An appeals court will soon rule whether sharia law violates the fundamental constitutional rights oftransgender people in Malaysia. Among several writers describing what’s at stake, Neela Ghoshal of Human Rights Watch states:
Serafina (not her real name) led me up the staircase – her thick, sleek ponytail swinging back and forth – to an apartment in Seremban, Malaysia, that smelled of nail polish, green tea, and cigarettes.
“I love myself,” she told me, perched on the arm of the sofa. “I don’t want to be pretending to be a man.” This statement captures the heart of who Serafina is: a proud woman. Acting like a man would be masquerading as something she is not.
But because Serafina is a transgender woman, to her government she is a criminal.
Serafina lives under a legal regime that criminalizes “any male person who, in any public place wears a woman’s attire or poses as a woman.” The law forms part of Negeri Sembilan state’s “sharia enactment,” a state-level code of law that applies to Muslims and is enforced by the state Islamic Religious Department. This set of laws coexists with federal criminal law, which applies to all Malaysians and is secular.
Since Serafina was born with male genitalia and her national identity card reads “male,” merely stepping outside her apartment in a woman’s blouse and skinny jeans could send her to prison for six months. Serafina hasn’t been imprisoned yet, but she’s been subjected to fines and ill-treatment: state religious officials once punched her in the face.
“What’s special about this case is the fact that we’re challenging the constitutionality of state sharia law, which has never been done before,” said Thilaga Sulathireh of the Malaysian trans rights group Justice for Sisters, J. Lester Feeder wrote in BuzzFeed.
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