Malaysia’s Justice for Sisters on Democratic Participation

Header of Thilaga Sulathireh and Oktaria Asmarani for SEAD “Malaysia’s Justice for Sisters on Democratic Participation"

In this episode, Oktaria Asmarani and Thilaga Sulathireh talk about the systemic and structural issues that hinder the practice of inclusive democracy in Southeast Asia, the cases in Malaysia, the role of research, and the importance of regional solidarity.


Welcome to New Naratif’s Southeast Asia Dispatches. I’m your host, Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif. New Naratif is a movement to democratise democracy in Southeast Asia, and this podcast is one of the ways we attempt to do just that.

A few months ago, we published a research report by Thet Wai titled “A New Feminist Narrative: Towards More Inclusive Southeast Asian Democracies”. There, we attempt to deconstruct and broaden our understanding of Southeast Asian democracy through a feminist lens. We tried to look beyond representative democracy to uncover the relationship between democratic processes such as civic participation and gender justice, and how those two are strongly interrelated.

A New Feminist Narrative: Towards More Inclusive Southeast Asian Democracies

In our more recent research by Oktaria Asmarani titled Structural and Systemic Factors Hindering Democracy in SEA: A Feminist Perspective, we explore the systemic and structural challenges that impede Southeast Asia’s practice of inclusive democracy–still, of course, through a feminist lens. We explore difficulties such as law enforcement, surveillance, freedom of expression, human rights violations, and the rise of religious fundamentalism, and how those affect women and queer people.

Structural and Systemic Factors Hindering Democracy in SEA: A Feminist Perspective


Hello, thank you so much for having me. My name is Oktaria Asmarani. You can call me Rani, pronouns she/her. I’m New Naratif’s Democratic Participation Researcher, thank you.

That is Oktaria Asmarani, New Naratif’s Democratic Participation Researcher. Rani recently completed her studies at SOAS, University of London. With a background in philosophy and anthropology of sustainability, she focuses on feminist studies that intersect with environmental justice, culture, and politics. Drawing from her experience in social work and community involvement, she strongly believes in the power of communal learning and sharing to address various structural issues.

Thank you so much for having me. My name is Thilaga and my pronouns are they/them, and I’m with Justice for Sisters. Thank you.

That is Thilaga Sulathireh, a founding member of Justice for Sisters. Thilaga is a community organiser and researcher. Their work focuses on gender, LGBTQIA+-related issues, and human rights. Justice for Sisters is a grassroots campaign organised by concerned citizens to raise public awareness on the violence and persecution against Malaysia’s Mak Nyah, or trans women, community.

In this episode, we will talk about the systemic and structural issues that hinder the practice of inclusive democracy in Southeast Asia, the cases in Malaysia, the role of research, and, as always, the importance of regional solidarity.


Democratic Participation Research

All right, thanks so much. We’re happy to have you both here. We’ll be talking about feminism and democracy, which is, Rani, you mentioned that that’s the area of research that you do. Why don’t we start there? Why don’t we start with the research? Because you’re not the first person to do this research and you’ve been following up on previous research. Maybe you can tell us more about your journey from the previous research, which was called “A New Feminist Narrative Towards More Inclusive Southeast Asian Democracies”, and to our current research, which is titled “Structural and Systemic Factors Hindering Democracy in Southeast Asia: A Feminist Perspective.” So yeah, tell us about your journey, Rani.

This explainer is actually the continuation of the first report, A New Feminist Narrative, which was written by Thet Wai, our first democratic participant and researcher. Basically in this research project, we want to explore our understanding of Southeast Asian democracy from the perspective of feminists and gender justice activists in the region.

We want to discuss the challenges, the way they overcome it, as well as sharing our desperation and hope at the same time. We hope that by studying the existing and potential movements in this region, it will hopefully help us to understand how we can strengthen the democratic movement in Southeast Asia and talk about the journey.

Yeah, basically the first report is quite lengthy. It’s in the form of a PDF of 10,000 words. But yeah, that report is very crucial for this research project because it serves as an introduction to this project. It gives the literature review and also how we perceive the specific topic that we are going to have like democracy, gender and feminism, as well as the personal reflections of that why, because that why is the feminist, feminist activist and also researcher based from Myanmar.

I think it’s important to bridge us into this explainer, which we decided to make it quite concise, if I can say, in more like smaller pieces in the form of about 4,000 and 5,000 words explainer, which hopefully will be easier to digest because this will focus on the main theme or main topic, which is the sub-themes that are already introduced in the first report, basically about the structural and systemic factors and then about the daily challenges that these activists are facing and also how are we going to envision about transnational movement. That’s basically it.

