The Malaysian government should urgently seek the repeal of all laws and regulations that discriminate against transgender people, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Transgender people in Malaysia face criminal prosecution and frequent discrimination when accessing employment, health care, and education.

The 73-page report documents government abuses against transgender people, finding that state Religious Department officials and police regularly arrest transgender women and subject them to various abuses, including assault and extortion. Religious Department officials have physically and sexually assaulted transgender women during arrest or in custody, and humiliated them by parading them before the media.

All 13 Malaysian states prohibit Muslim men from ‘dressing as women’ under Islamic Sharia laws, while three also criminalise ‘women posing as men’. The laws, enforced by state Islamic Religious Departments, do not define what constitutes transgender dressing or posing.

Victoria, a transgender woman in the state of Negeri Sembilan, said she was arrested in 2011 by Religious Department officials, who stripped and sexually assaulted her: ‘They were rough. One of them squeezed my breasts. I was completely humiliated. …They stripped me completely naked. One of them took a police baton and poked at my genitals. Everyone was looking – the men [Religious Department officials], as well as the women. They took photos of my naked body.’

Many transgender women who are arrested are fined and forced into ‘counselling’ sessions, where officials from the state Islamic Religious Department lecture them on ‘being a man’. Because the national government’s Registration Department routinely rejects transgender women’s applications to legally change their gender, Muslim transgender women are vulnerable to repeated arrests. One transgender woman told Human Rights Watch she had been arrested over 20 times.

While accurate figures do not exist for the number of transgender women sentenced to prison terms, some of the transgender women Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had been convicted and sent to prison for terms ranging from four months to three years. Several of them were placed in male wards, where they face sexual assault from both guards and other prisoners.

Official discrimination is compounded by other forms of discrimination for which the government provides little or no protection, Human Rights Watch found. Transgender people have been fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, physically and sexually assaulted, and denied access to health care because of their gender identity. Police routinely refuse to receive complaints of violence against transgender people by public officials or private individuals, or to conduct serious investigations, transgender women told Human Rights Watch. In some cases, police even threatened transgender complainants with arrest or sexually harassed them.

‘Malaysia urgently needs to scrap laws that discriminate against transgender people, adhere to international rights standards, and put in place comprehensive non-discrimination legislation that protects them,’ said Boris Dittrich, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. ‘It is high time that the authorities recognised that transgender people have the same rights as all Malaysians.’