In Brunei, being gay is a crime. People guilty of adultery, sodomy, rape and blasphemy are punishable by whipping, and even death by stoning – although there is currently a moratorium on the death penalty in the tiny nation. Although these laws might have been intended to instil fear in Bruneian society, young director Atikah, who identifies as queer and has asked to remove her last name for protection, only felt more empowered to take a stance. What started out as a personal art project soon became a political statement for women across the small country.
Atikah grew up in Europe and returned to Brunei last year at the age of 22. After facing extensive discrimination for her sexuality, she decided to channel her experience for positive change.
Her brief three and a half minute video The Visible explores silenced voices of both women and the LGBTQ+ community in Brunei. VICE spoke to Atikah about her video.
VICE: What is your connection to Brunei?
Atikah: I am from Brunei, but I grew up in Paris and spent most of my life in Europe. I would go back to Brunei to visit every summer growing up. I moved to London and completed film school, but I had to leave right after due to visa issues. I returned to Brunei, and I've been living here since.
So what is it like to be LGBTQ+ in Brunei?
It's open to an extent, but if you decide to be who you want to be there will social consequences. So it's not so much about whether you can do it, but what response you will get. You can go about your life, but bear in mind that everyone will have a glare on you. It's interesting because we have an openly gay radio DJ, but all her accounts are private, of course. That's what I mean - you can show who you are, but you can't say it.
One of the hardest parts for queer kids in Brunei is facing their families, I'd say. Parents here are rarely tolerant. My cousin is gay and he gets beaten by his dad regularly. The violence at home is upfront, whereas there is a degree of separation from the violence you face on the streets.
Is it the same for being a woman?
As for being a woman, it’s the same. To an extent, you can dress however you want, but you will be judged. Sometimes I will wear pants that reach below the knee, and I get shamed and called out by people outside.
So how has the experience of LGBTQ people changed since the Sharia law was implemented?
I don't think it has changed so much. I remember I asked one of my gay cousins what is going on when it started happening years ago, and she said it didn't change much for the LGBTQ community as they were already being penalized for being who they are before. It was still criminalized prior to the implementation of the Sharia law, so on a day to day basis, queer people were still living in fear.
So why implement Sharia law?
There are many rumours. One was that the crime rate was going up, so the Sultan wanted to scare the people by implementing this law. Others said the Sultan is afraid of extremist Muslims, so he wanted to appease them by implementing a set of conservative laws.
Is there a community? Do LGBTQ individuals support each other?
There is a community. There is a gay scene and there are gay parties, which obviously happen in private homes. At least they exist, though. Grindr is also available, which is strange, but people do use it.
What made you want to make this film?
At first, it was supposed to be a fashion shoot with a focus on art and clothes. But as I witnessed all this discrimination happening towards women and queer individuals in Brunei, I found myself channelling that into the video. I turned it into a statement about what I believe in. I wanted to give a voice to those who are silenced here.
Who are the girls you featured?
The first girl brings up a lot of issues regarding the role and expectations Bruneian women face in our society, as well as issues of gender and racial identity. She is 100% Bruneian but always get's questioned about where she's really from because of the way she looks.
The second girl is a famous artist in Brunei who is openly gay. She struggles with being harassed for being gay. She was assaulted by her boss who thought it was ok to touch her because of her sexual identity. Some of her only friends have also told her they don't need any more gay friends and excluded her.
The third woman speaks about the trans experience and how being a transgender woman is looked at in Brunei. She always said that although we live in a country like Brunei, we need to fight the fight rather than run from it.
Why did you switch to making videos with a more political edge in Brunei?
The film is to open people’s eyes about how far Asia has to go in general with not only women's rights, but LGBTQ rights and human rights in general. The film is about every woman, whether straight or not, and sharing their hardship in Brunei.