Now living in exile in Australia, Malaysia’s most famous transgender personality Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman has a message for those like her back in her home country—a place she will likely never be able to return to.
“I want them to know that they aren’t alone, and that there is so much out there in the world that’s bigger and better than whatever’s happening in Malaysia,” she told VICE World News.
“I’m finally free and happy… No one can control or hurt me anymore.”
The 36-year-old fled earlier this year after enduring months of online abuse and harassment—all while being targeted by religious officers for wearing a pink dress and floral headscarf to a religious event in 2018. Even now in exile, people back in Malaysia continue to direct abuse at her on Instagram.
“All I wanted was freedom, safety and basic respect,” Sajat told VICE World News on a video call just prior to Transgender Awareness Week from Sydney, where she now calls home. “It’s very sad that I could not have that in my own country.”
“All I wanted was freedom, safety and basic respect. It’s very sad that I could not have that in my own country.”
In Muslim-majority Malaysia, where the social influence of conservative forms of Islam continues to grow, trans people are viewed as “deviants” living against societal norms, with transphobia regularly fuelled by government officials and religious leaders. The trans community continues to face public discrimination and abuse, with campaigners stating that intolerance and hate crimes are on the rise.
“Malaysia remains a dangerous place for trans people,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told VICE World News. “The state is most concerned with control and upholding power, and gives the green light to abuse trans people—whether by police, local religious officials or vigilantes.”
Addressing Sajat’s plight, Robertson condemned continued attempts by Malaysian authorities to extradite her despite her being granted asylum by the Australian government.
“The Malaysian government’s intolerance towards Nur Sajat only shows its true nature as an intolerant, parochial and rights abusing state,” Robertson said, also highlighting Sajat’s allegations of sexual abuse and intimidation at the hands of Malaysian police during her arrest in January.
“Sajat not only defied orders by the authorities, [she also] challenged their preconceived notions of who a Malay Muslim transgender person is.”
With a flamboyant fashion style and entrepreneurial spirit, Sajat’s rise to fame in Malaysia was aided by her large social media following. She launched several cosmetics and beauty care lines, as well as jewellery stores across the country.
Transgender Malaysians are no stranger to public discrimination, threats and abuse, and Sajat has had to overcome her share of transphobia and misogyny. She didn’t mince her words when it came to talking about her struggles.
“Malaysia is hell for transgender people. We basically do not exist,” she said. “There wasn’t any point in living my authentic self in Malaysia because society and our government do not recognize that.”
For every selfie she shared on Instagram, she received insults and even death threats from internet trolls accusing her of “insulting Islam.”
“I have also been told that I should ‘go back to being a man,’” Sajat said, also addressing the controversial episode in January which saw her hauled to court for “crossdressing.”
“This is exactly why many trans people live in fear,” Sajat said. “We’re afraid to pray at mosques and would prefer to do so at home for our own safety.”
Queer rights activist Thilaga Sulathireh from non-profit Justice For Sisters, which actively supported Sajat when she fled Malaysia in February, noted that she was “not awarded any protection” and that her case represented “a tragedy for queer rights in the country.”
“This is someone who pushed societal boundaries and smashed glass ceilings for both transgender and cis-women but instead, she received threats and was constantly hounded by the religious police,” she told VICE World News.
“Sajat’s departure from Malaysia sets us back at least a hundred years.”
Sulathireh believes that life for transgender people in Malaysia has only worsened in recent years. In 2018, the murder of a 32-year-old trans woman by a gang of youths sparked fears of a rise in hate crimes against the community. Weeks after the incident, a trans sex worker was reportedly beaten to death and another trans woman found dead in Kuala Lumpur. Police investigations concluded that she had died falling from a moving vehicle, but activists remain convinced she was murdered.
State religious officials and police officers have also been known to physically and sexually assault transgender women arrested during raids enforcing Sharia law, which prohibits men from dressing in women’s clothes.
Malaysia has “a long way to go” with regards to protecting trans people and respecting their rights, Sajat says.
“Trans people don’t ask for much. We just want to be respected and treated equally like everyone else and not have others dictate our lives.”
“Sajat’s departure from Malaysia sets us back at least a hundred years.”
Sajat’s story has amplified the fight for trans rights in Malaysia, according to local activists and observers like Nisha Ayub, a leading defender of transgender rights in Malaysia and a founder of Justice for Sisters.
“Her being from the Malaysian trans community has created a space for public discussions about LGBT people, and this is especially critical when we are seeing strong pushback from religious leaders and politicians trying to erase us,” said Ayub, who has been through her share of injustice and suffering at the hands of the government.
“To deny our existence as well as the problems we face does us more harm than good,” she told VICE World News, sharing ways that cis-gendered allies could help.
“We always need support and cis-people can offer that—whether it’s holding space for us and listening to our problems and concerns, or even talking back to a religious person who says that we don’t exist,” Ayub said. “Even if you don’t fully understand the issues we face, it’s still important to us to be open to our experiences.”
Watch: Surviving in One of the World’s Deadliest Places for Trans People
Sajat’s arrest in Bangkok in September at the request of the Malaysian government sparked a wave of public anger, with thousands rallying online in support. Several e-petitions also emerged asserting her rights to be granted asylum overseas.
“For every person that hated me and wanted to see me in jail, there were many others who supported me despite not knowing who I was—and that to me was incredible,” she said. “It’s thanks to their support that I am now free to be my true self and live my life [the way] I want.”
For survivors like Sajat, it was the support she had which helped secure her passage to safety, saying she “couldn’t have accomplished it alone.”
“I knew my rights and had a strong support network. I was very lucky to have made it out of Malaysia,” she said. “That’s why I say it’s extremely important for every trans person in Malaysia to know their rights. I hope my journey inspires them.”
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