A screencap of Nur Sajat during an online interview with Malay Mail October 21, 2021.
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 22 — Nur Sajat Kamaruzzaman said she is excited to start a new life in Australia, and that excitement seems to also be shared by the Malaysian diaspora there.
Hounded by religious authorities for her gender identity back home, the transgender entrepreneur made headlines recently after she revealed on Monday that she has been granted asylum in Australia, following months of staying under the radar.
Speaking to Malay Mail from a Covid-19 quarantine centre in a major city there, Sajat said she has received a warm welcome and well-wishes from some in the sizable Malaysian community there.
“I received a lot of positive feedback from Malaysians who live here, especially from enclaves in Melbourne, Perth and even Sydney. They are so excited I’m here,” she said in an interview yesterday.
“They said, ‘Now I can come to your store!’. No matter if they are Malays, Chinese or Indians, they are giving me a lot of moral support. They told me: ‘It’s a free country. You can be yourself here.’”
As the freedom to express her gender identity was often on Sajat’s mind, it was the first thing she related about her new life in Australia.
“I am more comfortable here. To be myself. I don’t have to feel like people are gawking at me,” she said.
While it was sunny spring where she was, Sajat has not had the chance to explore her new hometown due to the quarantine and her Instagram stories mostly consist of videos of her meals with a view from her hotel room window.
They also include videos of her promoting her products: slimming belts, cosmetics and jewellery. But leaving her life in Malaysia also meant leaving her established business ventures.
“When I found out that I won’t be returning to Malaysia, I had to sell off my businesses I sold off two outlets of my jewellery store. I still have one beauty salon that will be taken over by others,” she said.
Escape via Bangkok
Sajat had been laying low since a Selangor Shariah High Court issued an arrest warrant and empowered over 100 officers to hunt for her last February, after she skipped a hearing in which she was charged with allegedly “insulting Islam” for wearing feminine clothing when hosting a religious event.
Last month, Malay-language media reported unnamed sources as purporting that Sajat had been arrested after an immigration raid in Bangkok, Thailand, in early September, after which she was charged in court and bailed out by a Malaysian friend who flew over expressly for this.
However, Sajat has disputed the accuracy of these reports.
“There was no raid,” Sajat related. “I was just at home, staying in, since Covid-19 is still around.”
“They came to my place to inform me they were alerted of my presence. I cooperated and was only fined for illegal entry into the country.”
Malay Mail could not independently verify the details of the incident with the Thai immigration authorities.
Following the media reports, Malaysian police confirmed that they applied to extradite Sajat from Thailand (a country known for its positive attitude towards the transgender community but later admitted to having considered deporting her) as well as Australia, which would later become her refuge.
Before that, the police announced they had distributed Sajat’s photographs to border control enforcers as early as March to prevent any attempts by her to leave the country.
The police had joined in the hunt for Sajat following a request by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais).
Sajat asserted that she had been completely unaware that Malaysian authorities were trying to extradite her, as the international agency that was assisting her had advised avoiding the news and social media until she was in Australia.
Sajat and her handlers could not divulge details regarding her asylum due to privacy and security reasons.
Australia’s Department of Home Affairs offers refugee visas for those facing persecution in their home country, and humanitarian visas for those facing substantial discrimination or human rights abuses.
Gender identity under microscope
Malaysian religious authorities’ fixation with Sajat’s gender identity has so far spanned the terms of four ministers in charge of Islamic affairs.
In January 2018, controversial blogger Papagomo had complained to the minister at the time, Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom, to accuse Sajat of being a trans woman following news that she was getting married.
This led to a Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) officer penning an open letter seeking a meeting with Sajat to “know her better”, and for authorities to determine her gender.
Sajat said the issue died down after Jakim did not follow up on the “verification”.
In 2020, Jamil Khir’s successor Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa lambasted Sajat for performing the Muslim minor pilgrimage of umrah in feminine attire, claiming the act had tarnished the relationship between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
“To be closer to the Creator, I can’t lie to myself. I have to present myself as I am… I can’t pretend. This is the real me,” she said of that incident.
Later that year, the next minister Datuk Zulkifli Mohamad gave Islamic authorities a “full licence” to arrest and “educate” trans persons, in response to risqué photos on social media by Sajat that upset some Muslim ultraconservatives.
The tipping point for Sajat, however, was the Shariah offence charge in Selangor last year, in response to her wearing hijab and a feminine robe while hosting a religious event from way back in 2018.
She was then investigated under Section 10 of the Shariah Criminal Offences (Selangor) Enactment 1995: insulting Islam or causing Islam to be insulted either by mocking or blaspheming the faith and its associated practices and rituals either in a written, pictorial or photographic form.
The offence carries the penalty of fine not more than RM5,000, no more than three years’ imprisonment, or both upon conviction.
Sajat recounted a harrowing experience while giving her statement to Jais in January 2020, which she said scarred her perception of the religious authorities and left her fearing for her life.
“Nearly 15 men were standing by, behind me, while I was delivering my statement. I was only one woman,” she related, adding that she had not been accompanied by a Shariah lawyer.
Sajat said Jais moved to arrest her as soon as she finished doing so. She attempted to inform her parents of the situation and to request for a Shariah lawyer to represent her, but was allegedly prevented from doing so.
“It was then a scuffle started. A couple of men restrained me and groped at me. They pinned me down, fondling my breasts. Three men pinned me to the ground.
“I am not even strong,” she said. “They punched me, twisting my hands. I got bruises all over.”
After the attack, she said she was immediately brought to court to be charged. She alleged her bail process was delayed.
“I felt like I was being sabotaged,” she said.
Before she was sent to male lockup despite her gender expression, another officer had allegedly fondled her breasts while trying to restrain her. The officer would later justify the sexual assault by saying Sajat “is a man”.
“Other trans women also face the same harassment and assault when arrested. We are entertainment for them,” she said, referring to enforcement officers.
The New York Times has also reported this incident, citing an activist corroborating the events. Sajat insisted she had a video recording of her giving the statement, and had hosted a social media live stream on that day of the incident to talk about her experience.
In January this year, Jais said it summoned its enforcers to explain themselves after Sajat lodged a police report over the violence. No development on this has been reported.
Jais did not respond to Malay Mail’s request for comments.
Future in Australia
The current minister in charge of Islamic affairs, Idris Ahmad, has said the government was willing to provide Sajat with “counselling” if she were ever to return to Malaysia.
In response, Sajat suggested that the guidance be offered to the Jais officers instead.
“It is so they know the correct procedure and behaviour when carrying out their duties as civil servants. It is not me who committed wrongdoings,” she said.
It is also unlikely that Sajat would return to Malaysia soon. She said she is busy attending cultural orientation classes that Canberra provided to refugees.
She is also attending tuition classes to improve her English and business skills, to prepare her to restart her livelihood.
“I’ve been contacting jewellery suppliers here. For example, there is a market for 22k gold since they mostly sell 18k gold here. There are many new things for me to learn,” she said.
Sajat acknowledged her privilege in being able to rebuild her life in Australia, even as many in the Malaysian transgender community continue to face a society that mostly holds them in disdain, sometimes with the endorsement of the state.
She also has a series of interviews lined up with foreign news outlets, with which she hopes to shine a light on the marginalised community.
“Don’t give up. Know your human rights. Be brave to speak up, don’t take oppression lightly The LGBT community is always being used as a political football.
“We must know the laws that target us When we are aware of the laws, people can’t easily step on us,” she said.
So what is next for Sajat as soon as she gets out of quarantine?
“I want to open a bank account!” she said, laughing. “When I have a bank book, only then can I take my next step.”