Human rights groups are increasingly concerned that Malaysia is allowing violence and persecution of its trans citizens, with women being imprisoned under archaic laws and facing violent futures. Most recently, a Sharia court convicted 16 trans women under Section 66 of the NS Syariah Criminal Enactment, which essentially bans people from dressing in opposite gender clothes.
The women, who were given no access to a lawyer during the trial, were sentenced to a week in prison and a fine equivalent to $300 each. They were arrested, along with one trans-identifying minor, at a wedding party in a private residence on June 8. Religious department officials reportedly posed as guests at the wedding party in order to make these arrests.
Human Rights Watch reports that upon arrest, one of the women was subjected to violence, having reportedly been choked and kicked. Another woman’s clothing was badly torn. As Malaysia refuses to recognize the existence of transgender individuals, the women were classed as men by officials and, after their sentencing on June 9, were transferred to a male only prison, Sungai Udong, where prison officials forcibly shaved the women’s heads.
A local trans rights group, Justice for Sisters, alleges that after the womens’ defense lawyer filed a request to have the sentence reevaluated, the judge presiding over the case showed extreme bias, even going so far as to ask one of the women if she wasn’t better off in prison. The judge then set bail conditions that had intentionally impossible restrictions.
For instance, it demanded that the parents of some of the women attend the bail hearing within 30 minutes, all the while knowing that as many of the women come from families who live out-of-state this would be impossible. The women were eventually released after five days but they, like many trans women in Malaysia, face the prospect of daily harassment and state sanctioned persecution wherever they go. As many of the women act as wedding planners, they are also concerned that their criminal convictions will now make it increasingly difficult to find work, pushing them into poverty.
Trans people cannot change their gender markers on official documents in Malaysia and state and federal laws criminalize trans women under the archaic dress law. A handful of states also criminalize trans men in the same way. This means that because the men and women cannot change their gender markers, they face cycles of persecution if they choose to try to live their lives gender aligned. “No one should go to prison because of the clothing they wear,” said Neela Ghoshal of Human Rights Watch. “Malaysia’s religious department officials should never have arrested these women, and the judge should never have sentenced them.”
You may remember at the top of this story we told you a minor was also arrested. As the girl was under 18, she was not subject to criminal prosecution, but reports say that officials are keen to put her through “treatment” to “cure the condition.” What that will exactly entail remains to be seen, but that attempting to “cure” someone of their gender identity breaks various human rights standards barely needs to be said.
The following video from Human Rights Watch explains the legal situation for trans people in Malaysia and includes interviews with trans people who have been subjected to persecution. It also gives insight into how human rights lawyers are working to overturn the so-called “cross-dressing law” with a constitutional challenge that is currently making its way through the courts:
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