Malaysian Court Rejects Challenge to Cross-Dressing Ban

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - A Malaysian court dismissed on Thursday an application to review a state Islamic law that bars Muslim men from dressing as women, prompting concern that prosecutions of transgender people in the Muslim-majority country could increase.

In Malaysia, Muslim men can be fined and jailed for dressing or posing as women. Penalties differ in individual states, but in Negri Sembilan, where the case was heard, convicted offenders may be sentenced to up to six months in prison, fined as much as $325 or both.

The case, which was brought by four Muslims who were born male but act and dress as women, marked the first time anyone had sought to challenge the law in a secular court. While Malaysia’s secular laws apply to all citizens, only Muslims are subject to Islamic, or Shariah, law.

The Negri Sembilan High Court ruled that because the litigants are Muslim and were born male, they must adhere to the law because it is part of Islamic teaching, said Aston Paiva, a lawyer representing them.

“In my view, it sets a very dangerous precedent because it’s effectively saying that state-enacted Islamic law overrides fundamental liberties. She has basically said that even if it conflicts with freedom of expression, the Islamic laws override the Constitution,” Mr. Paiva said, referring to the judge. He said the ruling could lead to stricter enforcement of the law.

The judge also said that a Malaysian nongovernmental organization that supports the transgender community, the PT Foundation, should work with the religious authorities to ensure that transgender people receive counseling, Mr. Paiva said.

The four litigants, all of whom have been arrested for dressing as women, had argued that the law violates Malaysia’s constitution, which bans discrimination based on gender and protects freedom of expression. They also said the law should not apply to them because they have been diagnosed with gender identity disorder.

While the four litigants dress as women, use hormones and go by feminine names, their official identification cards declare them to be male and carry their male names. They want to legally change their names and their officially recognized gender because they say transgender people face considerable discrimination in Malaysia, where homosexual acts are banned not only for Muslims but for the general population, punishable by caning and up to 20 years’ imprisonment.

“I’m disappointed because it basically deprives me of my freedom and deprives me of the right for me to be myself,” one of the litigants, whose legal name is Mohammad Juzaili Bin Mohammad Khamis, said of the verdict.

“Now that it’s out and the court decision is not in our favor, I’m concerned that more arrests, more harassment will happen again and again,” added the 25-year-old, who has been fined 1,000 ringgit on three separate occasions for dressing as a woman. She said she planned to appeal the decision and that the other litigants were considering whether to do so.

Thilaga Sulathireh, a researcher and advocate for transgender rights who attended the hearing, said of the verdict, “It basically tells everyone that Muslims have no rights. It’s basically governing how one chooses to dress and how one chooses to express one’s self. It’s a very shocking judgment.”