Viralised by haters for her gay sexuality and marriage, a young Malaysian woman embraces the spotlight to promote a powerful message of acceptance

By Mohani Niza

A young Malaysian woman has publicly spoken up against the online backlash towards her lesbian sexuality and marriage, angering critics while also attracting support from others, in a country where LGBTQs, especially those who are Muslims, are hesitant to come out of the closet because of state-sanctioned persecution in the name of religion.

It began in June this year, when online haters viralised an Instagram photograph of Sarah Saiful, 31, embracing her French wife Amelie, 28. The couple live in France and got married there in 2019.

“They really have no shame performing same-sex kissing,” @viral_kini_official, who reposted that photo, said.

The @viral_kini_official account has more than 16, 000 followers and usually posts gossip and accusations against certain communities they deem deviant. The post attracted tens of thousands of views and dozens of comments, mostly from haters.

“Allahu Akbar! She is public about having unlawful sex,” exclaimed one Instagram user. “I am scared of reading it. Truly she is not living life as a Muslim.”

“There are many men out there,” another user said. “Why does she have to do what is haram (forbidden)?”

Sarah then posted a YouTube video titled ‘WE NEED TO TALK (LGBTQ+ Issues)’, confronting her critics directly. “Recently I had been put on the spotlight on Instagram because some people had decided to make me go viral for the reasons that I’m a Malay and I’m married to a French woman and I’m now living in France.”

“Suddenly so many people have decided to say how disgusted they were and how it’s the wrong way and that I’m a disgrace to my family and my race and my religion,” she added. “Some people really think that I’m lost and they’re hoping that I will find the right way.”

Systemic reasons behind Malaysia’s homophobia

Conservative in nature, Sarah’s critics are not uncommon in Malaysia. They tend to out and humiliate people, such as ex-Muslims, LGBTQs, celebrities who show too much aurat (hair and parts of skin which some Muslims believe should be covered), and others they deem deviant to their interpretation of Islam.

Sarah tries to be empathetic to those who disagree with her sexuality and marriage, as she believes they are the product of religious brainwashing. That doesn’t mean she believes she needs to listen to them though, and therefore she blocks aggressive haters on social media.

While not officially a Muslim country, Islam plays a major role in shaping the laws, policies and attitudes in Malaysia. The country operates on a two-pronged legal system – one that is secular, and the other, Syari’ah (the Islamic legal system). The latter governs Muslims on matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, while also policing their personal lives. 

Malays make up the largest ethnic population, followed by Chinese, Indians and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak. To be a Malay is also to be a Muslim – at least on paper. After all, to qualify as a  ‘Malay’, one not only must practice Malay customs, but also be Muslim.

Gay marriages among Malaysians exist, though rare. Such couples get married overseas, in countries such as Australia. Among them, it is even rarer to see Malay LGBTQs get married, though the local queer community knows a few.  There are no official statistics.

“The online gender-based violence that LGBTQ people experience is not only well documented, but they are also really visible and accessible to the general public to view,” researcher from Justice for Sisters, Thilaga Sulathireh, 34, said. Justice for Sisters is a grassroots campaign that speaks up against injustices faced by Malaysian women due to their gender orientation (such as in the case of transwomen) and sexual orientation.

“LGBTQs and those assigned Malay and Muslim at birth do face unique challenges because of the state’s regulation over religion, sexual orientation and gender,” Thilaga added. “In Malaysia […] should a person “deviate” or exist outside state sanctioned molds of who they should be, they become vulnerable to prosecution, discrimination, aggression and violence with impunity from state and non-state actors alike.”

Justice for Sisters has been researching and documenting the violence against the LGBTQ community. The types of violence they found include doxing (the dissemination of personal information or photos without consent), hateful and violent messages, reports to enforcement agencies, blackmails, threats of physical violence as well threats to ‘correct’ or ‘change’ an LGBTQ person, as well as sexual harassment.

Sarah’s and Amelie’s marriage in the Gagny commune in Paris, France, in June 2019.

One major example of violence towards the community was the public lashing of two women in the conservative state of Terengganu in 2018 for attempting lesbian sex. The lashings were slammed by human rights groups.

Meanwhile, sodomy is illegal in the country, no thanks to the decades-old law inherited from British colonialisation of the country. This law was famously used in 1998 when Malaysia’s then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked his deputy Anwar Ibrahim on allegations of sodomy in an attempt to destroy his career.

When it comes to mass media, scenes alluding to even the slightest hint of homosexuality or LGBTQ life in general are censored in Malaysian cinemas and television, though authorities are finding it harder and harder to exert control on what Malaysians consume due to the availability of services such as Netflix (Malaysian Netflix only censors some gay content), illegal TV boxes and movie download websites.

In terms of gay rights as a whole, Malaysia consistently stand at the back along other countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and North Korea on various human rights lists that measure countries’ LGBTQ acceptance.

A call for a gentler, more compassionate interpretation of Islam

Sarah’s decision to come out has also garnered support from some.

“‘Being in the LGBTQ community in Malaysia is hard enough, but being a Malay and Muslim is another tier. It’s definitely a struggle and I’m proud of you for sticking to your true self! Stay strong,” a YouTube user said.

The original photo from Sarah’s Instagram that got viralised recently.

Another YouTube user said: “I am glad to have stumbled upon your video. Being a queer Malay Muslim, I’ve never actually seen someone like myself, who is living happily as they are, so I feel hopeful. It’s hard having to constantly be in a battle of my identity and who I truly am because of the religion so I’ve just been repressing it. All I ever wanted was reassurance. I’m truly happy to see you live your life and more importantly, thank you for being brave when I can’t.”

