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Malaysian transgenders 'live in fear' of arrest, abuse

AFP | Monday, Sep 29, 2014

SEREMBAN, Malaysia - Aryana had just returned to her home one night in June when Malaysian Islamic-purity enforcers burst in, ransacking her apartment and arresting her for cross-dressing.

Using a pseudonym to protect her identity, Aryana is transgender - born a man but identifying as a woman - and part of a substantial community that complains of rising persecution in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian country.

The 30 year-old was detained for several hours, during which she was roughly handled, pressured to confess and charged a fine.

"It's difficult. When I wore men's clothing, it felt like a lie," said Aryana, a sex worker with long hair dyed reddish-brown and a heavily-powdered face.

Transgender people are common in Malaysia, typically men whose gender identity is female, but also vice versa. Some undergo sex-change surgery.

But their lives are far different from the famously tolerant stance in Buddhist neighbouring Thailand.

Human Rights Watch said Malaysia is one of the world's worst countries for transgender people, as it released a report last week detailing social ostracism, discrimination, and harassment, sexual abuse and arrest by authorities.

Homosexuality is effectively banned in Malaysia. Gay sex - considered "against the order of nature" - brings up to 20 years in jail under federal law.

State-level laws on Islamic purity also criminalise dressing as the opposite sex, activists say. Violations can bring three years in prison and a fine.

Court challenge

Three transgender women who were arrested four years ago are now boldly fighting that in court via a lawsuit in the southern state of Negeri Sembilan that calls such rules discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Its chances are uncertain, but activists hope success will prompt scrutiny of laws in other states. A ruling is expected November 7.

"I hope for success. I have been waiting so long already," said one of the parties to the suit, a slim 28-year-old dressed in tight jeans, sunglasses holding back reddish dyed hair, who asked to be unidentified.

"I'm not a man acting like a woman. I am a woman." Activists and transgender people say past attitudes were fairly tolerant in the historically moderate Muslim country.

But conservative Islam is growing due to a complex mix of factors.

In 1982, the National Fatwa Council, Malaysia's highest Muslim authority, banned sex-reassignment surgery as un-Islamic.

Authorities have since taken a steadily harder line against transgenders and homosexuality, critics say. A gay rights festival was banned in 2011.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who portrays himself as a Muslim moderate, has repeatedly said in recent years that gay and transgender rights initiatives were deviant.

Officials in Najib's office, Malaysia's attorney-general, and a government agency that polices Islamic conduct did not respond to AFP requests for comment.

Human Rights Watch's report urged the repeal of all discriminatory regulations, saying transgender people are at constant risk of mistreatment by authorities.

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