Justice for trans sisters in Malaysia

Gay Star News interviews Thilaga Sulathireh, a woman dedicated to helping trans women fight the law in Malaysia

Justice for trans sisters in Malaysia
18 January 2013

The situation is bad for gay men and women in Malaysia, but it’s really bad for transgender women who get constantly harassed by the police and their very existence is criminalized under sharia law.

Thilaga Sulathireh, one of the people behind Malaysia’s banned sexualities rights festival Seksualiti Merdeka, decided to do something to help trans women. She co-founded Justice for Sisters in 2011, a legal fund for trans women standing up for their human rights against the authorities.

How did Justice for Sisters start?

We heard from a transgender woman from Negeri Sembilan [state south of Kuala Lumpur] who wanted to fight her arrest for ‘cross-dressing’.

We spoke to a lawyer and they said we’re going to need 10,000-20,000 Ringits ($3,000-6,000, €2,500-5,000) for the case. We thought ‘what are we going to do about this?’ But clearly it needed to be done. So we decided to form a legal fund for trans women and organize fundraising events.

The first event was a great success. We got a lot of donations and press coverage of the cause. The Star [Malaysian newspaper] gave us over three pages.

What are Justice for Sisters aims and objectives?

It is a legal fund and we want to empower the community. We work with trans women in Negeri Sembilan because our first case came from there. But we’re broadening out now to other areas and LGBTIQ people in general, not just trans women. 

How does the law affect trans women in Malaysia?

In Malaysia civil law governs everyone, but then we have sharia law that only governs Muslims. Civil law is administered centrally whereas with sharia law all the different states have different laws.

The civil laws that affect LGBT people are section 377 [criminalizing gay sex] and section 21 of the minor offenses which is used to persecute trans people for cross-dressing.

Whereas under sharia law it’s a crime for men to ‘pose as women’ – which is the law which our four plaintiffs were tried with in our case last October.

What happened in that case?

We met about 20 trans women from Negeri Sembilan and all of them had been arrested in that year. So then we decided to raise funds specifically for this. In the end four plaintiffs went to court, but the judge rejected their challenge.

We were all hoping for the best, but actually we didn’t think the decision would be that shitty. We couldn’t believe that the judge quoted the Quran in a civil court.

I think the larger impact of what she was saying was also quite crazy – that if you are a Muslim in this country you have no rights to be yourself. But it’s always been there, it’s just that someone articulated it.

When you get a verdict like that. What gives you hope to keep fighting?

I think, if you don’t do it, things are just going go on. If you do it, things are going to go on anyway, but at least you have a chance so we might as well just try.

When I see the girls who were the applicants in the case these days they are really empowered. They say ‘these are our rights and this is what we need’. So the fact that they are so empowered makes fighting the case worthwhile.

Do you get contacted by a lot of trans women wanting to challenge their arrests now?

We have a very close relationship with the trans women network. So whenever there’s a case it will get directed to us. We advise them, the best thing is to challenge it, because if you don’t challenge it then things will just stay the same.

I think that what Justice for Sisters has provided is a sense of assurance. We can say – if you want to do this, we can support you. Before if they wanted to challenge anything it would have to be from their own pocket. 

Do you get people dropping out of legal challenges?

Sometimes we hear from someone, and then they go away and don’t come back. It’s understandable because taking legal action is a whole different culture for the trans women.

Traditionally they bribed someone and forgot about it. Going to court is a very new culture for them. Just caring about their arrest is a new culture, and talking about it.

The older generation think that this is just going to make things worse. That becomes quite delicate sometimes because we don’t want to alienate people. We tell them that if we don’t do anything about it then they are going to continue to harass you, take bribes from you.

Why do trans women in Malaysia get so harassed?

The trans women are so visible it becomes a problem. They are easily targeted. Anyone who’s gender non-conforming is an easy target.

A lot of trans women are also sex workers. So the people who want to target them know where to go to get them.

Trans women get arrested all the time, especially the trans women sex workers. A lot of trans women then end up providing sexual services to the police to bribe them. And the religious officers aren’t any better – they ask for their numbers and ask for sexual services. It’s blackmail.

From some research that we’ve been doing about violence we’ve learned that in the public sphere it’s usually men, with women it’s more name-calling, but men are violent to trans women – usually from the same ethnic group. There’s a whole masculine thing of ‘how could you want to be a women when you are born a man’.

And it’s not just trans women there’s also pengkids. Pengkids are a very unique Malaysian community they are a mix of butch lesbians and trans men. They get a lot of name-calling and sometimes violence.

Find out more about Justice for Sisters here.  

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