Traffic lights in Vienna show female same-sex couples. While the Austrian capital was keen to promote tolerance, Muslim majority states in Southeast Asia struggle with the issue of same-sex relations. Photo: AFP / Dieter Nagl
Traffic lights in Vienna show female same-sex couples. While the Austrian capital was keen to promote tolerance, Muslim majority states in Southeast Asia struggle with the issue of same-sex relations. Photo: AFP / Dieter Nagl

International rights groups have hit out at a verdict handed down by an Islamic court in Malaysia, which ordered two women who admitted to lesbian sex to be caned and fined.

Amnesty International welcomed the postponement of the caning by the court on Tuesday, but said the case should be dropped altogether.

Gwen Lee, Amnesty’s interim executive director in Malaysia, said: “We are pleased that the cruel and unjust punishment that was handed down to these two women did not take place as scheduled. However, a delay is obviously not enough – both women must now have their sentences quashed immediately and unconditionally to reverse this injustice once and for all.”

Human Rights Watch said Malaysia’s new government had put out mixed signals on where it stands in regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Mixed messages from new government

“The minister in charge of Islamic Affairs in the new Pakatan Harapan government, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, has condemned bullying and workplace discrimination against LGBT people,” Sagaree Jain and Neela Ghoshal, two experts on women’s and LGBT rights, wrote in a report published by HRW and Malaysiakini recently.

“He has suggested that the Islamic authorities should abandon their preoccupation with trans people’s attire, an obsession that in recent years has prompted dozens if not hundreds of arrests of trans women under state syariah [sharia] laws, which criminalize “a male person posing as a female.”

But on July 23, the minister also asserted before Parliament that the government was concerned about the “worrying” “spread of the LGBT lifestyle”. And on July 29, he was reported to have said the government would organize “camps” and “seminars” for LGBT people, as “parents need to be aware that this can be stopped from the beginning. We are ready to guide and help because we have the expertise.”

Gay and transgender people have told of three-day retreats known as Mukhayyam, organized by Jakim, the federal Islamic development department, and state Islamic institutions since 2010, the researchers said. Individuals who took part in the Mukhayyam program told Human Rights Watch and Justice for Sisters the camps encourage them to “change”.

“Facilitators sought to stoke fears that LGBT people would go to hell if they did not repent.” One trans activist who attended a session in Johor in 2015 alleged that Jakim officials “showed a video suggesting that trans women were responsible for natural disasters,” Jain and Ghoshal wrote.

Two women out on bail, caning set for Sept 3

Meanwhile, it is unclear what will happen in the current case, which has been reported around the world.

The two women involved, who are 22 and 32, are currently out on bail. They were arrested in April by Islamic enforcement officers after they were found in a car in a public square in northern Terengganu state, one of the most conservative areas of the Muslim-majority country, AFP reported.

They were brought before an Islamic court and admitted to breaking a sharia law that forbids sexual relations between women and sentenced to six strokes of the cane each and fined 3,300 ringgit ($800).

The sentence was to be carried out on Tuesday but Terengganu Sharia Court chief registrar Wan Abdul Malik Wan Sidek told AFP it had been moved to September 3 for “technical reasons”.

The Star newspaper quoted another court official as saying that since a few agencies would be involved in carrying out the sentence, technical issues needed to be resolved first.

Members of Malaysia’s LGBT community have faced rising pressure in the largely Islamic country, with public officials frequently accused of targeting them.

Transgender rights group Justice for Sisters co-founder Thilaga Sulathireh hoped the postponement would give activists time to try to stop the punishment from being carried out. “There is a bit more time now… [to] have more conversations about this and see if these conversations can add any kind of pressure or change people’s mind about the sentence itself,” she said.

Malaysia has a dual-track legal system with Islamic courts handling religious and family matters, as well as cases such as adultery. Caning is conducted out of public view, AFP noted.

Muslims make up more than 60% of Malaysia’s 32 million people and have traditionally practiced a tolerant brand of Islam, but concerns have grown in recent years that attitudes are becoming more conservative.

with reporting by AFP