Malaysian court overturns law that banned cross-dressing

Appeal judges rule unanimously that sharia law deprived three diagnosed with gender identity issues of right to live with dignity

Associated Press in Kuala Lumpur
The Guardian, Friday 7 November 2014 08.10 GMT

Three Malaysian Muslim transgender people have won a court ruling that challenged a religious law banning them from cross-dressing.

Activists called it a victory for human rights in the conservative south-east Asian nation.

A three-judge panel of the court of appeal unanimously ruled that the sharia law in Negeri Sembilan state was discriminatory as it failed to recognise men diagnosed with gender identity issues. It said the law deprived trans people of the right to live with dignity.

“This is degrading, oppressive and inhumane,” said Judge Mohamad Hishammuddin Mohamad Yunus. He added that the Islamic law was aimed at curbing homosexual and lesbian activities that led to the spread of HIV. The present case “has nothing to do with homosexuality”, he said, but was about Muslim men with a medical condition.

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

The state’s Islamic Religious Department could still appeal against the ruling at the federal court.

Aston Paiva, a lawyer for the three people, said the ruling would have wide implications for Muslim trans people in the country. It set a precedent for high courts, which must follow the ruling if other Muslim trans people challenge similar Islamic law in other states, he said, calling the case historic.

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

Ayub, who heads the Justice for Sisters group, said the “landmark ruling” had been conveyed to the three trans people, who were not present in court. They were makeup artists who had undergone hormone treatment and faced constant harassment from Islamic authorities, she said.

Human Rights Watch calls Muslim-majority Malaysia one of the world’s worst countries for trans people, as they face constant harassment, sexual abuse and arrest by Islamic authorities. Since the 1980s, every state has passed sharia criminal enactments that institutionalise discrimination against trans people, according to the New York-based watchdog. All 13 Malaysian states prohibit Muslim men from dressing as women, while three states also criminalise “women posing as men”. The laws are enforced by state Islamic religious departments.

Figures for how many people have been arrested and sentenced under the law are hard to come by, but Human Rights Watch said it interviewed transgender women who said they had been jailed from four months to three years. Several of them were put in male wards, where they faced sexual assault from both guards and other prisoners, it said. Most recently, 16 transgender women were arrested at a wedding on 8 June.