The woman with the shiny black curls and sparkling eyes chuckles as she recalls a phone call with her brother. When she revealed that she was going to Thailand, he asked her if it was for sex. “I said, 'Yes, that is exactly what I’m going for. And that’s why I’m calling you and letting you know, because you would be the most appropriate person on Earth to know that I am going to Thailand for sex.'” She grins slightly before adding, “The only thing is, he missed a word. Sex change.”
This is how we meet Maya Jafer, an Indian transgender woman and a Muslim who, after 42 years, two doctorates in holistic medicine, an acting career, and immigrating to the United States, is finally about to undergo the sex reassignment surgery (SRS) that will complete her transition from male to female. For this she has travelled to Bangkok, accompanied by filmmaker Jeff Roy, who is documenting the process.
Roy and Jafer met when Roy, a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at UCLA, began conducting interviews in India and then Los Angeles with hijra, a transgender community with a rich history of music and performance. “I inquired, and people pointed to Maya as being just a great source of information. So I interviewed her, and I was hoping to incorporate her into my research, but then one thing led to another and she actually let me know that she was planning to go through the surgery . . . in Bangkok.”
Jafer invited Roy to accompany her there to observe the culmination of her transition process. “It was then that I decided that I should probably put down the paper and the pencil and maybe record it,” he says. He borrowed a friend’s camera, rented some sound equipment and boarded a plane to Thailand.
The result is Mohammed to Maya (originally released as the shorter Rites of Passage), a moving and honest look at Jafer’s transition from both a physical and a spiritual perspective. “Maya is a very open, honest person . . . She’s the kind of person that really opens up in front of the camera,” Roy says.
Indeed, the film’s greatest strength comes from this openness; Jafer is completely frank in both word and deed, unflinchingly sharing her thoughts and emotions. She also shares her body, both pre- and post-transition, without a hint of shame. We see Maya as she is being prepped for surgery and then again afterward when her body is a mess of bandages and tubes and she is clearly in a lot of pain.
“I had never been in a situation quite like that before, where I not only had to be there as support because I was really the only physical person next to her during that process, but also to be responsible for documenting footage that is of quality,” Roy says. “In the post-surgery and all of that, when she was actually in physical pain, I mean, I put the camera down and helped her. So there were definitely moments when that camera went down and was turned off.”
Throughout the entire process, Jafer’s greatest source of strength comes from her faith as a Muslim. “I think that’s the beauty of Maya. I think that’s getting at the crux of her sort of core as an individual, is that strength and also vulnerability,” Roy says.
In one scene, Jafer recounts how her father, himself a devout and conservative Muslim, used to wake her in the mornings by beating her and forcing her to pray. “How would you find love for God in that way?” she asks, wiping away angry tears. And yet in her own beautiful way, she has.
“The LGBTQ community gets . . . attacked in some ways by religious fundamentalists and rightwingers who claim to have authority or just knowledge of what God wants,” Roy says. “I think what Maya demonstrates is that no, in fact, God is within all of us, and for her, God is that singular sort of source of strength for her to go through something that allows her to be more true to herself. And so I think that’s the beauty of her message.”