"You can cut my hair. You can strip me naked. And you can take my dignity away from me. You can even kill me. But you cannot take away my identity as a transgender person."
- Nisha Ayub, describing her three months in prison for being transgender
Nisha Ayub has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of transgender people in her country, demanding an end to discriminatory laws and setting up organizations that work with marginalized groups
The first transgender woman to be awarded the U.S. Secretary of State's International Women of Courage award, Nisha Ayub has been shaped by her experiences growing up in Malaysia, where transgender people are discriminated against under the law. Ayub has dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of transgender people in her country, demanding an end to discriminatory laws and setting up organizations that work with marginalized groups - especially transgender individuals and other LGBTIQ communities.
Ayub grew up in Malacca, Malaysia, and as a child exploring her gender identity she faced discrimination from an early age at home and school. At age 21, religious authorities arrested and sentenced her to three months in a male prison for a cross-dressing offence. In prison, she was sexually abused and humiliated by the warden and several prisoners. These traumatic experiences of discrimination and persecution shaped her determination to fight injustice and directed her to a life of activism and human rights advocacy.
Apart from spearheading activism on transgender issues in Malaysia, Ayub also set up two important NGOs – SEED Foundation, and Justice for Sisters. The two organizations work towards repealing Malaysia's discriminatory laws against transgender people and provide support services to transgenders, sex workers and people living with HIV.
Justice for Sisters won a major legal battle in 2014 when the Court of Appeal upheld their challenge of a Sharia law targeting transgender people. The law in question was Section 66 of the Negri Sembilan Shariah Criminal Enactment 1992 that outlawed any Muslim man from wearing a woman's attire and posing as a woman.
The Court of Appeal struck down the law, observing that it contravened constitutional provisions that guarantee personal liberty, equality, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression. This was seen as a watershed moment for transgender rights in Malaysia.
However, in a major setback just a year later, a federal court reversed this ruling. Ayub along with other LGBT activists continue to advocate for abolishing these discriminatory laws in line with Malaysia's international human rights commitments.
Malaysia remains one of the 74 countries around the world that criminalizes same-sex relationships. In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch called Malaysia one of the worst countries to be a transgender person due to social ostracism, discrimination, sexual abuse and harassment faced by transgender people on a regular basis.
Ayub's struggle and contributions have been recognized nationally and internationally including through several human rights awards. In March 2016, Ayub was awarded the US Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award that recognizes “women who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality..”. She is the first transgender woman to receive this award.
Presenting the award to Ayub the US Secretary of State John Kerry said: Nisha Ayub, for your extraordinary work to promote societies that are more just, fair, and tolerant regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, we honour you as a woman of courage.”
In 2015, Ayub received Human Rights Watch's Alison Des Forges award for extraordinary activism. Talking about her commitment and contribution to human rights activism, Boris Dittrich of HRW said: “Nisha Ayub has been the victim of grave human rights abuses by the authorities in Malaysia. Instead of becoming despondent and fearful, she decided to become a human rights defender. Tirelessly she defends the rights of transgender people in a positive and respectful way, inspiring others to follow in her footsteps.
Ayub's success in bringing much needed attention to the situation of transgender people in Malaysia has also earned her a fair share of detractors. In 2015, Ayub was assaulted in the street by unknown assailants – an attack she believes was in retaliation for her work. However, she remains steadfast in her commitment to fighting for the rights of the transgender community in Malaysia.
Ayub's hopes and wishes are quite straightforward: “My hope for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community in Malaysia is basically for the government to recognise and to accept and to acknowledge that we are a part of society.”
“And at the same time, I hope that we will be protected, just as equal as other citizens. As a transgender woman, the only thing we ask for is our right to education, our right to employment, our right to every single thing that is for all citizens,” the Muslim activist added.
On April 6, 2016, praising her contributions to transgender rights, the city of San Diego proclaimed April 5 – her birthday – Nisha Ayub Day. Ayub's integrity, spirit and her unwavering commitment to human rights serves as an inspiration for all.