Two women in their early 20s were reportedly arrested by religious police in the outskirts of the southern Malaysian city of Johor Bahru on Sunday after a dildo was found in their hotel room.
Reports by the Malaysian newspaper Sinar Harian suggest the two women were swept up in a broad morality raid launched around the Southeast Asian country’s annual celebration of its independence from Great Britain. The police had gone to what news reports identified as a “budget hotel” and arrested seven apparently heterosexual couples in other rooms for violating laws against adultery and “close proximity.” The police arrested the two women — both identified as university students — under a code criminalizing sex between women after finding a dildo in their room.
Islam is the official religion under the country’s constitution, and Shariah codes have been enacted by state governments throughout the country. These laws are commonly used to arrest transwomen, and the Malaysian trans rights group Justice for Sisters has brought litigation seeking to stop these arrests. Malaysia’s ruling Islamist government has also used homophobia as a political tool, including repeatedly jailing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy. But this may be the first time news has broken of women being arrested under the codes’ prohibition on lesbianism in Malaysia, said Justice for Sisters’s Thilaga Sulathireh.
“Some of my friends are pretty freaked out,” Sulathireh said in an email.
She and an informal “group of concerned lesbians” have tried to reach the women and offer assistance with their legal defense. They are potentially facing up to three years in jail, six lashes, and a fine equal to around $1,500.
The Malaysian women’s rights organization Sisters in Islam has alleged that the police exceeded their authority by arresting the women, because the police did not have evidence that they had actually had sex. News reports say one of the women was naked in the bathroom when the police entered the room, but the other was fully clothed. Under interrogation, one of the women reportedly told police that the sex toy had never been used, but just been received in the mail after having been purchased online.
“Sisters In Islam notes that the news report on the duo, nabbed on suspicion of having same-sex relations, has failed to show any criminal elements,” the organization said in a statement on its website.