transsexual
Nissa Katerahong, the winner of the Miss Tiffany's Universe transgender beauty contest, poses with the two runners up in Pattaya, ThailandGetty

The religious authorities in Malaysia have stepped into the spotlight again. This time, its decision to raid a private dinner hosted at an upscale hotel in Kuala Lumpur for transgender women and detain its organiser, has come under fire by the transgender community.

The religious authorities are claiming that the dinner hosted a beauty pageant, which is prohibited under religious laws for Muslim women. A 1996 fatwa issued by the National Fatwa Council prohibits Muslim women from joining beauty contests. The religious edict has been gazetted as law.

The authorities have detained the organiser of the dinner. This has sparked a strong statement from transgender rights group, SEED Malaysia which is demanding that the woman be released immediately.

The NGO's executive director Yusmar Yusof said that the Malaysian government was duty bound to protect its citizens irrespective of race, religion, sexual preference and gender identity. "We hope it will honour its commitment to the people, abolish laws that violate the rights of the transgender community and order JAWI (the religious body) to release the organiser who is still in its custody," he said in a statement.

"We need to band together to oppose the bully boy tactics by JAWI, other religious authorities and enforcement officers to hunt down, harass and abuse trans people," he said. "The religious police had no warrant but bulldozed their way through the close-door fundraising event. This is a clear violation of the rights of the transgender people and blatant abuse of power by JAWI officers," said Yusmar.

He continued: "It has happened one too many times where the personal choice of gender identity has led to the transgender community being targeted, bullied, discriminated, abused and tortured. And it's sad that often these transgressions are by the state and people in authority."

Lawyer and activist questions legality of raid

Siti Kasim, a lawyer and activist who was a guest at the dinner said that she and the event organiser were taken to a police station but she was released while the latter is still being detained. She told the Malay Mail: "The officer told me that it's against the law to have a beauty contest - it's haram in Malaysia, based on a fatwa."

Siti however insisted that it was not really a beauty pageant as claimed by the authorities. "It's not a real beauty pageant, it's a show," she said.

She told the media that about 10 religious officers, came to the hotel at about 10pm local time and prevented guests from leaving the dinner for about 200 transgender guests. She claimed that the religious authorities did not have a warrant, nor were they accompanied by police, which is the norm.

Siti then called the police and only after their arrival were the guests allowed to leave. However, she and the organiser were taken to the police station. She questions why the transgender community is deemed to have breached the law when the religious authorities do not consider them as women.

In 2013, four Muslim contestants were dropped from the Miss Malaysia World 2013 beauty pageant following the fatwa. In 1997, the Syariah court in Kuala Lumpur fined two Muslim contestants of the Miss Malaysia Petite pageant for violating the fatwa while three other contestants were also taken to court in Selangor for committing a similar offence.