The Goal of the Research

You are positioning the follow-up research as you mentioned the concrete examples, not exactly the concrete examples, but you used the phrase you described it as in the original publication, it was more like a global overview. And now you are talking about the structural and systemic factors and the daily lived experiences of the activists, which also came up in the first research. And of course, you’re going to be publishing a lot more research on this. Can you tell us more about the throughline and what you’re trying to achieve in the publication, the project at large, but also maybe in the individual publications that you’re working on?

Basically, these explainers are the follow-ups of the previous research that you mentioned. And it is quite specific because these explainers are focusing on the testimonials and also lived experience of the activists that we are engaging with. In total, we have 14 activists and also one focus group discussion and one community peer review, which in total make it 23 participants, research participants.

Based on our engagement and conversations with these activists, what we are trying to achieve in this publication is to understand more about democracy from the perspective of these activists and just see and learn from their own experiences and to put it in the each explainer. 

The first explainer like this one is basically trying to examine the structural and systemic factors because from our participants, they told that they shared to us about laws violating human rights and gender rights, threats of freedom of expressions, and also all of these are strengthened by religious fundamentalism, not only happening in society but also in government.

Hopefully, this specific publication or this first explainer will give an overview of what’s happening in Southeast Asia countries regarding gender rights, like overall and maybe like the very basic overview of the situation itself.

It can serve as a reminder that what we are facing is very powerful and holistic, if I can say it, very systematic. This then can bring us to the next question of how the activists are working towards democracy. In the next explainer, we will focus on their daily experiences and also hindrances.

So that combining these two, like the structural and systemic factors, along with the daily experiences, we can try to envision or talk a lot more on how to collaborate and also how to foster solidarity transnationally within the regions. So basically, we’re trying to find out and explore more about democracy reflecting on the activist experience. So yeah, hope that answers.

Justice for Sisters and Our Research

Yeah, it’s fascinating to me how you’re highlighting and focusing. I guess it is due very much to the feminist lens that you are really, really emphasising, putting out there about the intersections between the decline of democracy and the decline of feminism, the decline of the increase of sexism, I guess we should say, also the increase of feminism, hopefully, in the masses. But yeah, religious fundamentalism and again, bigotry and all its forms and the decline of democracy goes hand in hand and the fact that you’re pushing for feminism and a more comprehensive, more intersectional feminist lens to actually build this transnational solidarity, I find it’s very fascinating. You also mentioned several times about Justice for Sisters. Here we have the Laga going to be talking more about Justice for Sisters. But before we go to that, Rani, maybe you can give a bit of context as to how Justice for Sisters has played a role in your research.

Justice for Sisters is one of our research participants and Thilaga, who was actually interviewed by Thet Wai. I found it really fascinating to read the opinions and also experience from them. I think mostly the experience and also opinions from Justice from Sisters, and I also read the report and it also helped building the series of explainers. I think it’s important to understand the very context of Malaysia. So yeah, looking forward to hearing more from Thilaga

Thank you, Rani. Take it away Thilaga. Tell us more about Justice for Sisters.

Justice for Sisters is a human rights group that works on the rights of LGBT, IQ, and gender diverse people in Malaysia. We work towards a criminalisation-free and discrimination free Malaysia, region, and world for LGBTIQ and gender-diverse people. We do this through evidence gathering, movement building, strategic litigation and other advocacy strategies and tactics

I mean, of course, in keeping with our discussion today, I also thought I should add that our work is grounded in queer, feminist and human rights frameworks. The work that we do is really taken through these lenses.

The Importance of Queer Feminism

I would like to hear a little bit about your own perspective relating to that, relating to the queer feminist frameworks that you are heavily working, primarily working on, what are your thoughts on the intersections or the effect of when we see democracy as just a very general without using feminism and why it’s important to use feminism, especially queer feminism, in analysing or improving, shall we say, the state of democracy?

I think I wouldn’t be queer if I didn’t invoke Michel Foucault. I think when we look at, as I said, we ground our work in queer feminism. Or queer feminist ideas, I think firstly, we recognise that all of us, as people, whether we are marginalised or we are not marginalised, we all have power, right? This is exactly what Foucault reminds us of, that as people, we have power, when we come together and unite our powers, then we can have something more transformative.

I think this is something that is very central to the work that we all do as queer people and we all do as human rights defenders and activists, where we constantly try to centre the power of people and we constantly try to remind people that they have power and the power that they have can really make transformative changes.