The messages above also show that the internet and social media can also promote progress, reform, inclusivity and solidarity.

After all, most of Sarah’s supporters are from Malaysian LGBTQ groups on Facebook.

“They really came through when I decided to tell them about what happened to me,” Sarah said.

Ever since posting the video, Sarah’s YouTube account which previously just showcased her doing song covers, has become a repository of her thoughts and sharing of her life in France and her relationship with Amelie. She also has a blog where she talks deeper about these topics.

Sarah said she is merely using social media to tell her story. “I just want to tell my story and be honest about it and actually be the person that I needed when I was growing up.”

“I’m doing this for every little Sarahs out there,” Sarah said. “I want to show that there’s nothing wrong with me – yes, I’m gay, I’m married to a woman and I have this life. So at the end of the day, it’s normal. I wanted to normalise it. That’s it.”

The supportive messages she receives from Muslims, also reflect the willingness of some within the religion to embrace the LGBTQ community.

This can be seen in the example of the public lashing of the two lesbians in Terengganu. Malaysian rights group Sisters in Islam joined the worldwide condemnation of the incident.

“Qur’anic teachings emphasise repentance, forgiveness, and personal transformation. God is forgiving and merciful,” they said at a press conference. 

Sisters in Islam is a women’s rights group that advocates for a gentler and more compassionate interpretation of Islam. While their statement is not clearly pro-homosexuality, it is still a progressive step, especially when no other Muslim groups condemned the lashings.

That said, Sarah said she does not really identify with the Islamic faith. “The [viral] incident didn’t affect me too much because I am not a true believer of the religion. I was really full of questions, and have been doing critical thinking on everything since I was young. I think someone who is really religious could feel ultimately guilty but for me, I only felt a bit of guilt.”

Coming out to her family

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur, Sarah said that she had known from kindergarten that she wasn’t straight. At first, she identified as bisexual, but ultimately decided to stick with the terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’.

“I just want to tell my story and be honest about it and actually be the person that I needed when I was growing up.”

“There was no gay influence at all,” she said, dispelling the common myth that homosexuality is a choice. “I didn’t see it anywhere on TV or around me, friends or family friends. I never had representation, but it is because there wasn’t any.”

Most of her friends had always known about her sexuality, but Sarah kept it private from her conservative family for a long time.

“I’m doing this for every little Sarahs out there. I want to show that there’s nothing wrong with me – yes, I’m gay, I’m married to a woman and I have this life. So at the end of the day, it’s normal. I wanted to normalise it. That’s it.

Sarah Saiful, 31

“It was very hard. I really had to hide a lot of my life,” Sarah said of her life till then.

Sarah was outed by some of her family members. “The worst part is that they outed me to everyone else in the family, such as my grandparents.”  That was when she decided to be completely out.

Sarah was chastised and had to endure homophobic reactions.

While Sarah’s two younger siblings are accepting of her sexuality, her older sister is not, and in fact, made Sarah’s life miserable throughout her teenage years. 

Sarah also faced difficulties with her mother, who passed away in 2019. They were close, though Sarah said theirs was also a rocky relationship. Her mother did not speak to Sarah for a year during her studies in the UK because of Sarah’s sexuality. Suffering from depression also added to Sarah’s stress.

“When my mom found out [about my sexuality], she decided to say it was wrong and against the religion,” Sarah said. “So of course, growing up, I knew that it was not accepted, and it was a sin and I was going to be punished for it.”

“Some people think, ‘Oh, you are gay. That means you have no morals, as if there’s something wrong, that you are sick,’” Sarah added.  “So, I was really growing up with all these kinds of judgments and assumptions.” 

Sarah’s move to France and her marriage to Amelie

Sarah said she first met Amelie on the online platform Tumblr through their shared interest in Wynonna Earp, a supernatural horror television series. “We basically haven’t stopped talking since then.”

After their online encounter, Sarah went to Paris to see Amelie, and later Amelie spent a few months in Malaysia, cancelling her plans to go on a world tour to spend time with Sarah instead.

2019 changed everything.  

“And then everything kind of happened within those months that she was there in Malaysia,” Sarah said. “Suddenly, things were going bad with me and my mom and my family.”

This was when her mother got seriously ill from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Sarah’s problems with her family blew up.

“That was when Amelie and I decided I needed to move to Paris to be with her [Amelie] to just start a new life. So that’s when we planned everything.”

They tied the knot on June 17th, 2019 in a modest ceremony.

“I ran away basically,” Sarah said.  “And only when I finally got married, I posted it on my Instagram.”

Currently Sarah teaches English at various language centres, while Amelie works as a postwoman. They both reside together in Paris, and have plans to start a family one day.

They plan to have their wedding in Normandy in September, though that is up in the air at the moment because of COVID-19.

Sarah also intends to apply for French citizenship soon, and foresees living in France for the rest of her life.  She plans to pay a visit to Malaysia one day.

Sarah is one of the lucky LGBTQ people who managed to leave a homophobic country, though Sarah admits France also has its share of homophobia.

While there are some LGBTQs who manage to flee, such as through seeking asylum, many others do not have the opportunity or resource, thus hiding their sexuality in the closet. 

In a country where religion and personal life are increasingly blurred, there is no sign of things becoming better for the LGBTQ community in Malaysia.

However, it is hoped that Sarah’s brave coming out will inspire change, or at least spark an honest intellectual discourse in Malaysia about LGBTQ rights, and pave the way for many LGBTQ Malaysians to come out of the closet.

Mohani Niza is the founder and editor of The Culture Review Mag. Reach her at editor@theculturereviewmag.com

Find her on Twitter: @mohani