By Isma Hassaine Poirier
Photo from Justice for Sisters
Last June, nine transgender women were arrested in Kelantan, the northeastern
state of Malaysia, for being “a male person posing as a woman”. Seven of them were
fined and the two others sentenced to jail time, before being released on bail pending
the outcome. The nine women were attending a private event when officials from the
Kelantan Islamic Department (JHEAIK) burst in and arrested them.
Malaysia, located in Southeast Asia, counts many ethnic groups. The Muslim
population is the majority amongst them, representing around 60% of the 30 million
people in the country, and Sharia law is commonly applied, sometimes a drastic
version of it. Minorities often pay the price of such rigorist ruling. In this case, it is the
LGBT community, and within this community, the transgender group.
The story of these nine women is far from being anecdotal. Transgender women are
subjected to abusive arrest and humiliation. In a September 2014 document entitled
“I am Scared to Be a Woman”, Human Rights Watch reported on the worrying
situation of transgender people in Malaysia and collected testimonies from many
victims of abuses and human rights violations by the religious police. Following
arbitrary arrests, transgender people are often subjected to ill-treatments and
humiliation. When they are sentenced to jail time, transwomen are sent to male
blocks in prison to serve their time. This situation makes them fragile and leaves
them exposed to a plethora of abuses such as extortion of money or sex.
The Malaysian society has not always harboured hostile feelings against transgender
people. Indeed, until the 1980’s, transgender people were not subjected to any law
targeting their freedom and enjoyed a relatively high degree of acceptance. In the
beginning of the 80’s, the country shifted towards a prominent Islamization of public
policy that affected transgender people. A series of legislative initiatives were set in
motion in order to criminalize them. Furthermore, a Fatwa or Islamic decree, issued
in 1982, forbade all transgender people to undergo sex reassignment surgery (SRS).
The flames of hatred against transgender people are fueled by state officials and
religious leaders, leading to abuse at the expense of the transgender population
dignity and fundamental rights, even though Prime Minister Najib Razak insists on
presenting Malaysia to the international community as a moderate Muslim country.
The truth is that discrimination can be found in many areas of life, from housing to
education, medical care and employment.
In November 2014, there was reason for hope in the fight for transgender people’s
rights. A group of transwomen had filed a case and challenged section 66 of the
Sharia law in place in the southern state of Negeri Sembilan, after being arrested
repeatedly under dubious accusations such as wearing feminine hair
accessories.The Court of Appeal in Kuala Lumpur ruled in favor of the transgender
women by calling the cross-dressing ban unconstitutional. While this ruling is only
binding in this specific state, it could have had repercussions on the legal status of
transgender people in the rest of the country. But so far, it has not – instead, the
state’s Islamic Religious Department has appealed the ruling to the top Federal
Court. A hearing is due in August.
The organisation Justice For Sisters, based in Kuala-Lumpur, is actively campaigning
against the violence and persecution against Mak Nyah - the Malay name of the
transwomen minority in Malaysia. Their aim is to challenge the state Sharia law and
spread a positive image of transwomen. This initiative is one of the few fighting for
the cause. There is still room for hope even though there is a long way to go to
achieve acceptance and freedom for transwomen in Malaysia.