I think in that sense, I see how queer feminist analysis really gives us a lens to interrogate and analyse powers at all levels, powers within us, power within society, for us, of course, how gender is constructed, and also power at the end also in terms of how it creates social hierarchies and how these social hierarchies then dictate the access that we have, the opportunities that we have, the information that we have, etc, and it also allows us to interrogate and analyse power and our relationship with the state.

This, of course, is very, very important for queer people and many, many marginalised groups and where we live, especially for us. I guess interrogating our power with the state is extremely important for queer people and marginalised groups, especially because a lot of us live under the state of criminalisation or heavy prosecution by the state. It’s also important for us to understand how these state structures can have such an overwhelming impact on all areas of our lives.

For me, I think the queer feminist analysis really allows us, really gives us a framework to interrogate the power dynamics within society and our power relationship with the state.

Also it reminds ourselves that we ourselves have power to transform our experiences collectively and individually.

Malaysia’s Current Situation

Yeah, I love that answer. I do think utilising Foucault, because you mentioned Foucault, and obviously with the whole bio politics, society of control. But still, I think it really ties together how the systemic and structural factors are really embedded deep within our day-to-day lives and our lived experiences. Queer feminist theory with all of these ideas, all of these thoughts can really enlighten us how we can take back power and how power affects us and our day-to-day relations with the state, but also with each other within the marginalised communities themselves, which I think is a very fascinating thing to continue to research to move forward on. But I’d like to take it a little bit more concrete now. Can you tell us more about the current situation in Malaysia, Thilaga?

I think there are many structural and systemic issues in Malaysia that hinder an inclusive society and by extension, an inclusive Southeast Asia. And specific to the work that we do, the work that I do, which is on LGBTI  and gender-diverse related rights and issues.

LGBT people and gender-diverse people in Malaysia increasingly face state-sponsored exclusion through various means.

This includes criminalisation, pathologization, demonisation, especially religious condemnation and rejection, censorship, regulations of access to various spaces, including, and specifically trans people’s access to religious spaces and regulation of gender expression, gender relations and gender in general.

I can go on and on naming all of these different types of systemic and structural issues that we face because it’s just quite a lot and they’re all very much interlinked. Because the criminalisation of LGBT people then allows for censorship to take place and regulation of all of our lives. The demonisation and religious condemnation of LGBT people then also allows criminalisation and censorship, regulation of our religious practices, et cetera. I think there is definitely the interconnectedness of it all.

The reality is our lives and rights are interconnected. When one group of people are oppressed, we are all oppressed.

Of course, there are different degrees to this, but the spill-over effect of oppression is there on all people nevertheless. I think the exclusion and persecution of LGBTIQ and gender-diverse people have an impact on how gender is constructed as a whole and fundamentally how cis-heteropatriarchy continues to dominate social, political, and economic structures.

In today’s politics, I think the rights of LGBTIQ people, migrants, and other minorities are central to populist politics. Of course, some of these things are ideologically driven, and some of these ideas are, of course, based on some of these ideas of exclusion that have been ingrained in people for years through patriarchal interpretation of religion, social constructs, et cetera.

But if I were to look at the context of Malaysia, we can see how LGBT-phobia is exploited and weaponised by political parties and society at large. This then increases anti-LGBT sentiments that have been ingrained in people for years.

In this context, even people who typically take a progressive stance on human rights issues take a conservative position or worse, joining the course of rejecting or excluding LGBT people because they want to appease the general sentiment and also because of the political cost, et cetera.

In this sense then, LGBT people face total exclusion and we face total impunity, especially in the context where we are already criminalised and marginalised. This, of course, has a direct impact on our public life, LGBT people’s public life, public participation, and also our ability to participate in formal democracy, for example, running for elections and such, and how people want to engage in politics in general.

For example, through our research, we find among LGBT people, there’s a high level of disillusionment and people don’t necessarily see a value in voting or participating in democracy, given that they don’t see any positive impacts on their lives, even though they go vote every five years or so.

But of course, I also don’t want to limit democracy to just voting and election. But in general to our research, some of the things that we find is that people face a high level of self-censorship. Engaging in public discourse on social media in and of itself is a huge challenge. Also, given the general politics of it all, we also see a high level of desire for people to migrate or seek asylum to places where there are better policies and laws for LGBT people.

The Main Issues

Rani, what are your thoughts on this? Because I’m at a loss on how to respond to this because it is very true and it’s very palpable, pretty similar here in Indonesia as well about LGBT people, queer people being very much excluded and also the self-censorship, the whole thing about exploiting homophobia and transphobia for political gains, appeasing to the general public by being anti-queer. That’s a lot, right? Rani, what does your research say? Especially because you did categorise all of these various problems and challenges into three main issues, which is the law and their enforcement, the threats to freedom of expression, and the rise of religious fundamentalism. Let’s maybe hear from you on how you see these problems and how you see your own categorisation and your own research for these problems.

