Religious Affairs Minister Says JAWI Has 'Full Licence' To Act Against Transpeople

Activists and experts have cautioned that Dr Zulkifli's message "should be viewed with concern" as it may cause an escalation of harmful actions against the transgender community that often faces discrimination and physical assaults.

Cover image via Dr Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri/Facebook & The Daily Beast

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include Amnesty International Malaysia's statement.

Religious Affairs Minister Dr Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri says he has given "full licence" to the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) to take action against the transgender community

Dr Zulkifli, who was the former Federal Territories (FT) Mufti, took to his Facebook page on Friday, 10 July, to announce his new order under which JAWI will not only arrest the people from the minority community but also provide religious education so that the transgender community can "return to the right path".

"I have given all JAWI authorities full licence to carry out its enforcement actions in the Federal Territories, with the condition that they comply with the standard operating procedures (SOPs)," he wrote.

"We do not want to just arrest them, but what is most important is tarbiah (educate) them wisely so that they (the transgender community) will come back to the right path. Islam is a religion that seeks to educate," the Minister in the Prime Minister's Department wrote, adding that this will require "coordinated efforts from all agencies under the religious affairs department in the prime minister's department".

The minister's anti-transgender views, however, stand in sharp contrast to his messages of compassion and understanding towards the transgender community when he served as the FT Mufti

According to Azrul Mohd Khalib, chief executive officer (CEO) of Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy, an independent think-tank that focuses on healthcare reform, food security, and transgender health, Dr Zulkifli during his time as the FT Mufti had "promoted a message of compassion, empathy, and understanding towards the transgender community with the intention of helping and providing assistance".

Azrul highlighted multiple instances of understanding on the part of the former FT Mufti when he had reached out to the transgender community and had even called for reforms.

"In 2017, he engaged in dialogue with a group of them at a Chow Kit drop-in centre. In 2018, as Mufti, Dr Zulkifli hosted a delegation of transgender women at his office for discussions and called for reforms," the Galen Centre CEO said in a media statement issued today, 11 July.

"His main message then was that people should not condemn, judge, or punish the community, but rather to find common ground. Now, he is calling for their 'tangkap' or arrest. What happened?"

In this Malay Mail image dated 14 February 2018, Dr Zulkifli is seen together with the members of the transgender community.

Image via Malay Mail

While noting how transgender persons in Malaysia often face harassment, discrimination, and are subject to physical assaults, Azrul cautioned that Dr Zulkifli's latest stand "should be viewed with concern" as it "sends a terrible signal" and may cause an escalation of harmful actions against the community.

"Despite the injustice and demonisation faced by this community, perpetrators of abuse against them often act with impunity and escape unpunished. In some extreme cases, transgender persons have become seriously injured or lost their lives," he said, urging the minister to withdraw his statement.

In December 2018, a 32-year-old transgender woman in Klang was beaten to death by a group of men. Despite the brutality of the crime — the victim's skull was cracked open and she suffered 32 groups of injuries — the authorities said that it was not a hate crime against the LGBT community.

Azrul pointed out that Dr Zulkifli's message may also create obstacles for transgender people needing health services as fear and discrimination deter the vulnerable to seek treatment and care.

"Everyone is equally entitled to the rights and protections provided for under Malaysian law and that includes being able to walk about without having to fear of being prosecuted for who we are, being beaten up or subject to physical harm."

Meanwhile, prominent transgender rights activist Nisha Ayub has questioned shift in sentiment targeting the transgender community

In a public statement issued via her Facebook account, Nisha urged the minister to explain what he meant by saying that JAWI authorities now have "full license" to act against the community.

"Such statements (from the minister) can cause more harm and fear towards the transgender (community) and would create an unsafe environment for the community," she said.

The activist asked if trans people are now not allowed to even walk in public for who they are and if they are now being denied of their rights as a human being and a citizen of Malaysia.

What happened to our rights based on the Federal Constitution of Malaysia?
Nisha Ayub

"Rights to personal liberty, rights to equality, expressions, rights to movement, rights to be protected, rights to religion and so on? Why target us the minorities? Why?" she asked.

In a separate statement, Nisha said that the transgender community is once again being targeted and questioned the need to arrest trans people for identifying and expressing their true self.

"We are not doing any harm to others. We are just trying to survive in this binary system where we have to face so many obstacles and oppression just because we are different from the norms of the social construct," the winner of the 2016 International Women of Courage Award said.

"Why are we constantly being targeted? Don't we have our rights as a human being and a citizen?"

Image via The Daily Beast

Additionally, Amnesty International Malaysia's Interim Executive Director Preethi Bhardwaj called on the Malaysian government to "end its persecution of transgender people and LGBTI people at large"

Responding to the minister's statement, the non-governmental organisation (NGO) said that trans people have faced "relentless discrimination and persecution from conservative movements, religious authorities, and the government resulting in countless human rights violations against them".

Bhardwaj said that while being transgender is not a crime, the government has gone to "terrible lengths to vilify transgender people by subjecting them to threats and criminalisation".

She also said that religious indoctrination in order to change a person's gender identity or sexual orientation is conversion therapy and that Amnesty International opposes all forms of conversion therapy.

"The authorities should also repeal all repressive laws against LGBTI people and implement policies that protect LGBTI people from intolerance. It is high time that we Malaysians embraced our LGBTI friends, family, neighbours and co-workers, instead of allowing them to experience hate and condemnation."

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO), of which Malaysia is a member, declared that transgenderism is not a mental disorder:

A couple of years back, SAYS published the life story of a Seremban-born 55-year-old transgender living with HIV:

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