender is literally the same [jantina]. Whenever I try to write about the difference between the two — one you’re born with, the other how you identify — it’s much harder to make the arguments.”