In 2018, Sajat attended a religious event wearing a baju kurung — a long-sleeve top with a sarong — and headscarf, traditionally considered female attire. “In Malaysia, there are sharia laws that target Muslim transgender people,” says an activist with Justice for Sisters, a Malaysian transgender advocacy group. “If you wear women’s attire, you can be fined and/or imprisoned.”
What is sharia law? Let’s back up for a second: Malaysia has a dual legal system. Federal and state laws apply to everyone, and religious sharia law applies only to Muslim citizens and is enforced at the state level. There are separate police forces and courts; the religious police, JAKIM, enforce sharia law. “JAKIM does the religious raids and oftentimes they’ll say, ‘We’re about to go raid a bunch of LGBT people,’ and tell the [national] police to come along,” says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “Because then the police will say, ‘Okay, [if] we find some instances of wrongdoing, then we’ll have to arrest them.'”
Before increasing Islamization came to Malaysia in the ’80s, there was more tolerance and respect for transgender people in the country. “At that time, transgender people were able to access health services from the government for free when it came to gender identity issues,” the Justice for Sisters advocate says. “Trans health care was provided for free, including hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery.” In 1982, however, a fatwa was issued against sex reassignment surgery, making it haram, or forbidden. Says Robertson, “Islam has been politicized in Malaysia. That’s the reality of it. You’re dealing with successive governments that have used religion to [drum up] support.”
In 2021, three years after Sajat wore women’s clothing to a religious event, she was charged with insulting Islam. This offense can be punishable by jail time in a country where transgender women are sometimes imprisoned with men because the government does not recognize transgender identity.
When Sajat was called into the Department of Islam to discuss the charges, she alleges that religious officers assaulted her, groping her breasts as her mother called out in protest. Sajat was ultimately charged again, this time with obstructing a civil servant. “It was an excuse to hold her there,” Robertson believes. “The sad part is that not only was she hit with this charge, but she was subjected to abuse in custody, which is what happens to transgender women all the time in Malaysia.”