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Malaysia Takes Heat for Convicting Nine Trans Women of Illegal 'Cross-Dressing'

Malaysia Takes Heat for Convicting Nine Trans Women of Illegal 'Cross-Dressing'


Human Rights Watch has demanded Malaysia's Islamic government take anti-trans Sharia laws off the books.


Celebrations over a landmark ruling that decided Malaysia's anti-cross-dressing laws are unconstitutional may have been premature: the decision's enforcement in its home state, Negeri Sembilan, has been suspended and news of arrests of transgender women have again surfaced.

Human Rights Watch announced today that one of Malaysia's Islamic courts has convicted nine transgender women of violating laws that forbid a "male person from posing as a woman," fining each one and sentencing two to serve jail time.

The women were arrested when Kelantan's Islamic Affairs Department raided a hotel where the group was celebrating a birthday. The two women sentenced to imprisonment were released on bail pending an appeal filed by their lawyer.

The actions of the Islamic Affairs Department and the court have drawn ire from HRW, which referred to the raid "the latest incident in a pattern of arbitrary arrests and harassment of transgender women in Malaysia." The group called on the country's 13 state governments to immediately abolish all laws against cross-dressing and other anti-LGBT regulations.

"The Malaysian authorities should be protecting trans people from discrimination, not perpetuating it," explained HRW's LGBT rights researcher Neela Ghoshal. "The Kelantan Islamic Department should immediately drop the charges against the nine women, and all state governments should repeal these discriminatory laws."

In Malaysia, Muslim citizens -- who comprise 61 percent of the population -- are required to follow state-sanctioned Sharia law, enforced by Islamic Religious Departments operating in each separate state. However, trans women have increasingly pushed back against the laws prohibiting men "posing" as women, arguing that they violate federal constitutional protections of freedom of expression, equal protection, and freedom of movement, according to a report released last year by HRW.

Three trans women in Negeri Sembilan successfully argued this point in November, but enforcement of the ruling has been held. The state has since appealed that decision to the federal court to be decided in August, potentially altering the way that courts in Malaysia's other states rule on similar cases.

Meanwhile, trans citizens remain largely unable to update their legal gender markers or access transition-related medical care, leading HRW to rank Malaysia as one of the worst places in the world to be transgender.

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Mitch Kellaway