If you want to see an example of bravery, consider these Malaysian transwomen who are fighting Shariah law and a large conservative Muslim majority in their country.
What’s at stake here is the right of these women, who are sometimes known as Mak Nyah, to dress in gender-appropriate clothing. What complicates matters is Malaysia has two different legal systems – one which is secular and primarily concerned with civil and criminal law, and another one reserved for Muslims which is based on Shariah law, and focuses on family law issues. However, a person convicted under the Shariah system can still be fined and imprisoned just the same as they can be under the secular system.
These women lost an earlier court decision, which said that because they had been born male and were Muslim, they had no rights to dress as women under the secular law. However, Malaysian secular law does have broad protections for transgender persons, and so these women are appealing to a higher court to force a resolution between the Malaysian secular constitution and Shariah law.
One might ask why the women couldn’t just renounce their religion and thus not fall under Shariah law, but the problem is Muslims who try to leave the religion can be tried in Shariah courts under the principle of apostasy. How serious is the punishment for apostasy in Malaysia? Pretty serious.
A Malaysian woman held for months in an Islamic rehabilitation centre says she was subjected to mental torture for insisting her religion is Hinduism.
Revathi Massosai, the name by which she wants to be known, says she was forced to eat beef despite being a Hindu.
When in January she asked a court to officially designate her a Hindu she was detained and taken to an Islamic rehabilitation centre. Her detention was twice extended to six months, during which time she says religious officials tried to make her pray as a Muslim and wear a headscarf.
Another case, of a Muslim who tried to convert to Christianity in Malaysia.
His interrogators stripped him naked and forced him to enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As he was made to crawl naked on the floor, for 10 minutes, one Inspector Yusoff told several other Special Branch officers in the room, “Ini orang Melayu tak sedar diri.”
He was not allowed sleep for days at a stretch and was warned that he would not be fed unless he co-operated. The same Inspector Yusoff also threatened to “disturb” his girlfriend if he did not divulge the information they demanded. Inspector Yusoff and two other Inspectors, Zainudding and Ayub, assaulted him on several occasions, causing him to injure his back and pass out blood in his urine.
At one stage of interrogation, he was made to stand for two hours on one leg with both arms outstretched holding his slippers. A woman constable and her young daughter were brought in to watch him while a police constable said, “Ini Melayu tak sedar diri, tukar agama, tak malu.”
Jamaluddin was also coerced to convert back to Islam.
“I got the clear impression that all my interviews with the Special Branch was for the purpose of getting me to change my religion from Christianity to Islam,” he told the Supreme Court.
In effect, it’s like the Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.