Alarm over Anti-Transgender Sentiment by Islamic Affairs Minister

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Independent think-tank Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy today expressed concern at the recent remarks by Religious Affairs Minister Datuk Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri permitting the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) to take action against the transgender community.

Its founder cum chief executive officer Azrul Mohd Khalib said this sends a terrible signal which may cause an escalation of harmful and discriminating actions, both institutional and vigilantism, against the transgender community.

“It is a fact which has been thoroughly documented that transgender persons in Malaysia encounter harassment, discrimination and subject to physical assaults,” he said in a statement.

Despite the injustice and demonisation faced by the transgender community, Azrul said perpetrators of abuse against them often act with impunity and escape unpunished pointing out that in some extreme cases, transgender persons have become seriously injured or lost their lives.

“The minister should consider withdrawing his statement. I am reminded that Zulkifli during his time as Federal Territories Mufti had in fact promoted a message of compassion, empathy and understanding towards the transgender community with the intention of helping and providing assistance.

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“In 2017, he engaged in dialogue with a group of them at a Chow Kit drop-in centre. In 2018, as Mufti, Zulkifli hosted a delegation of transgender women at his office for discussions and called for reforms,” he said.

Azrul noted that the then-Mufti’s main message at the time was that people should not condemn, judge or punish the community, but rather to find a common ground.

“Now, he is calling for their ‘tangkap’ or arrest. What happened? We are also concerned that this message from a minister will also create obstacles and barriers for transgender people needing health services.

“Fear and discrimination discourage them from seeking treatment and care. They may have trouble finding alternative healthcare services if they are turned away. Everyone is equally entitled to the rights and protections provided for under Malaysian law and that includes being able to walk about without having to fear of being prosecuted for who we are, being beaten up or subject to physical harm,” he said.

Yesterday in a Facebook post, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department said Jawi would not merely be conducting arrests but also provide religious education so that the transgender community can “return to the correct path”.

“We do not want to just arrest them, but what is most important is tarbiah (educate) them wisely so that they will come back to the right path.

“Islam is a religion that seeks to educate. This requires coordinated efforts from all agencies under the religious affairs department in the prime minister’s department,” Zulkilfi wrote.

Meanwhile, transgender activist Nisha Ayub has questioned why religious authorities are once again targeting the transgender community.

In a public statement yesterday, she urged Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, who is in charge of religious affairs, to explain what he meant by saying the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (Jawi) now had “full license” to act against the community.

“Such statements (from the minister) can cause more harm and fear towards the transgender (community) and will create an unsafe environment for the community,” she said on her Facebook page.

Nisha questioned why the government was threatening to trample on people’s rights to identify and express themselves as transgender when they posed no harm to the country or others.

“So now we are not allowed to even walk in public being who we are? Are we now being denied our rights as human beings and citizens of Malaysia?

“What happened to our rights based on the Federal Constitution of Malaysia? Rights to personal liberty, equality, expression, movement, religion and so on? Why target us the minorities? Why?” she asked.

This was especially when many from her community were trying their best to recover economically from the Covid-19 pandemic, she added.

Earlier yesterday, Zulkifli announced on Facebook that he was empowering Jawi to arrest transgender persons and “educate” them so that they “return to the right path”.

This comes amidst the online furore over revealing photographs cosmetics entrepreneur Nur Sajat posted of herself on her personal Instagram account.

This led calls for the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government to take action on the transgender businessperson.

Back in 2018, then religious affairs minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa had called upon the public to stop discriminating against transgender people to prevent members of the community from resorting to sex work.

Following a meeting with Nisha, he had also urged transgender people to be given respect and equal access to health, education and houses of worship.