Transgender Woman Flees Malaysia After Wearing Hijab

In February 2018, on her birthday, Nur Sajat put on a demure hijab and attended a Muslim prayer session at a new building she was inaugurating near the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Three years after that sartorial choice, the Malaysian authorities have charged her with “insulting Islam” and wearing female attire.

On Monday, Ms. Nur Sajat, a transgender entrepreneur and social media personality, announced that she had fled to Australia to escape the threat of prison in her home state, Selangor.

“When I received refuge in Australia, I felt protected to be my true self, to be free,” Ms. Nur Sajat said in an interview with The New York Times. “I felt trapped in my own country, where I was born, because of the laws there that criminalize me and consider me a man.”

Ms. Nur Sajat’s dilemma — having to flee home in order to be herself — broadly reflects a national division in Malaysia between more conservative Malays and a coalition of liberal Muslims and minority Chinese and Indians who stress the Southeast Asian nation’s multiethnic, multifaith heritage.

Malaysia is bound by a hybrid legal system when it comes to personal or family matters. Muslims, who make up more than half the population, must follow Shariah law. Non-Muslims are bound by civil law. While some of the stricter Shariah laws are rarely enforced, the governing coalition, which draws support from the nation’s Muslim Malay base, is tightening legislation targeting transgender and gay people.

“The government is serious about the issue of L.G.B.T. people in the country, as Malaysia is a country that adheres to the religion of Islam,” Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said last month, shortly after he was sworn in as Malaysia’s new leader. “Any individual who violates the law must face action. Nevertheless, at the same time, they need to be guided and be made aware so that they can return to the right path.”

Guiding Ms. Nur Sajat would mean, at the very least, placing her in a rehabilitation camp for transgender people, Islamic officials said. On Tuesday, Idris Ahmad, the minister for religious affairs in the prime minister’s department, offered such a camp as a more palatable option for Ms. Nur Sajat than imprisonment.

It is not clear why the charges against Ms. Nur Sajat were made three years after she had presided over the prayer ceremony while wearing female religious clothing. Ms. Nur Sajat, who has a large following on social media, said she had regularly conducted such events and donated part of her earnings to charity, as is the Islamic custom.

“I was born and raised as a Muslim person so I was taught to do things in an Islamic way,” she said. “I conducted a halal business.”

In January, Ms. Nur Sajat received a summons from the religious department of the state of Selangor, where her wellness and lifestyle business is based. It was the kind of missive that strikes fear in transgender people in Malaysia. With several friends and family, Ms. Nur Sajat went to meet the officials at the Islamic department, who said they had received public complaints about her.

While inside, Ms. Nur Sajat said that at least three men kicked her and pinned her down. They groped her breasts, she said. The same day, she was handcuffed, arrested and officially charged in a Shariah court. She was placed overnight in a male detention facility.

Ms. Nur Sajat’s mother, who witnessed the assault, confronted one officer, asking how pious Muslims could do something like that. He responded that Ms. Nur Sajat was a man so it was OK. (Her account of the assault was corroborated by an activist who spoke to her mother.)

“They think it is justified to touch my private parts and my breasts because they perceive me as a male person,” Ms. Nur Sajat said. “They didn’t treat me with any compassion or humanity.”

After the incident, Ms. Nur Sajat made a police complaint, and a few days later the authorities said that a religious department enforcement officer was called in to give a statement. Since then, no further action has been taken. The religious department refused to comment.

Panicked, Ms. Nur Sajat escaped in February to neighboring Thailand, where she was later convicted of illegal entry. That crime could have merited extradition to Malaysia, and the Malaysian authorities made it clear they wanted her back. But Ms. Nur Sajat quietly left Thailand this month and ended up in Australia, where other transgender Malaysians have been resettled through the United Nations refugee process.

“I’ve always been scapegoated to distract from larger issues, and my case has been sensationalized because of my social media presence,” Ms. Nur Sajat said.

The targeting of transgender people has intensified under the current governing coalition, which displaced an opposition force last year. A top religious official encouraged the nation’s Islamic authorities to arrest transgender people. In September, an Islamic council in the state of Perlis issued what amounted to a prohibition on transgender people entering mosques.

Through the middle of this year, more than 1,700 people were forced to attend a government-run “spiritual camp” meant to counter “unnatural sex,” according to government statistics.

Legislation in Malaysia targeting gay and transgender people is rooted not only in religious courts. British colonial-era prohibitions outlaw “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Shariah courts have the power to order caning for Muslims engaging in same-sex conduct, but for years the punishment was not meted out. Then, in 2018, two women were subjected to the brutal form of corporal punishment for having sex in the conservative state of Terengganu. A year later, five men were sentenced to caning in Selangor for the same offense, a ruling that was partly overturned by a higher court this year.

Ms. Nur Sajat released a video on social media earlier this year questioning whether she should give up her faith. She later deleted the video and said in the interview with The Times that she was in an anxious state because of the assault by religious department officials. Renouncing Islam can be considered a crime in Malaysia.

“Islam is a holy religion,” Ms. Nur Sajat said. “It is a personal matter, and I have a right to privacy.”

Mr. Idris, the religious affairs minister, said last month that should Ms. Nur Sajat “plead guilty” and “return to a natural self,” there would be “no problem.” He referred to Ms. Nur Sajat by the full name she was given at birth.

“We do not seek to punish, we are more toward educating,” Mr. Idris added.

Ms. Nur Sajat runs a skin care, wellness and clothing business, and her appearance on a reality TV show placed her in the firmament of Malaysia’s social influencers. Last year, she went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and documented the trip on Instagram, courting controversy from some Malaysian clerics. One official deemed that she had “marred Islam” by wearing female prayer attire.

In 2019, the religious authorities tried to make Ms. Nur Sajat undergo physical tests to determine her gender. She refused.

“She has no protection in Malaysia and the state is hellbent in not only prosecuting her but also using this event to impose wider restrictions against all L.G.B.T.Q. persons,” said Thilaga Sulathireh, a co-founder of Justice for Sisters, a transgender advocacy group in Malaysia.

Other transgender Malaysians said they were worried about the zeal with which the nation’s religious authority, which recently received a surge of funding, had pursued Ms. Nur Sajat.

“I myself, when the time comes, will leave because I don’t want to remain in a society like this,” said Shika Corona, a transgender musician.

From coronavirus quarantine in Australia, Ms. Nur Sajat said she was forced to abandon a successful business in “a blink of an eye.” She misses home but does not see a way to return as long as laws targeting gay and transgender people continue to be enforced.

“I was trapped and cornered in Malaysia because of the Shariah system,” she said. “My very being, my existence, was being questioned. But I am very firm in my identity as a woman. This is who I am.”

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