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Transgender beauty magnate, wanted for wearing a dress, fights extradition from Thailand

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/28/2021 Rachel Pannett
A LGBTQ flag at an August protest in Bangkok. Malaysia is pressing Thailand to deport a transgender woman facing charges in an Islamic court. © Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP A LGBTQ flag at an August protest in Bangkok. Malaysia is pressing Thailand to deport a transgender woman facing charges in an Islamic court.

Malaysia is attempting to extradite a transgender beauty entrepreneur from Thailand to face charges of insulting Islam by dressing as a woman, in a case that has turned the spotlight on the harassment faced by LGBTQ people amid rising religiosity in the Southeast Asian country.

Nur Sajat, a 36-year-old entrepreneur and celebrity who built a successful cosmetics company, fled Malaysia after she was charged in an Islamic court in January for allegedly dressing as a woman at a religious event. Muslims in Malaysia are subject to sharia law, and if convicted, Sajat could face up to three years in prison, probably in a men’s facility.

Sajat was arrested Sept. 8 by Thai police for entering the country illegally. A Thai police official told Reuters the deportation process was underway, though it could take time. On Sunday, Kuala Lumpur called on Sajat to undergo counseling once authorities have taken action against her.

“If [she] has admitted wrong … if [she] wants to return to [her] true nature, there is no problem. We do not want to punish [her], we just want to educate,” Idris Ahmad, a senior government official in charge of religious affairs, told reporters during a conversation in which he misgendered Sajat.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in much of Asia are extremely limited. In Malaysia, Islamic religious codes prohibit “a man posing as a woman.” So-called treatments aimed at changing a person’s sexual orientation are still carried out, and transgender events have been raided by the police. (In the United States, 20 states and the District ban “conversion therapy” for minors, according to the Family Equality Council.)

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Sajat’s resolve to live as an openly transgender woman made her a household name in Malaysia. In 2018, she starred in an online reality TV series billed as a cross between “Keeping up With the Kardashians” and “The Hills,” documenting her life as the boss of a beauty empire.

The entrepreneur also received death threats after she discussed renouncing Islam in a video on social media that has now been removed, the Associated Press reported. Conversion out of Islam is relatively rare in Malaysia, where about 60 percent of the population of 32 million is Muslim.

Activists say Sajat is in danger of “serious mistreatment and abuse” if she is deported to Malaysia and are supporting her bid for asylum, possibly in Australia. Human Rights Watch (HRW), a civil liberties group, said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has granted Sajat refugee status, and HRW is working to ensure she isn’t returned to Malaysia against her will.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. agency declined to comment, citing confidentiality and protection reasons. Sajat couldn’t be reached for comment, and immigration officials in Canberra didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Malaysia’s outrageous harassment and persecution of Nur Sajat highlights just how repressive and abusive that country is toward the LGBT community,” wrote Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, in an email. “The Malaysian government is wielding religion like a cudgel to try to beat down and ultimately suppress the LGBT community, and transgender women like Nur Sajat face the brunt of that assault.”

Justice for Sisters, a Malaysian transgender rights group, said in a Friday statement that calls for restrictive measures against LGBTQ people have been increasing and that anti-gay sentiments have escalated since Sajat’s arrest.

Malaysian officials are reportedly considering banning transgender people from entering many mosques and other religious compounds. The foreign ministry did not immediately return a request for comment.

Read more:

Kyle is transgender. It took 30 years and a pandemic for them to realize it.

States are still trying to ban trans youths from sports. Here’s what you need to know.

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