Malaysia: Transgender women arrested, fined and jailed

Transgender people Malaysia

An unnamed transgender woman in Malaysia (Pic: © 2014 Javad Tizmaghz for Human Rights Watch)

Human Rights Watch has slammed Malaysia for persecuting LGBT people after nine transgender women were convicted by a Sharia (Islamic law) court.

The women were all fined while two were sentenced to one month in jail under a discriminatory law that prohibits “a male person posing as a woman.”

Religious authorities in the north-eastern Malaysian state of Kelantan arrested the women in a raid on June 16, and they pleaded guilty the next day.

A lawyer filed an appeal and the two women sentenced to jail were released on bail pending the outcome.

The nine women, known as mak nyah in Malaysia, were attending a private birthday party at a hotel when officials from the Kelantan Islamic Department (JHEAIK) raided the party and arrested them.

In each state in Malaysia, religious department officials are responsible for enforcing state Sharia criminal codes. In Kelantan, those guilty of “cross-dressing” are liable to a fine or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding four months, or to both.

Human Rights Watch said the raid is the latest incident in a pattern of arbitrary arrests and harassment of transgender women in Malaysia.

It called on Malaysian state governments to immediately abolish laws against “cross-dressing” and other discriminatory legislation against LGBT people.

“Malaysian authorities need to stop hauling transgender people into court simply because of who they are and what they wear,” said Neela Ghoshal, senior LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to recognise that the freedom to express your gender is as fundamental as any other freedom.”

In a landmark decision in November 2014, a court of appeal in Putrajaya struck down that state’s “cross-dressing” law on the grounds that they violated constitutional rights, including the right to freedom of expression.

Enforcement of the law has been suspended, although the state government has appealed the decision to the Federal Court. But in the rest of Malaysia’s 13 states and its Federal Territories, laws against “cross-dressing” remain in force and are being used against transgender people.

Malaysian transgender rights activists say that the cross-dressing laws not only violate the constitution, but contribute to widespread discrimination and violence against transgender people.

“Laws against ‘a male person posing as a woman’ not only deny transgender women in Malaysia our fundamental rights as citizens of the country, they also contribute to a hostile environment,” said Nisha Ayub, a transgender activist with the rights group Justice for Sisters. “These laws lead people to perceive us as criminals and subject us to humiliation, hate crimes, and other forms of violence.”

In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch documented rights violations by state religious officials and police including arbitrary arrests and detention; sexual assault, torture, and ill-treatment; and extortion of money and sex.

Malaysia is one of very few countries in the world that prosecutes individuals whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth, simply for being who they are.

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