Malaysian transgender activist wins US government award for courage

Malaysian transgender activist Nisha Ayub receives the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. ― Screengrab from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur's Twitter account
Malaysian transgender activist Nisha Ayub receives the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. ― Screengrab from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur's Twitter account

KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 ― Malaysian transgender activist Nisha Ayub, once jailed for cross-dressing and sexually assaulted in prison, is the first trans woman to win the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award.

Nisha ― who co-founded two transgender rights NGOs, the SEED Foundation and Justice for Sisters ― was one of 14 women around the world who received the 2016 award yesterday.

“Nisha Ayub, for your extraordinary work to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, we honour you as a woman of courage,” said US Secretary of State John Kerry when he presented the award to Nisha at the US State Department in Washington DC yesterday in a ceremony that was broadcast live.

“Nisha Ayub has been the target of discrimination and violence in Malaysia for many years, even being imprisoned for three months during which she endured sexual abuse and humiliation. Despite the obstacles, Nisha has dedicated her life to protecting the transgender community through her work with the NGO SEED. She supports sex workers and people living with HIV.

“She provides legal aid and raises awareness for the persecution of LGBT persons. And she continues to face threats, but remains committed to her work because it is what she cares most about and because she knows it is the right thing to do,” Kerry added.

Nisha’s win of the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award, which is given annually to women around the globe who exemplify “exceptional” courage in advocating for human rights, gender equality and social progress, follows two awards last year from the Asia LGBT Milestone Awards and international watchdog Human Rights Watch.

Another Malaysian who previously received the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in 2009 is prominent lawyer and human rights activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan.

Nisha told Malay Mail Online that her receipt of the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award was a recognition of trans people, pointing out that this was the first time a trans woman has won the award in its 10-year history since it was established in 2007.

“My hopes for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Malaysia is basically for the government to recognise and to accept and to acknowledge that we are a part of society,” she said.

“And at the same time, I hope that we will be protected, just as equal as other citizens. As a transgender woman, the only thing we ask for is our right to education, our right to employment, our right to every single thing that is for all citizens,” the Muslim activist added.

Nisha related how she was arrested at the age of 21 under Shariah law for dressing as a woman and jailed for three months at the Kajang prison in the men’s lock-up. She was also slashed and beaten with an iron rod last September in a purported hate crime.

“I faced verbal and sexual abuse in the prison by the inmates. It was a devastating moment for me. Till today, I cannot forget every single part of what happened to me,” she said.

The experience in prison had moved Nisha to fight for equal rights.

“I don't want any transgender woman to face what I faced in prison,” she said.

Justice for Sisters, the non-profit co-founded by Nisha which provides legal aid to transgender people, had assisted three Muslim trans women, who were convicted of cross-dressing, to mount a court challenge against a Negri Sembilan Shariah law that prohibits Muslim men from wearing women’s clothes.

The trans women won a landmark ruling at the Court of Appeal in 2014 that had declared the Shariah law unconstitutional and void for violating several fundamental liberties, but the Federal Court overturned the verdict last year on procedural grounds. 

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