In Mauritius, transgender women fight prejudice and find themselves

- Fear of losing one's job or being ridiculed by friends and family often pushes transgender people to hide their feelings and identities on the African island nation.

Mauritius Pride March 2016. Photo courtesy of L'Express archives.

This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2017 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (RNS) — One morning in 2016, Louise, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, circled anxiously, cast a worried look in the mirror, drew a smile, and sighed. Raised as a boy, she was preparing to come out to her parents as Louise for the first time.

Now a 28-year-old transgender woman, Louise never felt comfortable in her male-assigned body. Living this lie was awful. Schoolmates mocked her “feminine” side, and the teachers joined in. Her parents acted as if nothing was amiss. Desperate and misunderstood, Louise contemplated suicide.

One day, she discovered the word “transgender” in the dictionary and finally understood who she was: a girl born in a boy’s body.

“Living in a body that was not mine became unbearable,” she said. “I’m a woman. I never felt otherwise. The more I grew up, the more identifying as a woman became obvious.”

In conservative Mauritius, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, Louise grew up in a rigid social system that reinforces gender and sex binaries.

“For me, this gender difference does not exist. Society would like me to behave this way or that, but I’m me, with my feminine and masculine side,” she said.

Newborns in Mauritius and in much of the world are typically declared male or female at birth based on their genitals. Along with these biological sex classifications come a host of gender expectations that affect education, employment opportunities, and social status.

The conflation of sex and gender in this binary system leaves little room for divergent identities. As a result, transgender people often experience traumatic inner conflict around society’s expectations and their own senses of self.

Virginie Bissessur, a clinical psychologist based in Mauritius, says trans people can feel devalued, especially if they lack the support of friends and family. This can lead to feelings of guilt and rejection. “It can also lead to serious depression, accompanied by suicide attempts,” she said.

Rejection, guilt, threat, and emotional blackmail are “the common weapons society, religion, and family use to tackle any differences they perceive as threats to the established norms,” said Bissessur. “Does not religion threaten us with hell?”

In the stories of transgender people in Mauritius, the phrase, “you’re not my son/my daughter!” is often repeated.

“Mockery and aggression are frequent, even rapes that are supposed to ‘put the person back on the right path’ … any violence within the reach of society, religion, or family is used to torture the ‘other’ to return to ‘the norm’,” Bissessur added.

Louise says she is regularly observed, mocked, and hounded in the street and at work for her transgender identity.

“In our societies, we do not recognize transgender people. So we are not prepared to accept these people. We carry many stereotypes against them,” said Ibrahim Koodoruth, a sociologist and lecturer at the University of Mauritius.

The fear of losing one’s job or being ridiculed by friends and family often pushes transgender people to hide their feelings and identities. They become subject to harassment, physical and psychological violence, and hate crimes. This hatred and discrimination sometimes drives them to retreat from society.

In Mauritius, religious institutions often make trans lives harder by normalizing dangerous prejudices about sex and gender identity.

“Religion directly influences public authorities and political leaders,” Koodoruth said. “A question that may seem entirely private will be publicized within the family and will even be tried according to the social criteria of the whole society. Society, religion, the social environment stand up in judgment.”

As a result, trans people often seek professional therapeutic help to move beyond the rigid binaries of sex and gender identity and to pave the long and tedious path toward self-acceptance.

A question of human rights

“Diversity is as old as the world! It’s us, men and women, who feel the need to put things in boxes with labels that do not correspond to reality but say a lot about our fantasies,” said Bissessur.

“We need to revisit our sexual education, encourage the media to cover discrimination against transgender persons, and protect equality and rights at work, in health services, etc.,” Koodoruth added.

“When we talk about human rights, we cannot choose who is entitled to them and who is not,” said Lindley Couronne, director of the Mauritian human rights organization Dis-Moi Indian Ocean. Dis-Moi regularly conducts training sessions on human rights education for members of the LGBTQI community.

“Just the fact that a [Pride March] is organized every year is proof that things are evolving in our country, even if they evolve slowly,” Couronne said. “For me, the moralizing discourses, the religious doctrines very present in our religious and puritanical society, restrain the freedom to be trans. The fact is, that which is different is always frightening; hence the need to educate everyone about human rights.”

Two years since coming out to her parents as transgender, Louise is learning to pause and reflect. She knows that her relatives will take time to accept her as she is, but she is taking steps to up open up to them.

“I’m relieved, but I know that legally I will never be Louise. My birth certificate cannot be changed. I’m a student at the moment, and I know that when the time comes for job hunting, things will get even more complicated for me. It’s a challenge to live like this, but I am what I am.”

Like other transgender people in Mauritius, Louise lacks certain rights under the law, but she relishes the right to be herself.

This article was translated by Megha Venketasamy.

Martine Luchmun is a journalist based in Mauritius.

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