Now here’s news that will have you all perked up better than a cup of Malaysian coffee!
Last month, a group of transsexual women in Malaysia were arrested at a wedding ceremony in a residence at Felda Lui Timur, Negeri Sembilan. The alleged crime they were arrested for? Section 66 of the Negeri Sembilan Syariah Criminal Offenses that reads 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.
Ridiculous? I know! But yes, a law that is irrelevant to modern day standards does exist. And no, you’ve not been living under a rock; it’s a pity transwomen in some cultures still suffer severe consequences simply by choosing to show the whole world who they are through how they dress.
Locally called “mak nyah“, the Malaysian transwomen who were recently arrested were a group that consisted of those who graced the wedding ceremony as invited guests and as “mak andam” (wedding planners). Customarily, mak andam are a local wedding staple — involved in wedding planning, make-up, and certain tasks on the wedding day (e.g. building the pelamin or wedding platform).
Reports indicated that while the wedding festivities continued on around 9 p.m. with about 30 of the transwomen having a great time while dancing the “joget lambak” (a traditional Melaka folk dance), several vehicles were seen patrolling the area.
Shortly past midnight, a man arrived at the venue and introduced himself as an officer from the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Agama Islam Negeri Sembilan (JHEAINS) – Negeri Sembilan’s state religious department – with an important announcement to make. But because of all the merry-making, this announcement was not clearly heard by the entire crowd. So to everyone’s surprise, this man and 20 other civilian dressed “officers” then came barging in and immediately began arresting the trans women, creating a commotion. Helpless and confused, the transwomen found themselves forcefully seized by the officers. A few of them were able to evade arrest but were traumatized and injured from hiding behind trees and bushes in the dark.
A total of 17 transwomen were arrested and were physically violated by the officers during the raid. Some of them said their clothes were ripped during the arrest while one transwoman complained that she was choked, grabbed by the back of her neck and kicked in the knee to the ground while attempting to escape.A few of the mak nyahs reported that some of the officers were earlier disguised as guests as they were seen mingling in the crowd and even chatting with some of the trans women prior to the raid.
Although the JHEAINS officers arrived with sufficient means to transport the arrested mak nyahs using two white vans to the religious department in Jempol, they insisted on isolating them in a tent at the wedding venue while waiting for a police truck – something that the wedding hosts and guests found to have only caused unnecessary delay, further humiliating the mak nyahs. The hosts did attempt to file a police report against the raid and conduct of the officers only to have the report rejected as the police claimed that there was no foul play in the course of the raid, and deemed the lawn of the house where the wedding was held as a “public place“.
The 17 arrested transwomen were detained at the religious department and were only asked about legal representation until 10 a.m. the next day. No statements were taken. And worse, during their detention overnight, they 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”). Their mobile phones were not confiscated, but they were forbidden to use them. They were informed of the law, the fine, and the court procedure between 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., 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.
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. They 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 high heat of the day.
As they have never been arrested under Section 66 of the Negeri Sembilan Syariah Criminal Offenses and did not have legal representation, the transwomen pled guilty to the charges. The state prosecutor implored the judge to sentence them severely, under the guise of teaching them a lesson. 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. 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. But when questioning her arrest, the officers stated her voice, speech (“gaya bahasa”) and her mannerisms resembled a woman.
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 within that period, the prison sentence will be extended to 6 months. One of the arrested transwomen was a minor and was not sentenced the same as all the others. She was released on probation, but ordered to present herself at the JHEAINS monthly for 12 months.
Ultimately, the state gained a total of RM15, 200 from the raid and arrests of the mak nyahs who were invited as distinguished guests to a wedding reception on a house lawn.
Since their legal documents and identification cards indicate their genders as male, transwomen are typically sentenced to male prisons and treated as male inmates – shaved heads, no access to hormonal replacement therapy. Undoubtedly, this forced masculinization and for granting of their identity will cause a lasting and highly damaging psychological impact to these transwomen. In addition, their income and reputation will be adversely affected by this ordeal as many of them will be forced to abandon their jobs to serve time in prison with some of them possibly having to compensate their clients who have booked their wedding planning services in advance.
Justice for Sisters, an LGBT support organization in Malaysia put up an online charity venture to help pay the women’s legal costs and fines and has raised RM 29,916 (US $9,325) as of this posting.
A recent post from Justice For Sisters’ Facebook post stated:
“As the 16 transwomen were leaving the syariah court, they informed us to convey their love and gratitude to all of you for the 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.”
Should you be interested to know more about Justice For Sisters or want to donate, email the organization via firstname.lastname@example.org.
I deem this recent raid and the law in its entirety to be utterly questionable, to say the least. And that the sentence of RM950 and 7 days of imprisonment per person is nothing short of excessive for a group of people whose intentions are only to nurture wedding traditions and customs, put their innate creativity to good use and to partake in a special celebration.
It is with high hopes that the cries of the transwomen involved in this recent injustice will not fall on deaf ears and that appropriate action shall be taken to at least improve the conditions these transwomen have to endure as punishment for such a senseless crime. Ultimately, I hope this post gets across international LGBT advocate groups; a law such as Section 66 should be abolished.