COMMENT Ira Sophia planned a fun evening for Malaysia’s transgender community. The private, closed-door event at the five-star Renaissance Hotel in Kuala Lumpur on April 3 featured a sit-down dinner for 200 people and was intended to raise money for charitable causes.
To entertain the crowd, some of those attending dressed in outfits representing various countries from around the world and put on a mock beauty pageant.
The result of Ira Sophia’s hard work may well be a prison sentence.
Officers from the Federal Territories Islamic Department (Jawi) raided the event and locked the ballroom doors to prevent anyone from leaving, while media they had brought with them filmed those present. They had no warrant and were not accompanied by any police officers.
When a guest at the event, a lawyer named Siti Kasim, confronted Jawi, they claimed they didn’t need a warrant. Only when she called the police and they arrived were most of the participants able to leave.
The alleged basis for the raid was a two-month-old tip-off to Jawi that there would be a beauty pageant at the event, in violation of a 1996 fatwa forbidding Muslim women to participate in beauty contests.
Raid, arrests legally baseless
Given that the Malaysian religious authorities do not consider transgender women to be women, the raid and subsequent arrest of the event organiser was both ludicrous and legally baseless.
Jawi detained event organiser Ira Sophia for 24 hours at their headquarters. They later informed her that she is likely to be charged on May 5 with two offences under the Syariah Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act - for “encouraging vice” and “contempt or defiance of religious authorities” - neither of which was the alleged basis for the raid.
Together, these two offences carry a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.
The warrantless raid and threatened prosecution are just one example of the ever-expanding reach of Malaysia’s hard-line religious enforcers.
In discussions with transgender rights groups in Malaysia, Human Rights Watch learned that Jawi and the religious authorities for the various states regularly raid private events, and even private homes, without warrants.
While in this case the alleged justification was a “beauty pageant,” in other cases they claim to be investigating violations of the khalwat laws (prohibiting unmarried couples from being in close proximity) or looking for “men posing as women,”, which is another Islamic criminal offence.
Raiders bring the media with them
In many cases, the official religious raiders bring media with them to the raids and permit the subsequent video footage - including faces and personal information about those raided - to be shown on national television.
These blatant violations of the rights to association and privacy continue because politicians and police shy away from rebuking Jawi, and the transgender men and women caught in their nets are often too afraid to challenge them.
What made the difference in the recent raid was the presence of Malaysian lawyer Siti Kasim, who was a guest at the event. Her vocal challenge to Jawi’s authority to raid the event and arrest people, without a warrant and in the absence of any police officers, was captured on video and made national news.
In retaliation, Jawi took her to the police station and filed a criminal complaint against her. She is now facing possible prosecution for “criminal intimidation” and “obstructing public servants from carrying out their duties.”
Malaysia’s government needs to end the routine abuse of transgender people and other marginalised groups by these religious authorities. Even Saudi Arabia has taken steps to curtail the power of its religious police to raid and arrest, recognising the widespread abuses that have occurred. The federal and state authorities in Malaysia should follow their lead.
Malaysia needs to repeal discriminatory laws and fatwa that deny transgender people their basic rights, including syariah enactments criminalising “a man posing as a woman” or “a woman posing as a man,” and pass legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
Finally, Malaysian government officials, politicians, and religious leaders should stop making inflammatory or denigrating statements about transgender people and should instead take steps to protect them from violence and discrimination.
BORIS DITTRICH is advocacy director for the LGBT Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.