Malaysia transgenders win landmark court case

Julia Zappei
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Transgender activists celebrate outside the court of appeals in Putrajaya on November 7 after winning a bid to overturn an anti-cross dressing law

Transgender activists celebrate outside the court of appeals in Putrajaya on November 7 after winning a bid to overturn an anti-cross dressing law (AFP Photo/Mohd Rasfan)

Three Malaysian transgender women on Friday won their landmark bid to overturn an Islamic anti cross-dressing law in the conservative Muslim-majority nation.

A three-judge appeals court panel ruled that a state provision that bars Muslim men from dressing as women was unconstitutional, saying it "deprives the appellants of the right to live with dignity".

"It has the effect of denying the appellants and other sufferers of GID (gender identify disorder) to move freely in public places... This is degrading, oppressive and inhuman," judge Hishamudin Yunus said.

The verdict overturns a 2012 lower court ruling, which had dismissed the challenge by the three appellants -- Muslims who were born male but identify as women -- over their arrest four years ago under the law in southern Negri Sembilan state.

Malaysia has a double track court system with state Islamic laws governing civil matters for Muslims, who account for 60 percent of the country's 30 million people.

Under state Islamic laws, men dressing or acting as women is punishable by up to three years in jail. Some Malaysian states also outlaw cross-dressing by women.

Aston Paiva, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said the ruling could be used to challenge any arrest of transgender people throughout Malaysia.

"It's quite historic... This will be a precedent... This court binds all other high courts," Paiva said.

A Negri Sembilan state legal advisor declined comment on whether his side would seek to appeal the verdict to a higher court.

"I am happy we won the case. I feel more relaxed now," one of the plaintiffs told AFP by phone. "I have waited for this."

She and the other two plaintiffs have shied away from any public appearances and were not in court.

- Systematic repression -

The case is the first attempt to overturn the prohibition on cross-dressing in the Southeast Asian nation, where homosexuality and transgender lifestyles remain taboo, and questioning Islamic laws is sensitive.

Human Rights Watch in September called on the government to repeal all laws that criminalise transgender lifestyles after the US-based group found that they face systematic and constant repression, harassment, mistreatment, social ostracism and "risk arrest every day".

Human Rights Watch said in a report that transgender people in Malaysia face worsening persecution due to the steady rise of conservative Islamic attitudes.

The abuses include arrest, physical and sexual assault and extortion by authorities, shaming by forcing transgender women to strip in public, and barriers to healthcare, employment and education.

Authorities face no accountability in their treatment of transgender people, the report added.

Nisha Ayub, a transgender activist, said Friday's ruling was a "critical moment" for her community.

"The fight will still be there... (but) at least now the trans community know that they have their rights to challenge the law," she said. "It will encourage them to come out rather than being oppressed."

Activists and transgender people say that in the past attitudes were fairly tolerant in the historically moderate Muslim country.

But religious minorities and other critics have increasingly expressed fears about the spread of conservative Islamic attitudes.

Some Malaysian transgender people undergo sex-change surgery. But even then, they are unable to legally change their names and genders -- Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- complicating access to public services.

Deprived of jobs, many are pushed into sex work.