Malaysia, a country often in the limelight for its thriving tourism industry, is home to people of multiple ethnicities. And yet, despite its cultural diversity being often celebrated, a sizable portion of its population, namely, the queer community, has been suffering abominably in the hands of its crippling anti-gay attitudes.
The regressive Sharia Laws that police the community
Due to Islam being a widely practiced religion, the country also practices the Sharia Law, which is a legal system derived from edicts coming from the Quran, the Hadith (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad) and fatawa (judgement of Islamic academics). Sharia is often interpreted in harsh, orthodox ways, because of which marginalised communities often suffer. In this case, the LGBT community, especially transgender people, receive the brunt of severe punishments that are a result of these regressive laws. In recent years, the State departments that enforce these Sharia Laws have been known to conduct raids in residences to arrest those they consider ‘violators’—ranging from crossdressers to trans women, to gay and lesbian men and women. Not just government authorities but many orthodox Islamic civilians have also often been found physically attacking members of the LGBT community. A significant recent incident that is an example of such violence is the brutal attack on Nisha Ayub, a transgender woman who has been an influential figure in the furthering of LGBT activism across the country. Ayub, who is the 2015 recipient of the Human Rights Watch’s esteemed Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism, was seriously injured on being assaulted near her house by two men with rods. Nisha Ayub has spearheaded the creation of two organizations, the Seed Foundation and Justice for Sisters, which aim to repeal Malaysia’s discriminatory transgender laws and provide support services to transgender people, sex workers, and people living with HIV. And yet, in the eyes of the State, and many of the Malaysian public, she is seen as a ‘criminal’ meant to be punished.
Hate Crimes and State-Sanctioned Arrests
Hate crimes against the LGBT community, as well as state-sanctioned arrests, have been a sustained occurrence over the years in Malaysia. There are deliberate attempts to silence those like Ayub, who dare to raise their voices against such discrimination. In a landmark decision in November 2014, the Putrajaya Court of Appeal abolished the state’s punitive punishment against cross-dressing under section 66 of the Sharia law in Negeri Sembilan State. This, though certainly a victory for the LGBT community, seemed too little, too late. The implementation of section 66 has been suspended only in Putrajaya and its adjoining state of Selangor while 12 other states remain plagued by such oppressive laws. Hate crimes persist, and raids and arrests are even more common. In one such raid on a private birthday party on June 16 this year, nine transgender women were arrested and fined, two of them sentenced to one-month jail time, for being “a male person posing as a woman”, or, cross-dressing. They pleaded guilty the day after they were arrested, and the two sentenced to jail filed a petition and were released on bail. Transgender beatings and transgender killings continue to occur often in Malaysia, and yet, the police refuse to consider them hate crimes, as they refuse to recognise the LGBT community.
The Queer Community “too extreme”?
What is perhaps even more shocking, is Malaysian tourism minister, Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz’s blatant rejection of LGBT rights and subsequent shockingly homophobic comments. He believes that the lifestyles of the queer community “go against Islam” and has called them “too extreme” and a “threat to the moderate nature of Islamic faith”. He has further gone on to say, “This threat will ruin the Muslim identity because the liberal ones will take the easy route in matters of religious principles, and from there, groups such as liberal Muslims, LGBT, human rightism and many more will be born… Islam is a religion that promotes peace. Islam does not promote violence and teaches us moderation. It is not extreme, nor it is too open. There is no need for events like a gay parade because it is too open”. This kind of an attitude from a legislative authority goes on to highlight the deep-seated prejudice that is embedded within Malaysian society and perpetuates the ongoing violence against queer persons. Theirs is an attempt to reject and demonize bodies that do not adhere to traditional heterosexual, cisgendered standards and an effort to try and erase them so that the status quo is left undisturbed.
But, as much as they try, they cannot fully obliterate queer and gender-transgressional voices. People like Nisha Ayub will always exist, who will come forward and stand up for their fundamental freedoms and encourage others from the community to do the same. Human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) condemned the attack on Ayub and issued a statement saying, “The harm suffered by Nisha should stand as a reminder of the dangers and harassment LGBT activists and communities face in Malaysia. Irrespective of whether we agree or disagree with the ideals of another, as Malaysian, we must never fall to violence as a mean to express our disagreements. In such dark times where some quarters think such acts as acceptable, we must stand in solidarity with our friends and stand fast against such act of violence.” The aftermath of this attack only serves to emphasize the resilience of the Malaysian LGBT community, and how they are ready to fight for their rights head on, even in the face of such insurmountable odds.