KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 5 — A recent decision by the Perlis Islamic authority to ban transgender folk from entering mosques for worship has caused a stir among critics and the gender minority after it sparked other authorities to consider emulating it.
The ruling has also drawn responses from various human and women’s rights groups who voiced their concern that the ruling impedes the rights and personal liberties of the transgenders as enshrined under the Federal Constitution.
The move also continues a trend of discrimination towards the transgender community which has increased in intensity following the high-profile prosecution against non-binary celebrity entrepreneur Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman.
But how did Malaysia get here? Malay Mail charts the domino effect of the ruling, and how transgender Muslims are taking the chilling decision:
How Perlis opened the floodgates
On September 21, The Perlis state fatwa committee issued a ruling that transgenders are forbidden from entering mosques, purportedly to avoid confusion and disruption among other Muslims during worship.
The decree also stated that in matters of burial rituals, such a process will be carried out by those with the same gender as a trans person’s assigned gender at birth — rather than their affirmed gender — and that the burial committee will select the most appropriate people to be involved to avoid any slander.
The decree also states that trans women are also able to act as guardians, but only if they dress and act in a masculine manner instead.
The same ruling also stated that trans persons are prohibited from performing umrah or Haj — the Islamic acts of pilgrimages — to avoid slander.
In 2020, a religious storm transpired after Nur Sajat performed the umrah wearing feminine attire, amid intense scrutiny over her gender identity. Nur Sajat has never publicly come out as a trans woman.
Following the fatwa, deputy minister in charge of Islamic affairs Datuk Ahmad Marzuk Shaary said Putrajaya was now seeking to emulate Perlis’ decision in the Federal Territories.
Penang Mufti Datuk Seri Wan Salim Wan Mohd Noor also told trans persons to “change their appearance” — presumably according to their assigned gender at birth — if they wish to enter mosques or surau.
Both felt that this is necessary to prevent unwanted attention or cause discomfort among other members of the congregation.
Speaking to the Malay Mail, transgender and human rights activist Nisha Ayub said Perlis’ fatwa has not only further ostracised the community, but also created another layer of fear.
“This time is not just from the system but from their own belief. They feel that they are not a part of their own religion that most transgender Muslim women still want to be in... because I haven't heard or seen any transgender [Muslim] women trying to say that they are not Muslims.
“All transgender women in Malaysia, not just the Muslims, everyone, they want to practice their religion because that is what they are thought since they were a child and they have the passion and love towards their religion,” she told Malay Mail.
Nisha said the news has caused many in the community to feel disappointed and sad, as they will never be accepted when it comes to their faith unless they have to change the way they are.
“It also creates a more stigmatised, negative perception from the public and that also fuel more hatred to the community. You have this fatwa that recently came out... does this help? No, it makes the situation more vulnerable towards the community,’’ she said.
How is it in other Muslim-majority nations?
While religious authorities here look towards taking restrictive actions against the community, Nisha pointed out that other Muslim-majority nations have adopted a more progressive stance and some even provided social protection towards members of the transgender community.
“When you talked about gender identity, I felt in other Muslim's countries, for instance, Pakistan and Iran, they recognise transgender community. They may use different terms but they recognise the community and why those countries are opening this new development from an Islamic point of view rather than Malaysia, where we are actually making it tougher for them,’’ she said.
“Why don’t these religious people come together and see us from an angle that they want to be a part of a religion that they love?” she asked.
The most progressive example is Pakistan, where its national assembly enacted The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act in 2018, where the Act provides legal recognition to transgenders and prohibits discrimination and harassment while also places an obligation on local governments to provide for the welfare of the community.
The Act also enables the transgender community in Pakistan to vote and choose their gender on official documents.
It was also reported that madrasah or religious schools have opened up in Pakistan dedicated to helping transgender persons.
In other countries such as Iran, while officially the state does not recognise transgender folk outright, it does recognise individuals with gender identity disorder and provides a medical solution including subsidising sex reassignment surgery. The state will then even issue a new identity card for said individual.
In Indonesia, while the topic of transgender individuals is still taboo, there have been several attempts by madrasah or religious schools dedicated to helping them. However, there are also reported incidences where these schools were forced to close their doors due to threats of violence and death.
In Malaysia, the transgender community did not face any trouble and sex reassignment surgery was available up until the 1980s. Recent attempts by the National Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) to study the possibility to recognise a third gender was faced with massive backlash from religious figures.
Speaking to Malay Mail, Shariah law scholar Afiq Mohamad Noor said that there is nothing in Islamic jurisprudence or tradition which calls for a ban against trans persons from entering places of worship.
“In the classical text, there has never been any prohibition against [trans persons] from entering mosques,’’ he said.
In Islam, non-cisgender individuals have been referred to as the mukhannath, appearing in historical text and parable involving Prophet Muhammad — including one where he prevented acts of violence against a mukhannath who wished to perform their prayers.
“During the Prophet’s time, everyone prays at the mosque so if a mukhannath is prevented from praying at the mosque, where would they pray?” said Afiq.
How the transgender community feels about it
When polled by Malay Mail, Muslim trans man Salleh (not actual name) said he felt that the ruling is not representative of Islam’s inclusive tradition.
“It is such an arrogant ruling. As I recall there is no such prohibition between’s a person’s faith and the Almighty in Islam. He or she is welcome in His house to perform their worship.
“It is such a cruel ruling especially to those who attend prayers at the mosques or even Friday prayers. This goes against Islam’s nature of inclusivity and acceptance,’’ said Salleh.
Salleh was also baffled over the ruling’s justification that it was done to ensure that there would be no disruption in places of worship.
“I have not heard or seen whether any transgender persons have caused a commotion or create a disruptive atmosphere at mosques or suraus. We are respectful of such places and we know what to do and what not to do, so again what is the justification?’’ he asked.
Meanwhile, a Muslim trans woman who wished to be known as Sarah said she was also disappointed and saddened by the ruling as that could prompt other state religious authorities to adopt the same fatwa.
Drawing a comparison, Sarah asked that if her parent passes away, would she and other transgenders be prevented from entering mosque grounds and subsequently from performing funeral prayers?
“For example if Selangor enforces the same fatwa, what does this mean for my community? So for example, If one of my parents were to passed away, does this mean I can’t enter the mosque to perform funeral prayers?
“Will I be stuck at the mosque gates while the rest of my family members perform the prayers?
“It is hard enough for us to be properly recognised like any other person, now the community, especially Muslims, have to contend with this possibility. This is not fair,’’ said Sarah.
Muslim-majority Malaysia continues to downplay the visibility of the transgender community, which it deems to be an assault against Islam under the guise of growing calls for greater civil liberties.
Most recently, police are trying to extradite Nur Sajat after she sought refuge in Thailand, following a Shariah court case where she was accused of insulting Islam just for organising a religious event in which she wore the feminine baju kurung.