Well, interrogating the power, the phrase from Thilaga, I think it resonates with this research because we are trying to do that based on the perspectives of the activists that we are engaging with.

What we see, even based on only one answer of, we can just reflect that this system, this heteropatriarchy embedded in our states or nations, totally impacts our whole life structurally and systematically.

So in this publication, in this research, we want to understand why, up until now, the struggle is still here. We are still struggling for our gender rights. We are still struggling to have gender justice embedded in our democracy because feminist movements, gender justice movements, have been around specifically in Southeast Asia context even since the 19th and 20th century.

And it was really embedded in our anti-colonial and early nationalist movement. So it must have been something very big that we are facing and it’s also part of our colonisation history. I can say that structurally and systematically we are bound into this heteropatriarchy because drawing again from our participants’ opinion and experience, it has always been the state actors that maintain this heteropatriarchy intact in our countries.

It is then reflected on how they do it structurally by enacting laws that violate human rights, specifically gender rights and how they systematically or systemically maintain this structure by creating an environment that is not safe for those who are vocal to express themselves.

So it can come with the form of, again, draconian laws and then also in the form of internet attacks, like online attacks, police attacks, tear gas and even some in some countries, specifically, for example, in the Philippines, they have like red tagging.

Yeah, as I mentioned in the explainer, it’s just like a game like what we are facing if we are going to understand this more in quite a simplistic form. So just think as these laws is part of the rule of the game that we are playing and systematically, all of us, like us as the player of the game, we don’t only have the rules or the laws, but we also have the environment, all the things that we have in the game that also shape us to play the game. You know what I mean?

It’s just like structurally, the laws are there, but systematically they also shape our environment and they also have the tools to keep us playing the role that we need to play as citizens that needs to obey the government.

So, for example, in Indonesia, we have the new criminal code that will be effective in 2026, that some proficiency may lead, of course, to the over-criminalisation of women and marginalised genders, gender diversity, and also human rights advocates.

For example, we also have the Health Bill that, of course, is not only worse than the situations for women, but also those sexual and gender-based violence victims and gender-diverse individuals. And because it is national law, it can serve as the basis for its derivative legal products and also even the understanding.

It shapes our understanding as citizens that can further shape the discrimination towards women and also gender-diverse individuals more concretely as it operates at a more specific level.

So yeah, as we have the new criminal code that we have very, very specific clause, for example, like article that restrict anyone other than medical providers from disseminating information about contraception to children or abortion, and then article that prohibits extramarital sex, criminalised, immoral sex, something like that.

Then systematically, we also have something that we are facing. For example, again, in Indonesian context, we have the Internet Bill, the UU ITE Bill that, of course, will hinder so many people to speak in online because, well, I guess nowadays people are more and more people are talking in online basis and this law will effectively hinder or prevent us to speak. And again, what I want to say as well.

Oh, yeah, right. Not to forget that we also have our, if I can say like long overdue victory, because we also have in Indonesia, we have the Sexual Violence Bill. And correct me if I’m wrong, we have the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act in Malaysia. We have a Gender Equality Act in Thailand. We even have specific clauses of equal rights or anti-discriminations in countries like Laos or Cambodia.

But again, the thing that we need to ensure is the enforcement of it because speaking with the activists that are working in these issues and working closely with the people, we can say that having laws are not enough because we need to ensure the environment that we are working in is safe for us to ensure that this happens and ensure that we can speak ourselves freely.

In the Southeast Asian context, we still have religious fundamentalism that hinders us to do that because it’s not only, for example, hindering us in the public, but also it’s also there in the government. It also influences the making of the laws. So yeah, I think again, if I want to speak about this, I think we need to have a longer session of this talk.

But what I want to say precisely is that what we are facing is really big. And it also underlines the intersectionality because if we’re going to talk about gender rights, it’s not only about gender, it’s not only about men, women. It’s not only about gender diverse people, but also the lives of these people. 

And it’s not only about sexuality or expression, but it’s also about the right to leave. And if this is something that the state cannot guarantee, I think this can serve as an alarm for us to just continue doing what we’re doing to this.

