'Grave danger': Fears over transgender tycoon's safety if returned to Malaysia

Nur Sajat disappeared from Malaysia earlier this year.
PHOTO: Instagram

When news broke last week that prominent Malaysian transgender businesswoman Nur Sajat was detained in Thailand over an invalid passport, she trended to the top of Twitter.

The 36-year-old Muslim cosmetics entrepreneur disappeared from Malaysia in February after being accused of insulting Islam by dressing as a woman.

While on the run, she continued to appear on Instagram, sometimes on a live feed chatting with her followers, and posted TikTok videos promoting her products.

She was charged with immigration offences in a Thai court last week and released on bail.

Malaysian police are now seeking to extradite her back to the country, prompting activists to fear for her safety in a country which does not recognise LGBT rights.

Nur Sajat's courage to live as an openly transgender woman, coupled with her business success, has made her a household name in Malaysia.

"The Malaysian public is fascinated with Nur Sajat mainly because hers is a success story. She made it as an entrepreneur and became a cosmetics millionaire," said Afiq Harraz, secretary general of Parti Aspirasi Sains Malaysia (SAINS), a new political group.

"Her being from the trans community just amplified the story. She succeeded despite the trials and tribulations faced by the (LGBT) community here in Malaysia," he added.

Afiq said "the actual unnatural obsession with Sajat" came from Malaysian authorities who could not accept her open defiance towards the status quo and her determination to live a true life, even though it was her right under the Constitution.

"She is harming no one with her decision," he said.

Malaysian transgender entrepreneur Nur Sajat.
PHOTO: Twitter

She started her company, Nur Sajat Aesthetic, in 2015, and often uploads videos of herself dancing in sexy clothes while promoting her products, drawing both admiration and admonishment online.

In 2018, she fronted her own online reality television series called Nur Sajat Xtra.

Last October, she was fined 14,500 ringgit (S$4,671) for possessing and selling cosmetic products not registered with the Health Ministry.

Nur Sajat went missing before a February hearing at a sharia high court, where she faced charges of blasphemy for dressing as a woman at a religious event at her beauty centre in 2018. She pleaded not guilty.

The Selangor state religious department sent out more than 100 officers to track her down, but her whereabouts remained a mystery until earlier this month, when she was detained in Thailand.

'Grave danger'

Numan Afifi of Pelangi Campaign, a LGBT human rights organisation, expressed concern over Nur Sajat's safety in Malaysia.

"Continuous persecution against Nur Sajat is a reflection of the climate of repression against the LGBTI+ community. She has experienced harassment, bullying and doxxing by online users over the years," said the group's founder.

Unless the authorities dropped all investigations and harassment towards her, Malaysia would remain "unsafe for Nur Sajat", Numan said.

Thai authorities have yet to decide whether to send the entrepreneur back to Malaysia.

Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Thai authorities "must not put her in harm's way by sending her back".

"The Thai government needs to realise the grave danger facing Nur Sajat if she is sent back to Malaysia," he said.

"She is targeted by the Malaysian authorities for prosecution because of her gender identity, expression, and beliefs," he said. "With or without formal recognition by UNHCR as a refugee, this sufficiently serves as a basis for Thailand and the international community to protect her."

Sunai said Thailand was legally bound to respect the international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits returning anyone to a country where they may face persecution or serious abuses.

According to local media reports, Nur Sajat plans to seek asylum in Australia.

Rising intolerance

Malaysian transgender entrepreneur Nur Sajat.
PHOTO: Twitter

In Malaysia, all 13 states as well as the country's three federal territories - Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, and Labuan - prohibit "a man posing as a woman" according to sharia laws under state-level religious enactments.

Malaysia has a dual-track legal system comprised of civil courts running in parallel with Islamic sharia courts, where Muslim Malays can be tried on religious and moral charges. Sharia is imposed only on Muslims and deals with moral and family matters.

Non-Muslims are required to follow secular laws that deal with the same matters.

Justice For Sisters, a Malaysian human rights NGO, said following news of Nur Sajat's arrest, various state actors had called to tighten restrictions against LGBT people.

"The continuous and escalating anti-LGBT sentiments in Malaysia is extremely concerning," the group said on Friday.

News portal MalaysiaNow on Friday said the government was looking into emulating the northern Perlis state, which issued an edict on September 14 banning transgender individuals from entering mosques, in the federal territories.

Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department (Religious Affairs), Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, was quoted in local media as saying that the decision by religious authorities in Perlis was appropriate to maintain the sanctity of mosques and avoid confusion among the community.

Nik Abduh, an MP from the Islamist PAS party, which is part of the ruling coalition, last week said in parliament that Malaysia needed more state-sponsored rehabilitation programmes for LGBT persons.

"Efforts by certain quarters, including those by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia looking at the feasibility of legislative and policy amendments to approve and affirm the LGBT community, was something worrying for Malaysia," local media quoted him as saying.

But Justice For Sisters said rehabilitation or conversion practices were widely discredited by rights groups because of their long-lasting harm, not just on LGBT individuals but also people connected to them.

Intolerance and discrimination towards trans Malaysians have led them to face violence and even death. At least four transwomen were reported to have been killed between November 2018 and October 2019.

Read Also
Thailand considers deportation of Malaysian transgender entrepreneur
Thailand considers deportation of Malaysian transgender entrepreneur

"Sadly, it seems the state turns a blind eye to it and the authority's campaign against trans and the broader LGBTQ+ communities further amplifies the violence," said Afiq of SAINS. "Some in the Malaysian public take their cue from the authorities. It seems to be politically motivated under the guise of religion."

Afiq said there was a correlation between the trans community and poverty, due to them not having equal access to employment, financial opportunities, housing and other services. They also lacked legal and social protection.

"Many of them tend to survive from hand to mouth. There are very few chances for them to get out of that dire situation and they continue to suffer stigma, harassment and discrimination," he said.

Afiq compared the treatment of Nur Sajat to the case of a Malaysian man who was detained in Somalia for allegedly attempting to join the al-Shabab terrorist group. He said the government's tone was one of "concern for the man, to ensure his welfare and health".

Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah was quoted by Malaysia's official news agency Bernama as saying that the ministry would "offer necessary aid to the detained man by ensuring that his rights and welfare are taken care of and that he is given a fair trial".

"We at SAINS ask that the same concern should be accorded to Nur Sajat and that any attempts to bring her back is because of a civil case and not to deny her civil rights and liberties," Afiq said.

On Friday, Bernama said the detained man, Ahmad Mustakim Abdul Hamid, had been sentenced to 15 years in jail by a Somali military court for fighting along with al-Shabab as well as providing First Aid for the group.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.