“I always thought of myself as a beautiful woman,” she says matter-of-factly. Coming from anyone else, these words would have sounded arrogant. But coming from Mela Habijan, they were only introspective.
If you asked her now, she would tell you without missing a beat what she is—a writer, an actress, a beauty queen. She beams from ear to ear as she says, “I’m a proud trans woman.”
This self-assuredness didn’t come natural for the first Miss Trans Global at all. She paints a picture of a childhood of confusion, of struggling to belong, and finally the clarity that would come years later—and the liberation that comes with the truth. “I’m very happy that I got to learn who I really was, and owned it, and freed her, “ she says, giving another one of her smiles, “I can say that I’ve never been this free.”
Mela first encountered the term ‘transgender’ in 2012. “I’ve never heard of this term kasi apat lang naman ang terminong kinalakihan namin—girl, boy, bakla, tomboy,” she explains, “We didn’t know that there is a term that could define our gender identity.”
(We grew up only knowing four terms—girl, boy, gay, lesbian.)
While the term was new for her, something had clicked into place. In putting a name to what she was feeling, she could finally reclaim the space she lost when she was folding herself small. For Mela, words have undeniable power. “At the onset of understanding, transgender people are really all about identifying their truths, owning their truths, and living their truths,” she remarks.
In the spotlight
In full bloom as a trans woman, Habijan found Miss Trans Global as an inclusive gamechanger to the pageant scene, as they have no age or body requirements. She proclaims, “This pageant is beyond the conventional definition of beauty…As long as you are trans-identifying, no matter where you’re from, you can join the pageant.”
The competition was also held online, being one of the first few to execute a beauty pageant during the lockdown. But according to Habijan, what makes her experience unique is because her family wholeheartedly supported every step of the journey. This representation matters, as she asserts, “It’s a great expression of how a trans woman can evolve and grow in a society that when a trans woman or an LGBTQIA person is loved by his, her, their family, then the magic of fulfilling anything that this person desires will be strengthened.”
The visibility and acceptance of trans women in society become more achievable through such platforms, especially if one’s family willingly stands alongside them in the fight. She affirms, “Mas mayroong kapangyarihan na angkinin ang mga espasyo sa mundo dahil ang pundasyon nun ay pag-ibig. And I grew up [with] the notion that when the foundation of a person is love, anything can be conquered.”
(We have greater power to claim spaces in the world because the foundation of that is love. And I grew up with the notion that when the foundation of a person is love, anything can be conquered.)
Standing upright with the crown, Habijan takes this opportunity to redefine feminism today. She aspires to abolish trans-exclusionary narratives in the fulfillment of genuine women empowerment and gender equality. The goal is to unlearn toxic mindsets growing up in a conservative culture, to view and treat women more than as biological providers. She emphasizes, “Being a feminist is all about recognizing the worth of a woman regardless of the body. Sa isang lengwahe ng peminista, dapat nakikita kung ano ang kaibuturan ng pagkababae.”
(In a united feminist language, we must see the essence of womanhood.)
This is where intersectionality upholds diversity and inclusivity to mold the movement. The resistance against oppressive systems in society must be led by every kind of woman. Such an enduring stance is formed because, as Habijan says, “This is a common experience, whether you’re trans or cis, that you’re always on the sidelines being made fun of.”
Thus, feminism can be more trans-inclusive through female solidarity where women refuse to create divisions within—onto a greater sense of allyship with the focus to dismantle the patriarchy together. Habijan expresses, “The conversation must start from there na pinagmumulan ng ating pag-uusap at pagbahagi ang pagkakapare-pareho natin bilang mga kababaihan. At ‘yun ang mababang pagtingin sa atin ng isang patriyarkal at toxic masculine na mundo.”
(The conversation must start from there which comes from our shared commonality as women. And that is how we are underestimated by a patriarchal and toxic masculine world.)
Expanding the stage
The challenge is to widen the scope of feminism to address and tackle the multitude of issues faced by women with varying socioeconomic status, privilege, and gender identity. And the key to doing so involves empowered women making it a duty to empower fellow women.
Habijan aims to break stereotypes and misconceptions by using her platform as a writer and actress to instill change. “Since media shapes our concept of the world, it is a must for the media to display accurate representation of what [the] LGBTQIA community is and what a transgender woman is,” she explains.
Furthermore, she acknowledges that she can’t speak for all trans people. And so, she hopes that in spaces such as media, more and more trans people are given opportunities to speak for themselves. “There are trans women who are in different forms and sizes. Hindi lang siya pageant queen, ‘di ba, at hindi lang pagiging beauty queen ang career ng isang transgender woman. We can be in any space. We can conquer any single field.”
(A trans woman is not just a pageant queen, right? And being a beauty queen is not the only career for a transgender woman.)