Malaysia: Support overwhelms 16 jailed trans women

This plea for donations raised more money than was requested, and apparently more than was needed to help 17 arrested trans women in Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Sisters)
This plea for donations raised more money than was requested, and apparently more than was needed to help 17 arrested trans women in Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Sisters)

Their ordeal isn’t over, but 16 transgender women arrested June 8 for allegedly violating the Malaysian syariah (sharia) law against “men posing as women” expressed deep gratitude for an outpouring of support for their cause.
After Justice for Sisters, an organization supporting LGBT rights in Malaysia, sought contributions of RM 24,000 [US $7,484] to pay the women’s fines and legal costs, supporters contributed RM29,916 [US $9,325].
The organization also discovered that less than expected was needed for the women’s fines and legal expenses, so it offered to repay any donors who want their money back.
The trans women were fined RM 950 each (about US $300) and sentenced to Sungai Udang prison for seven days. Their lawyers anticipated a need for RM 1,500 [US $468] each to pay the fines and appeal the sentences. But Justice for Sister said that it turned out that they only needed RM 5,850 to pay lawyer’s fees of RM 3,000 and the RM 950 fine for each of three trans women.
A post on the Facebook group for Justice for Sisters stated:

As the 16 transwomen were leaving the syariah court, they informed us to convey their love and gratitude to all of you for your wonderful support. We showed them the news articles and messages of support and solidarity on social media sites when we met them yesterday at the Syariah Court. Your solidarity and support gave all of us hope, and made the sisters realize that they are not alone.

Bahau, Negeri Sembilan is east of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. (Map courtesy of Weather-Forecast.com)
Bahau, Negeri Sembilan is east of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. (Map courtesy of Weather-Forecast.com)

The arrests took place at a wedding celebration in Bahau, Negeri Sembilan, southeast of Kuala Lumpur.
The 17th trans woman who was arrested is a minor, so she was released on the condition that she must report to the Jabatan Agama (Islamic Religious Department) every month for the next year.
During the June 8 raid, some of the trans women (known locally as mak nyah) were physically abused by the police, they said. Justice for Sisters stated:

Some of the 17 mak nyahs were physically violated by the arresting officers during the  raid. Some said their clothes were ripped. One mak nyah told us she was choked, grabbed  by the back of her neck and kicked in the knee to the ground when she attempted escape  from the three men arresting her.

Publicity poster for Transgender Day of Remembrance in November 2013. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Sisters)
Publicity poster for Transgender Day of Remembrance in Malaysia in November 2013. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Sisters)

The hosts of the wedding protested the police action on private property, but their protest was rejected by police, who said that the lawn of the house where the wedding took place was “a  public place.”
More information from Justice for Sisters is below.
Excerpt from a post on the Facebook group for Justice for Sisters
We are speechless by the funds that we have all collectively raised in 48 hours or so for the 16 transwomen. We are amazed by the amount work that each and every one of you have put it by tweeting, retweeting, sharing, liking, forwarding emails, posting comments, writing articles and more. Excellent work everyone! Justice for Sisters would also like to thank all of you for trusting us.
As of 12th June 2014 10:41am, we have raised RM29,916.09. As we only used RM 5,850 for the case, we are happy to return donations (full or partial) if you would like to reconsider your donations. The economy is bad, the inflation is high, and we understand that solidarity is not all about money. You will not be less of an ally if you decide to reconsider your donation. We will contact those who have donated via email by end of today. We still have a few inquiries for donations, which we have yet to respond to. We will respond by end of today too.
We always welcome donations, and all funds will be used for Justice for Sisters activities that include legal assistance, psychosocial support, community empowerment activities, and public awareness raising activities.
RM 3,000 lawyers’ fees
RM 2, 850 pending fine of 3 transwomen
Public statement by Justice for Sisters
Plea for justice and compassion for transgender people. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Sisters)
Plea for justice and compassion for transgender people. (Photo courtesy of Justice for Sisters)

JEMPOL REPORT: ARRESTS & CONVICTIONS   On 9 June 2014, 17 transwomen (known locally as mak nyah and referred to as such  interchangeably within this statement) were arrested at a wedding at a residence in Felda  Lui Timur, Negeri Sembilan. Some of the arrested were mak andam (wedding planners)  involved in the wedding. The others were invited guests. Customarily, mak andams are a  local wedding staple involved in wedding planning, make-up, and tasks on the wedding  day itself (e.g. building the pelamin or wedding platform).
Around 9pm, the wedding continued with a dance called joget lambak. About 30 mak  nyahs were present as invited guests. The guests were dancing and having fun.  At about 12am, vehicles repeatedly patrolled the area, which changed the mood of the  wedding party significantly.
At about 12:15am, a man arrived, introducing himself as an officer from the Negeri  Sembilan state religious department, or Jabatan Hal Ehwal Agama Islam Negeri Sembilan  (JHEAINS). Due to the festivities, this announcement was not audible to the entire  crowd. However, this man and 20 plain-clothes officers began immediately arresting the  mak nyahs present, causing much confusion and panic. The surprised mak nyahs found  themselves grabbed by unknown men and instinctively resisted. A few evaded arrest.  However, they were also traumatised and injured from hiding behind trees and bushes in  the dark.
Malaysian transgender activist Nisha Ayub was jailed for three months for violating sharia law by cross-dressing. (Click the image to view an HRW report on transgender activism in Malaysia.)
Malaysian transgender activist Nisha Ayub was jailed for three months for violating sharia law by cross-dressing. (Click the image to view an HRW report on transgender activism in Malaysia.)

