Strong rebukes for Malaysian minister’s anti-trans stance

A Malaysian official’s appeal for action against trans citizens has drawn sharp rebukes from human rights activists and trans advocates.

Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, Malaysia’s minister of religious affairs. (Shafwan Zaidon courtesy of Malay Mail)

Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, Malaysia’s religious affairs minister, stated July 10 that federal religious police have “full license” to arrest trans people and subject them to religious education to “return to the right path”.

In response, the Muslim human rights group Sisters in Islam (SIS) urged him to drop his calls to “rehabilitate” trans people but instead should  remember how Islam teaches its adherents kindness, compassion and not to discriminate, shame or act violently, regardless of people’s backgrounds, gender or identities.

Azrul Mohd Khalib, chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy, said that the minister’s words had sent a terrible signal, which may cause an escalation of harmful and discriminating actions  against the trans community.

The trans advocacy group Justice for Sisters agreed, stating:

“His statement will increase discrimination, violence and mistreatment of transgender women with impunity by enforcement officers of the Islamic Departments as well as members of the public. We are already observing questions and concerns over personal security, safety and well-being by transgender persons across the country since the release of the statement.”

This is the full statement of Justice for Sisters:

What Trans People Need is the License to Be Respected as Human

Justice for Sisters logo
Justice for Sisters logo

Justice for Sisters is deeply concerned with and disappointed by Dr Zulkifli Mohamad’s irresponsible and degrading statement about trans people in the media yesterday. In the statement, he gives full license to the Federal Territory Islamic Department (JAWI) to arrest and counsel or educate transgender people so that they ‘return to the right path’. His statement will increase discrimination, violence and mistreatment of transgender women with impunity by enforcement officers of the Islamic Departments as well as members of the public. We are already observing questions and concerns over personal security, safety and well-being by transgender persons across the country since the release of the statement.

These concerns are not unfounded. There are many documented evidence and reports of mistreatment and human rights violations by the Islamic Departments against transgender people. The Study on Discrimination against Transgender Persons in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor revealed that 39 of 69 trans women interviewees (57%) had experienced arbitrary arrest based on gender identity, while many others have had hostile interactions with law enforcement agencies. These numbers are alarming as they suggest trans women are disproportionately targeted and arrested based on their gender identity. The study also documents the impact of hostile encounters with the enforcement agencies, which include anxiety, trauma, depression amongst others. Four persons shared that they have had suicidal thoughts, and one person had attempted suicide as a result of the encounters.

Meanwhile, I am Scared to be a Woman, a Human Rights Watch report documents the multiple forms of aggression and violence experienced by trans women during arrest and detention as well their impact on the employment and interpersonal relationships of trans women.

The human rights violations documented in these reports have yet to be investigated and no one has been held accountable. This license to arrest is essentially a license to discriminate, promote hate and violate the rights of trans women in Malaysia with impunity. It is a license enjoyed by the state actors who are free to conduct arrests and corrective therapies as they please, often without accountability, even while they restricted trans people from their right to self-expression and identity, freedom of movement, and access to redress and justice. This hostile environment makes it even more challenging for transgender people to report human rights violations.

We are also deeply disturbed by the government’s perception of transgender people as less than human and as undeserving of respect and dignity. We emphasize that transgender persons are autonomous human beings and equal members of society with rights as affirmed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other UN treaties as well as international human rights laws.

The notion that gender identity and transgender persons can be rehabilitated, changed or ‘returned to the right path’ through counseling is completely false and unscientific. It subjects transgender persons, non-binary and gender non-conforming persons to so much harm and human rights violations. In fact, these corrective or conversion therapies, including those that use spiritual and religious methods have been rejected by medical and human rights bodies globally due to its harmful impact, including depression, suicidal ideation and attempts and self harm, among others. We reiterate that these practices are forms of torture given the magnitude of harm it has on the individual and their loved ones.

While the government may claim that they have seen many transgender women who have changed themselves or ‘returned to the right path’, we must analyze the factors and circumstances that contribute to these changes. We respect everyone’s right to self-determination, self-expression and the choices that they make. However, it is important to note that these individuals’ decisions to change are often made in order to access opportunities, services, and simply to be tolerated in society.

Given the discrimination, violence and marginalization that they faced throughout their lives, some transgender people cannot imagine they could be accepted without condition and therefore subject themselves to society’s conditions just to get by. We believe that trans people know their own needs and do not need uninvited interventions from others to correct them. We should listen to them tell us what they want.

Cover of “Born Free and Equal”, published in 2019 by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. (Click the image to read the report.)

The Born Free and Equal handbook by the United Nations outlines the five steps that a state can take to fulfill its state obligation in relation to the human rights of LGBTIQ persons. This includes 1) protect LGBTI persons from violence 2) prevent torture and ill treatment of LGBTI persons, including conversion therapy 3) repeal laws that criminalize LGBTI persons 4) prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics 5) safeguard freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association for LGBTI persons.

In addition, the Malaysian government has received multiple recommendations through the UN process, namely the CEDAW review and the UPR to repeal discriminatory laws and to ensure protection against violence and discrimination, amongst others. It is time for the government to implement the recommendations to ensure nobody is left behind and all persons in Malaysia are able to enjoy and exercise their human rights.

Dr Zulkifli in his former capacity as the Mufti of the Federal Territory has engaged trans people on numerous occasions. In these engagements, trans people have shared their lived experiences. These include challenges that they have faced due to the harmful assumptions that transgender persons and their gender identity can be changed. These further compound the challenges they have faced because of the lack of gender recognition and the numerous laws and fatwas that restrict them.

Given his engagements with transgender persons, we call for Dr Zulkifli to reflect on his statements and the harm it will cause transgender persons. We recommend that he withdraws his statement to prevent harm against transgender persons.

Justice for Sisters urges government to fulfill its obligations to protect, respect and fulfill the rights of all persons, and end of forms of impunity, discrimination and violence against trans people.

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Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at info@76crimes.com.

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