Religious police in the Malaysian state of Negri Sembilan arrested 17 transwomen during a raid on a wedding party Tuesday, according to local media reports.
The arrests come as an appeals court is set to rule whether the state's Sharia code that criminalizes "any male person who, in any public place wears a woman's attire or poses as a woman" violates fundamental rights guaranteed by Malaysia's constitution. Similar provisions are on the books in other Malaysian states along with several other provisions enforcing religious codes. This first case is a landmark test of whether the the courts of Malaysia, which the constitution also declares to be an Islamic state, will recognize human rights protections or religious doctrine as supreme. The court was expected to rule on the case in May, but the hearing was delayed until July 17.
Malaysian trans-rights group Justice for Sisters told The Malay Mail that the women were taken before a judge following their arrest, and they all pleaded guilty to violating the Sharia code. They have been sentenced to seven days in jail and a fine equal to about $300. If they cannot pay their fine within seven days, they will be sentenced to six months in jail. One of the women arrested is a minor, and she has also been sentenced to a year of "counseling" by the religious affairs department.
A lawyer working with Justice for Sisters is now trying to get the sentenced reduced. In the meantime, the organization has launched an emergency fundraising campaign to try to cover their bail, which amounts to around US$500 per person, or a total of US$8500. "They will be sentenced to a male prison, heads shaved, psychological impact is high!" the group warns in an appeal posted to its Facebook page.
J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. His secure PGP fingerprint is 2353 DB68 8AA6 92BD 67B8 94DF 37D8 0A6F D70B 7211
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