A few mak nyahs had noticed religious officers pretending to be guests, as they were seen  chatting with some of the mak nyahs prior to the raid.
Some of the 17 mak nyahs were physically violated by the arresting officers during the  raid. Some said their clothes were ripped. One mak nyah told us she was choked, grabbed  by the back of her neck and kicked in the knee to the ground when she attempted escape  from the three men arresting her.
One of the arrested mak nyahs wore unisex attire: a pair of leggings, a shirt, and no bra.  She wore her hair up in a ponytail. When questioning her arrest, the officers stated her  voice, speech, and her mannerisms resembled a woman.
Although the JHEAINS officers arrived with sufficient means to transport the mak nyahs  to the religious department in Jempol (two white vans), they insisted on isolating the  arrested in a tent at the wedding while waiting for a police truck. The hosts and guests  remarked that this move by JHEAINS was unnecessary and such delay only served to  further humiliate these mak nyahs.
The wedding hosts attempted to lodge a police report against the raid and conduct of  these officers. But the police rejected their report, claiming there was no foul play in the  course of the raid, and deemed the lawn of the house where the wedding took place as “a  public place.”
Section 66 reads that any male person who, in any public place, wears a woman’s attire  and poses as a woman shall be guilty of an offense and shall on conviction be liable to a  fine not exceeding RM1000, imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both.
The mak nyahs were detained at the religious department until 10am the next day. No  statements were taken. Their mobile phones were not confiscated, but they were forbidden to use them. The mak nyahs were only asked about legal representation at 9am.  They were only informed of the law, the fine, and the court procedure between 9am to  10am, immediately before being taken to court. While in detention, they had no  knowledge and were not informed of their right to a lawyer or their rights as detainees  upon arrest.
However, during their overnight detention, the mak nyahs were subject to verbal abuse  from the officers — “Kenapa tak boleh jadi lelaki sebenar?” (“Why can’t you be a real  man?”) “Berdosa jadi macam ni” (“Being you is a sin”).
Before taken to the Syariah Lower Court, the transwomen were instructed to clean the  room they were detained in. Although they consented, they received further denigration  and disrespect by being tasked to empty trash in the department kitchen and a couple of  rooms in the department.
The mak nyahs were forced to walk barefoot from the JHEAINS branch in Jempol to the  court, carrying their footwear. Although nearby, they had to cross a tar road in the hot  sun.
As they have never been arrested under Section 66 of the Negeri Sembilan Syariah  Criminal Offenses and did not have legal representation, the mak nyahs pled guilty to the  charges. The state prosecutor implored the judge to sentence the mak nyahs severely,  under the guise of teaching them a lesson.
An appeal for repealing Malaysia's law against "posing as a woman" because it violates human rights and the Malaysian constitution.
An appeal for repealing Malaysia’s law against “posing as a woman” because it violates human rights and the Malaysian constitution.

16 of the 17 mak nyahs were fined RM950 and sentenced to Sungai Udang prison for 7  days. Should they fail to pay the fine before then; the prison sentence will be extended to  6 months. One mak nyah was a minor and not sentenced to prison. However, she was  released on probation and has to present herself at JHEAINS monthly for 12 months.
Ultimately, the state gained a total of RM15, 200 from the raid and arrests of invited  guests to a wedding on a house lawn.
We question this raid and the law in its entirety, and also wholeheartedly believe the  sentence of RM950 and 7 days of imprisonment per person is too excessive for a group of  people who have never been previously charged.
Since their identification cards state their genders as male, mak nyahs are typically  sentenced to male prisons and treated as male inmates — shaved heads, no access to  hormonal replacement therapy. There is no doubt that this forced masculinization and  erasure of their identity will cause a lasting and highly damaging psychological impact to  these transwomen.
In addition, their income and reputation have been adversely affected by this ordeal, as many of them have been forced to abandon their jobs as they are serving time in prison.  The mak nyahs may even have to compensate their clients who have booked their wedding planning services in advance.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. After his retirement from paid newspaper work in 2011, he launched Erasing 76 Crimes and helped with the Spirit of 76 campaign that assembled a multi-national team of 26 LGBTI rights activists to advocate for change during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., in July 2012. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, including the Erasing 76 Crimes news site and the African Human Rights Media Network. Contact him via Twitter @76crimes or by email at info@76crimes.com. Mailing address: 21 Marseille, Laguna Niguel CA 92677 USA.

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