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Dispatches: The Right to Be Who You Are in Malaysia

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. It’s unclear whether the Religious Department truly believes that arrests and ill-treatment will force Serafina and her transgender friends to “man up” and renounce their feminine identities. If so, they’re sorely mistaken: Serafina has identified as female since early childhood, as have dozens of other Malaysian transgender women I interviewed.

“I feel like God is testing me by putting a woman’s soul in a man’s body,” Serafina explained. She would like to change her identity document to read “female,” but other Malaysian transgender women have tried and failed. The National Registration Department always refuses such requests, leaving transgender women with a choice: renounce who they are or risk arrest, day after day.

In 2010, several Muslim transgender women challenged the sharia enactment in court, arguing that it violates constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression and freedom of movement. They lost their case in the state’s secular high court – the flawed judgment relying on religious beliefs more than any principles of law.

This Thursday, their appeal is scheduled to be heard before the Putrajaya appeals court, which should demonstrate Malaysia’s commitment to equal protection of the law, affirming that transgender women deserve the same freedoms guaranteed to all Malaysians.

“I didn’t do anything [wrong], I’m just trying to be what I want to be,” Serafina said. “If we win the case, maybe we can change the rules.”

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