KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 23 ­— Starting out as HIV and AIDS activists, Nisha Ayub who is in her thirties;  S. Thilaga, 27, and Sulastri Ariffin, 53, decided to band together as Justice for Sisters (JFS) in 2010 to investigate allegations of abuse against the transgender community in Seremban, Negri Sembilan, by religious authorities.

The name was coined before their first fundraising event in Kuala Lumpur soon afterwards, to support four transwomen who challenged the constitutionality of a Negri Sembilan Shariah law which criminalises cross-dressing in the Seremban High Court.

They lost that case and one of the applicants dropped out, but fast forward four years later, the Court of Appeal delivered a landmark judgment on Nov 7 this year ruling that the law, Section 66 of Negri Sembilan Shariah Criminal Offences 1992, is unconstitutional and therefore null and void.

The ruling has since received backlash from Muslim hardliners for allegedly ignoring the position of Islam as a religion of the federation, which they claimed does not recognise transgenders.

Energised by the ruling, JFS however continues their advocacy of transgender rights, insisting that the issues involving the minority group are largely focused on their civil liberties, legal rights and medical care, instead of religion.

In their own words:

Nisha: Thilaga’s role is more towards the legal side, like getting the lawyers. My role is more towards engaging the community… So they have faith in JFS and understand who we are. At the early stage, many were confused and wondered who JFS was.

I also speak the community dialect, language. A lot of trans communities, when you start using English or fancy words, you automatically create that barrier. So you have to blend in … The language gives us a sense of belonging and ownership… It’s also a security measure for us.

Thilaga: When transgenders keep pleading guilty, you have criminal records, being repeat offenders, and you’re vulnerable … There’s a complete breakdown in terms of access to justice, in terms of self-recognition, in terms of living in dignity, violation of so many rights, we felt that we have to tell people to not plead guilty.

Nisha: Most of them ended up pleading guilty because in their minds, as a result of the way the media portrayed us, they thought who they are and what they are is wrong… Most of them wanted to settle the case quickly, and the only way to do that was to plead guilty. Because the enforcers have brainwashed them.

Sulastri: The Shariah judges would simply say that the defendants couldn’t fight their cases because they’re already wrong (for being transgenders). They had no choice, at the end of it they couldn’t stand it, and pleaded guilty. There were so many cases where the judges were not neutral. They should be judging the case, not us.

Thilaga: Just because the judges are overseeing Shariah laws, doesn’t mean they don’t have to follow principles of human rights, don’t have to be objective, don’t have to be neutral. They still need to abide by these principles. They cannot be exempted, they can’t work in isolation.

The portrayal of the transgender community in the media is also a big problem. If there’s better education, if people use the right terms, and the way they report is objective … Changing that mentality is also important to give people strength.

Nisha: When the public reads about transgenders, they assume things like we’re “hungry” for men… If even the public can react in such a way towards us, imagine the enforcers… Especially men, they view trans people as sex objects. It is always about pleasure. It’s not just the locals, even foreigners react in such a way. Like the Arabs.

Sulastri: The media uses religion to oppress and justify why they’re against transgenders. They use religion just to shut our mouths, and make us feel more guilty, more depressed… They see us as religious problems, not as human beings, not those with gender identity disorders. They just say we are deviants, and if you support us, you’re also deviant.

There are people out there who want to support us, but they’re concerned about the moral and religious connotations. That’s why we’re on our own. We don’t get much support from the locals… mostly just the foreigners, the embassies, and women’s groups… It’s not easy. —  Malay Mail Online