By LIZ GOOCH
Published: October 5, 2012
SEREMBAN, MALAYSIA — The feminine figure dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, makeup carefully applied, drew little attention from other customers at the fast-food restaurant in Seremban, a city about an hour’s drive south of Kuala Lumpur.
The 26-year-old began wearing women’s clothing at age 13. Thanks to plastic surgery in neighboring Thailand, a daily dose of hormones and a feminine nickname, she is able to present herself as female to the outside world.
But her official identification card — which Malaysians must produce in dealings like job interviews — declares that her name is Adam Shazrul Bin Mohammad Yusoff and that she is male.
The discrepancy between her appearance and her officially recognized gender presents much more than just awkward moments in Malaysia, where Shariah, or Islamic law, bans Muslim men from dressing or posing as women.
Penalties differ in individual states, but in Negri Sembilan, where the 26-year-old lives, convicted offenders may be sentenced to up to six months in prison, fined as much as 1,000 ringgit, about $325, or both.
Tired of living in fear of prosecution, the 26-year-old — who has been arrested twice and was once fined 900 ringgit — and three other transgender people are challenging the law in the secular courts, arguing that it violates the Malaysian Constitution, which bans discrimination based on gender and protects freedom of expression.
A verdict in their case — the first time anyone has sought to overturn the law — is expected next Thursday.
“It’s for freedom — to be like everybody else, to wear what we like,” said the 26-year-old, explaining why she is taking part in the case. “This shouldn’t happen. It’s an unjust law. We are just human beings. We are not doing anything wrong.”
Transgender people — those who act like, dress as or feel themselves to be the sex opposite of what they were born — say they are often ostracized in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country where homosexual acts are also banned and punishable by caning and as much as 20 years’ imprisonment.
Some states also have laws that bar Muslim women from dressing as men, but activists say the religious authorities focus mainly on those born male who wear women’s clothes.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, transgender people are subject to discrimination, harassment, and verbal, sexual and physical abuse within their families, at school, in workplaces, in the provision of services and in society more broadly, according to a report released in May by the U.N. Development Program.
The report states that there could be as many as 9.5 million transgender people across the Asia Pacific region and that “alarming numbers” of transwomen — men who identify or present as women — are H.I.V. positive.
Support groups say transgender people in Malaysia face considerable discrimination. They say they often struggle to find work, prompting some to turn to sex work, and that they often face abuse, sometimes by the authorities.
The 26-year-old and the three other litigants in the court case — Mohammad Juzaili Bin Mohammad Khamis, Shukur Bin Jani and Wan Fairol Bin Wan Ismail — have all been arrested on accusations of dressing as women.
Two of their cases are continuing, pending the outcome of the judicial review.
The four are arguing not only that the law is unconstitutional but also that it should not apply to them because they have been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder.
The 26-year-old, who supplements the money she earns as a makeup artist with sex work, said religious officers groped her when they arrested her.
“They were very rough,” she said, adding that she is fortunate that her family accepts her, unlike the case for some of her friends.
She said that she turned down a job offer at a bank when its managers insisted that she cut her hair short, and that she turned to sex work because it helped pay for the “monthly maintenance” required to keep her looking female, including hormones, and allowed her to dress as she liked.
One of the other litigants, a 25-year-old makeup artist who has been fined 1,000 ringgit on three occasions for dressing as a woman, said religious officers had once punched her in the face.
She said she wanted to officially change her name and gender, because it was stressful knowing that she could be arrested at any time and jailed.
“This is not just for me,” she said of the court case.
“It’s also for the community. This is something that needs to be done. We need to highlight the existence of transpeople in this country,” she said.
The Negri Sembilan State and central government departments responsible for Islamic affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
Thilaga Sulathireh, an independent researcher and rights advocate who has helped the four take their case to court, said that there were no publicly available figures indicating the total number of Malaysian men who have been prosecuted for dressing as women but that arrests were not uncommon.
“It’s unfortunate that there are Shariah laws to do moral policing,” she said, adding that two transgender people in Malacca State have also filed for a judicial review of the law since finding out about the Negri Sembilan case.
Ms. Sulathireh said that non-Muslim men who dress as women have been fined under a civil law governing public indecency but that this was less common.
She said that although Shariah judges could exercise discretion, they generally seemed to follow a “three-strike rule,” under which people are jailed after being arrested three times.
But that is not always the case.
Nisha Ayub was jailed for three months after her first arrest for dressing as a woman 14 years ago. Ms. Nisha, who was 20 at the time, said prison wardens forced her to walk naked in front of the male inmates.
“It’s something I can’t forget until today,” she said.
Ms. Nisha, who now works as the transgender program manager at the PT Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that provides counseling and health support for transgender people, said many were often afraid to go to hospitals because they feared discrimination from medical staff.
Support groups say a fatwa, or religious edict, issued in the 1980s that forbids Muslims from having sexual reassignment surgery has led many Malaysians to travel to Thailand for surgery.
While the current case is the first legal challenge to the law that bans men from dressing as women, several other Malaysians who were born male have sought to be legally declared women.
Last year, a court in Terengganu State rejected an application by a 26-year-old man to be legally declared a woman.
Horley Isaacs, a lawyer, said the court rejected the application of Mohammad Ashraf Hafiz Abdul Aziz to change her name to Aleesha Farhana Abdul Aziz, on the basis that “since she didn’t have a womb she doesn’t qualify to be a woman.” Ms. Aleesha, as his client was known, died about a month after the verdict. The local news media gave the cause as heart problems, but Mr. Isaacs said he had been unable to obtain a copy of the death certificate from the hospital.
“All she asked me was ‘please give me a chance to live,”’ said Mr. Isaacs.
He said that although several similar court applications had failed, in 2005 a Kuala Lumpur court allowed a man who was not a Muslim to change his identity to female on his identification card.
Aston Paiva, the lawyer representing the four in the judicial review, said that if the court finds in their favor, it would mean that they, and other transgenders in Negri Sembilan, could no longer be arrested for dressing as women.
Mr. Paiva said the decision could have implications beyond Negri Sembilan because transgender people arrested in other states could use the verdict to argue their case.
Despite the Islamic law prohibiting her from dressing as a woman, the 26-year-old from Seremban says she remains a practicing Muslim. She fasts during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and sometimes visits the mosque, where she wears men’s clothing.
She said while she knows that, according to Islam, men should not dress as women, “this is something that is in me. This is how I feel.”