“Who does not feel afraid when being arrested even though the crime is petty. Our hearts were filled with fear and worry of what might happen next. On top of having to attend the court hearing. When we were fined and sentenced to jail, we were even more terrified because this is the first time we experienced this.”
– Transwoman arrested in Bahau
On 9 June 2014, 17 transwomen (known locally as mak nyah and referred to as such interchangeably within this statement) were arrested at a wedding at a residence in Felda Lui Timur, Negeri Sembilan. Some of the arrested were mak andam (wedding planners) involved in the wedding. The others were invited guests. Customarily, mak andams are a local wedding staple— involved in wedding planning, make-up, and tasks on the wedding day itself (e.g. building the pelamin or wedding platform).
Around 9pm, the wedding continued with a dance called joget lambak. About 30 mak nyahs were present as invited guests. The guests were dancing and having fun.
At about 12am, vehicles repeatedly patrolled the area, which changed the mood of the wedding party significantly.
At about 12:15am, a man arrived, introducing himself as an officer from the Negeri Sembilan state religious department, or Jabatan Hal Ehwal Agama Islam Negeri Sembilan (JHEAINS). Due to the festivities, this announcement was not audible to the entire crowd. However, this man and 20 plain-clothes officers began immediately arresting the mak nyahs present, causing much confusion and panic. The surprised mak nyahs found themselves grabbed by unknown men and instinctively resisted. A few evaded arrest. However, they were also traumatised and injured from hiding behind trees and bushes in the dark.
A few mak nyahs had noticed religious officers pretending to be guests, as they were seen chatting with some of the mak nyahs prior to the raid.
Some of the 17 mak nyahs were physically violated by the arresting officers during the raid. Some said their clothes were ripped. One mak nyah told us she was choked, grabbed by the back of her neck and kicked in the knee to the ground when she attempted escape from the three men arresting her.
One of the arrested mak nyahs wore unisex attire: a pair of leggings, a shirt, and no bra. She wore her hair up in a ponytail. When questioning her arrest, the officers stated her voice, speech (“gaya bahasa”) and her mannerisms resembled a woman.
Although the JHEAINS officers arrived with sufficient means to transport the mak nyahs to the religious department in Jempol (two white vans), they insisted on isolating the arrested in a tent at the wedding while waiting for a police truck. The hosts and guests remarked that this move by JHEAINS was unnecessary and such delay only served to further humiliate these mak nyahs.
The wedding hosts attempted to lodge a police report against the raid and conduct of these officers. But the police rejected their report, claiming there was no foul play in the course of the raid, and deemed the lawn of the house where the wedding took place as “a public place.”
Section 66 reads that any male person who, in any public place, wears a woman’s attire and poses as a woman shall be guilty of an offense and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding RM1000, imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both.
The mak nyahs were detained at the religious department until 10am the next day. No statements were taken. Their mobile phones were not confiscated, but they were forbidden to use them. The mak nyahs were only asked about legal representation at 9am. They were only informed of the law, the fine, and the court procedure between 9am to 10am, immediately before being taken to court. While in detention, they had no knowledge and were not informed of their right to a lawyer or their rights as detainees upon arrest.
However, during their overnight detention, the mak nyahs were subject to verbal abuse from the officers – “Kenapa tak boleh jadi lelaki sebenar?” (“Why can’t you be a real man?”) “Berdosa jadi macam ni” (“Being you is a sin”).
Before taken to the Syariah Lower Court, the transwomen were instructed to clean the room they were detained in. Although they consented, they received further denigration and disrespect by being tasked to empty trash in the department kitchen and a couple of rooms in the department.
The mak nyahs were forced to walk barefoot from the JHEAINS branch in Jempol to the court, carrying their footwear. Although nearby, they had to cross a tar road in the hot sun.
As they have never been arrested under Section 66 of the Negeri Sembilan Syariah Criminal Offenses and did not have legal representation, the mak nyahs pled guilty to the charges. The state prosecutor implored the judge to sentence the mak nyahs severely, under the guise of teaching them a lesson.
16 of the 17 mak nyahs were fined RM950 and sentenced to Sungai Udang prison for 7 days. Should they fail to pay the fine before then; the prison sentence will be extended to 6 months. One mak nyah was a minor and not sentenced to prison. However, she was released on probation and has to present herself at JHEAINS monthly for 12 months.
Ultimately, the state gained a total of RM15, 200 from the raid and arrests of invited guests to a wedding on a house lawn.
We question this raid and the law in its entirety, and also wholeheartedly believe the sentence of RM950 and 7 days of imprisonment per person is too excessive for a group of people who have never been previously charged.
Since their identification cards state their genders as male, mak nyahs are typically sentenced to male prisons and treated as male inmates – shaved heads, no access to hormonal replacement therapy. There is no doubt that this forced masculinization and erasure of their identity will cause a lasting and highly damaging psychological impact to these transwomen.
In addition, their income and reputation have been adversely affected by this ordeal, as many of them have been forced to abandon their jobs as they are serving time in prison. The mak nyahs may even have to compensate their clients who have booked their wedding planning services in advance.