Malaysia: Transgender Muslims overturn ban

Transgender rights activists celebrate the ruling outside the court in Putrajaya. Picture: Reuters
Transgender rights activists celebrate the ruling outside the court in Putrajaya. Picture: Reuters
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THREE transgender Malaysian Muslims yesterday won a landmark court ruling against a religious law banning them from wearing women’s clothes.

Activists in the mainly Muslim south-east Asian nation hailed the ruling as a victory for human rights.

Three appeal court judges unanimously ruled the sharia law banning “cross-dressing” in Negeri Sembilan state was discriminatory, as it failed to recognise men “diagnosed” with gender identity issues.

It said the law deprived transgender people of “the right to live with dignity.”

Judge Mohamad Hishammuddin Mohamad Yunus said: “This is degrading, oppressive and inhumane.”

He said the Islamic law was aimed at curbing homosexual and lesbian activities that “led to the spread of HIV”. However, he added that the case “has nothing to do with homosexuality” but was about Muslim men with a medical condition.

A lower court dismissed the case in 2012, saying the three transgender people must adhere to Islamic law because they were Muslim and born male. The trio – certified by doctors to have gender identity issues – appealed.

The state’s Islamic religious department could still challenge the latest ruling at the top federal court, although yesterday it was not immediately clear if it planned to do so.


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Aston Paiva, a lawyer for the trio, said the ruling would have wide implications for transgender Muslim people in Malaysia. It sets a precedent for Malaysia’s high courts, which must follow the ruling if other Muslim transgender people challenge similar Islamic law in other states, he said, calling the case “historic”.

Transgender rights activist Nisha Ayub, who was in court as the verdict was read, said said it had left her and her colleagues speechless. “We are thankful and overjoyed. It is a victory for human rights,” she added.

Ms Ayub, who heads the Justice for Sisters group, said the “landmark ruling” had been conveyed to the trio, who were not present in court.

She said the three were make-up artists who had undertaken hormone treatment but had faced constant harassment by Islamic authorities.

The US-based Human Rights Watch group has claimed that Malaysia is one of the worst countries in the world for its treatment of transgender people, who it said faced constant harassment, sexual abuse and arrest by the authorities.

Since the 1980s, every state has passed sharia laws that institutionalise discrimination against transgender people, according to the New York-based group.

All 13 Malaysian states prohibit Muslim men from “dressing as women”, while three also criminalise “women posing as men”. The laws are enforced by state Islamic religious departments.

Human Rights Watch said it had interviewed transgender women who said they had been jailed for anything from four months to three years. Several were put in male wards, where they faced sexual assault from guards and other prisoners.

Most recently, 16 transgender women were arrested at a wedding party in June.


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