On August 12th, 2018, Malaysia’s Sharia high court sentenced two Malaysian women, ages 22 and 32 to six strokes from the light rattan cane on their backs for “sexual relations between women” and fined them RM3,300, which equates to around 890,000 Korean won. Moreover, on Monday, September 3rd, the convicted women were caned in public, witnessed by more than 100 people. It was the first conviction for same-sex relations and the first time a caning had been carried out in public in the Terengganu state of Malaysia. The Muslim Lawyers’ Association deputy president, Abdul Rahim Sinwan defended the caning of the two unidentified women, insisting that the punishment under Islamic law was not meant to cause pain, but intended to teach the women to repent. "Repentance is the ultimate aim for their sin,” he said. As expected, human rights activists and the LGBT community reacted with outrage. Human rights groups criticized the punishment as a setback for human rights and said it could worsen discrimination against people in Malaysia's lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community. "Islam teaches us to look after the dignity of every human being. And that mercy is preferable to punishment," opposition lawmaker Khairy Jamaluddin tweeted. Malaysia religious minister Mujahid Yusuf later said the government does not support the promotion of LGBT culture.
Over the years there has always been discrimination towards the LGBT community. Let us look at some of the cases in recent years. Back in 1994, the government banned LGBT from appearing in public media. In 2005, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) chief Mohd Anwar Mohd Nor stated that the Navy would never accept homosexuals. And in 2010, the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia announced it would only allow the depiction of homosexual characters as long as the characters "repent" or die. In 2017, an LGBT pride march organized by Taylor's University planned in June was cancelled due to Islamist pressure. The event was condemned by pro-Islamist blogs because it was disrespectful to do in the holy month of Ramadan. And in the following year in August, the police forcibly raided an LGBT bar named “Blue Boy” and as a result, 20 men were detained, brought back to the station and ordered for counselling by the Federal Territory Islamic Religious Department of Malaysia (JAKIM).
The reason this conflict is making headlines lately is because Malaysia has two legal systems. One is Malaysian civil law that applies to everyone and the other is Islamic criminal law and family law which is only applied to Muslims. In this case, both women were Muslims, so they had to follow Islamic law. In Malaysia, where the majority believes in Islam, Muslims are subject to Islamic law under which homosexuality is illegal. So the LGBT community faces many legal challenges since the social perspectives towards them are generally shaped by Islam.
Malaysian law punishes homosexual acts by whipping and up to a 20-year prison sentence. According to the 2011 report on laws about homosexuality worldwide from the international LGBT and Intersex association, Malaysian law on homosexual activity is codified in Section 377 of its Penal Code. Section 377B states, “Whoever voluntarily commits carnal intercourse against the order of nature shall be punished with imprisonment, and also be liable to whipping.” It implies that LGBT’s human rights are strictly restricted in Malaysia. Not only are the rights of homosexuals limited, but transgender people face arbitrary arrest, physical assault, and imprisonment. The purpose of whipping is to alert other citizens, but this is a punishment that shows the Muslim community’s antipathy to homosexuality. It is also triggering an avalanche that blurs the lines between state and religion.
The Dankook Herald had a chance to speak with Thilaga Sulathireh, a freelance researcher and advocate of sexuality rights, and also the co-founder of ‘Justice for Sisters’, a LGBTQ rights campaign group. She expressed how this caning is not just about a punishment, but also has a major impact in terms of how Malaysia is viewed in the international arena. It will also affect the way people view the Islamic faith, contribute to more Islamaphobia and create tensions between people, causing additional issues. “There are many layers to this situation we have to consider,” she said, “and moreover, it is not the state’s role to inflict pain on people.”
In early August 2018, two portraits of LGBT activists were removed from a public photography exhibition in an arts festival in Penang. Malaysian Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa ordered the removal, claiming that they promoted “sinful” activities. "I have consistently repeated in Parliament that we do not support the promotion of LGBT culture in Malaysia," he said at the time. When asked about this case, Thilaga expressed how it is a violation of freedom of expression, and also raises questions about the minister’s jurisdiction as it seems like an overreach of power to interrupt an exhibition. Apart from that, she shared a story where two transgender women were removed from a beauty and makeup EXPO because there were protests by Muslim NGO groups. This is a new escalation of violence as it is directly affecting people’s livelihoods.
As of now, there have been talks about implementing more laws and stricter punishment on the LGBT community. Even though it is still a marginal conversation, it is already enough to create more tension between the LGBT community and the Islamic community. The caning has also enticed fear, so that people won’t engage in “sinful activities”. There has been an escalation in cases of violence due to homophobia and transphobia and when these cases are reported, the police are very quick to dismiss the hate crime element. They have a lack of acknowledgement towards gender-based violence, and this creates more opportunities for people to attack transwomen or other LGBT community members, purely based on suspicion, because there will not be any consequences.
For now, Thilaga, along with all the other vigilante groups and LGBT rights community are only hoping that the misconceptions towards the LGBT community will be clarified. They are hoping to change that through an education campaign and are hopeful state actors will stop making statements that are discriminatory and instead engage with and try to understand the LGBT community.
As we’re seeing more and more countries legalizing same-sex marriage and also respecting the freedom of speech and identity, even though it is still currently unachievable in Malaysia, we can only hope that the baby steps through education will slowly remove all misunderstandings, violence and discrimination, creating a better nation for the people.
Mak Hao Yang, 박근후, 남윤경, 채밍헌 firstname.lastname@example.org