Malaysia is among the worst countries in the world to be a transgender person, Human Rights Watch said in a report that detailed systematic abuses by religious authorities and police, including sexual assault and extortion.
The report, based on interviews with transgender people, blamed “increasingly vitriolic” discourse by government officials, politicians and religious leaders for the deterioration in rights in the country where 60 per cent of the population are Muslims.
Malaysia has steadily shifted towards Islamic conservatism in the past few decades, with every state introducing laws for Muslims that criminalise “a man posing as a woman” or vice- versa, the report by the US-based group said.
It said Malaysia, where Islamic authorities banned sex change surgery in 1982, was among only a handful of countries, including Nigeria and Kuwait, that criminalise transgender people.
“Malaysia is actually one of the worst countries to be a transgender because of the laws, the state-organised arrests and the hate speech by politicians,” said Boris Dittric, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights programme.
The report called on prime minister Najib Razak, who has cast himself globally as a voice of moderation, to retract a statement media said he made in 2012 that it was necessary to fight the three “-isms” of pluralism, liberalism and LGBTs.
The 73-page report included witness testimony from one transgender women who said she had been stripped and sexually assaulted by state religious department officials in 2011.
Others said they had been arrested and forced to attend “counselling” sessions where Islamic officials lecture them on “being a man”.
Some women said they had been jailed for up to three years, with several placed in male wards where they faced sexual assault from prisoners.
Widespread discrimination by employers means a disproportionate number of transgender people end up working in the sex trade, where they face heightened risks.
Several transgender women have filed a ground-breaking court case challenging Islamic sharia law in the state of Negeri Sembilan, arguing that it contravenes the federal constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression and equality.
The court is expected to deliver its verdict in early November.
Human Rights Watch conducted field research in Malaysia in January 2014 in four states – Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Penang, and Pahang – and in the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur.
The charity interviewed transgender women and men as well as lawyers, HIV outreach workers, a criminologist, a psychologist, and a medical doctor.
Since the 1980s, every state has passed Sharia criminal enactments that institutionalise discrimination against transgender people.
All 13 Malaysian states prohibit Muslim men from “dressing as women,” while three states also criminalise “women posing as men.”
One transgender woman, Victoria, said she was arrested in 2011 by religious department officials, who stripped and sexually assaulted her. Another said she had been arrested more than 20 times.