“I have never had official employment,” Aisha (not her real name), a Malaysian trans woman who does sex work, told Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters in 2019. “I tried. I applied for a job selling perfume, but the employer said they would only accept me if my gender was female on my [identity card].”
The gender markers on Malaysian identity cards matter. A 2019 study by SUHAKAM, Malaysia’s human rights commission, found that 57 percent of trans women interviewed in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor had experienced discrimination, including being denied employment, education, housing, or health care because their appearance did not match the gender on their identity card. This discrimination pushes many trans people like Aisha to society’s margins.
International human rights standards provide clear guidance on addressing this problem through legal gender recognition, a process allowing people to change their legal documentation to match their gender identity. A legal gender recognition policy could allow anyone to change the gender marker on their identity documents from female to male or vice versa, or to a third gender option, as a number of Malaysia’s neighbors provide for, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Some countries have no gender markers on public-facing identity documents, while others are moving to remove them. In many interactions that require an identification document, such as renting an apartment, voting, or bank transactions, a person’s gender is irrelevant.
To advance its human rights mandate, SUHAKAM recently advertised for a researcher to study possible approaches to legal gender recognition in Malaysia. The posting attracted opposition, including from the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a member of the ruling coalition, and the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), which promotes enforcement of state laws punishing trans Muslims with prison time and mandatory “counseling” for not dressing in accordance with the gender designation on their identity card. In opposing the research, they claim that allowing changes of gender markers on official documents would promote same-sex relations, violate Islamic precepts, and “desecrate human rights.”
Malaysian civil society organizations quickly debunked JAKIM’s claims by demonstrating that legal gender recognition is a rights imperative. SUHAKAM should remain steadfast in its commitment to finding solutions for people like Aisha who would benefit greatly from being able to change the gender marker on their identity documents.