On the 30th of October this year, authorities in Kedah, Malaysia, raided a private birthday party and arrested thirty transgender women. The Kedah Islamic Department ordered this raid. They accused the organizer of “encouraging vice,” which is an act criminalized under the 1988 Kedah Shariah Criminal Offences Enactment. Local media outlets covered this incident poorly: misgendering the parties involved, including biased statements, and overall being very disrespectful.
This is not the first time that transgender women have been the target of attack in Malaysia. In 2017, the Terengganu state government announced their plans to hold a “conversion therapy course” for transgender women. Later, in 2018, authorities removed leading transgender activist Nisha Ayub’s portrait from display at a Penang art exhibition. Universiti Sains Malaysia held a forum in April that same year to “convert” members of the LGBTQ+ community. That same year, a group of youths murdered a transgender woman in Klang.
In July just this year, the Malaysian Minister of Religious Affairs announced that the Federal Territory Islamic Department (JAWI) would be able to arrest, counsel, or educate trans people to “return to the right path.” It was already legal for authorities to stop and “examine” people who dress in gender-nonconforming ways. This egregious statement only consolidated the power authorities have to infringe on the dignity of transgender people with impunity. It is a form of direct violence from the state. As the SEED Foundation’s executive director Mitch Yusmar Yusof pointed out, this will only encourage vigilantism against transgender women. It adds fuel to the fire, which is already blazing.
The struggles Malaysian trans women face
Mak nyah, the term Malaysian transgender women use as a self-identifier, used to be widely accepted in society. (In the 1970s, Malaysia was the only country in Southeast Asia to have legal sex reassignment clinics! However, this has not held true over the years.
Firstly, transgender people are demonized in virtually every avenue of life–healthcare, legislation, the workforce, media, and on the street. Transgender women, in particular, endure an inordinate amount of violence from both family and strangers. The stigma surrounding them and traumatic experiences with authorities mean they often cannot or are not willing to seek the help of these authorities when faced with abuse.
Moreover, according to local activists, violence against transgender people in Malaysia has only grown in recent years. Between 2015 and 2020, there were 14 cases of reported murders of transgender women in Malaysia. Justice for Sisters, a Malaysian feminist organization, created a list of key trends regarding the violence Malaysian transgender women experienced in 2020 alone. Find their statement here. In one particularly horrifying example, the family of a young trans woman imprisoned her in the house in an attempt to convert her.
Furthermore, transmisogyny and general intolerance mean that most openly trans women cannot work in “legitimate” professions. A lot of them turn to sex work to support themselves. There are few protections in place as it is for sex workers in Malaysia; transgender women face several hundred times the risk. But it is not just physical harm that transgender women experience because of their identities. Barred from “legitimate” jobs and often cut off from their families’ support networks, many of them struggle economically. SEED Malaysia, an NGO run by Nisha Ayub, reported an increase in transgender women seeking shelter this year. The effects of the pandemic are especially harsh on those already without a stable source of income. The mandatory lockdown has also confined many transgender women to their homes with abusive families or partners.
What should the government do?
Justice for Sisters created a list of key approaches to making the lives of transgender women safer. Here are a few of the most important suggestions for the Malaysian government:
- Education and human rights training for law enforcement and government staff
- Fair and accurate reporting on violence faced by transgender people
- Anti-discrimination protections for transgender people
- Ending all campaigns to “convert” LGBTQ+ women
We must not ignore the plight of transgender women in Malaysia. Despite the government’s attempt to delegitimize the community, they endure. In the spirit of allyship, we cannot let them endure alone. The work of local activists like Nisha Ayub and those in the SEED Foundation lay the ground for an equal future. Someday soon, trans women in Malaysia will be able to breathe easy.