Contextualise Your Own Fight

Yeah, I like your point about the role of the law is also to communicate things. It’s not just about the… I mean, yeah, sometimes the enforcement, whether a law is enforced or not, that obviously matters. But also the way that is written there and what values, what society, what things are we communicating about the society that we live in? Those things are also like not or even sometimes more important about having laws that say certain things. We do have a lot of, I guess, some wins, but also at the same time, major setbacks, as you mentioned. I want to hear from Thilaga. Do you see these things? Do you see these little new bills and stuff like that across Southeast Asia as wins that are worth celebrating, for example, or maybe some of them are, maybe some of them are not, maybe some of them look positive but actually are not that positive, are not that liberatory in the end. Yeah, but… At the same time, I want to ask your thoughts on the fact that in Malaysia, for example, there are still sharia laws which authorise the use of caning as punishment and also other kinds of draconian laws that are still being practised there that are against clearly in violation of human rights and stuff like that. At the same time, it’s a whole massive thing. There is little progress. There’s lots of setbacks. There are still those draconian laws. What are the attempts to… If there are attempts to fight back against those laws, then how would you contextualise your own fight, your own work amidst all of these laws, all of these setbacks, but also small little progresses?

Yeah, thanks so much. Firstly, I also really agree with Rani’s very eloquent analysis of the situation in Southeast Asia. I completely agree with the points on religious fundamentalism and how pervasive and systemic they are and how they are in all areas of our lives.

One, reinforcing patriarchy and also limiting participation and representation of different groups of people, and at the same time increasing risks for people when they do participate in public life. It’s such a Catch-22 situation and I really agree with the right analysis. I also really think about how it was centred.

I also agree with the point that the rise of the gender binary ideology and feminist pushback through religious fundamentalism is quite critical in some countries in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, Indonesia, I think, and some other places. For me, I’m in the business of optimism and in the business of hope as a human rights defender.

For me, I believe that a human rights win anywhere is a human rights win everywhere. The same as human rights violations, somewhere is a problem, when there’s a human rights violation, somewhere that means there’s human rights violation everywhere. The fact that I think there are these new laws, like for example, I think yesterday there was a discussion around marriage equality in Thailand and also some different progress is in other places.

I think these do give us a sense of hope that things are changing not just in the West, but also here in Southeast Asia. And it makes it really tangible and possible. It feels like, Oh, okay, the work that we do can amount to change. I think these are definitely hopeful things for people to continue to do the good work that they do.

But at the same time, as you rightly pointed out, for LGBT people, especially some of these wins, can be really tricky. Like, for example, if we see in Singapore where there was decriminalisation, but then at the same time, there was a safeguard that was put in place to ensure that marriage equality is not according to LGBT people at the moment.

So again, there’s all of these concessions and all of these negotiations that take place for LGBT people. Even in the context of Thailand, I think there was a lot of discussion among LGBT groups, especially the pro-democracy LGBT groups and the non-pro-democracy groups, I guess, in terms of how do we want protection of LGBT people and these laws in the context of lack of democracy for all people. I think for LGBT people, these wins are not easy. These wins can be very difficult.

But nonetheless, I think I want to appreciate the amount of work that these wins, the amount of work that LGBT groups and people have put in so that they can get these wins. So even though they are tricky, they are meaningful, these are all very complex emotions that we have to deal with. Yeah, that’s that.

But at the same time, I think when there are good models in one country or anywhere, I think this then opens up doors for people in hostile environments. For example, if I look back at my own experience doing human rights work in Malaysia, I think when decriminalisation in India happened, that was such a hopeful moment for all of us and it really opened the… I guess it really opened up the imagination for a lot of people to say that, Oh, well, if this can happen in India, then it can also happen in Malaysia or in other places.

I think I am always quite hopeful to see legal reform in other places because this then can open up imagination for other people in other places. And also it provides concrete legal precedents or arguments that people can model after. I guess if it wasn’t for the Toonen’s case in Australia, we would have still had limited discourse around how to challenge criminalisation of same-sex activities or carnal intercourse or whatever they call it.

Miranda Morris, Richard Hale, Christine Milne, Aaron Myers, Rodney Croome, Nick Toonen, and Lavinia Savell, during the media conference following the successful passage of gay law reform in the Tasmanian Upper House, 1997. Picture from Evolution Publishing (Melbourne Office) Collection, AQuA

I feel like the same goes to the NALSA decision, how that then opened up the conversation around legal protection for transgender people. I think some of these legal reforms do give us language, do give us framework, do give us arguments that we can use ourselves in our context. I think this is good stuff.

I also think that speaking of legal challenges, as you pointed out, in Malaysia, there are at least 52 state sharia laws that criminalise LGBT people on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, consensual sex, among concessional sex, between adults, among others. Then on top of that, we have Section 377 that criminalised carnal intercourse.

Photo: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee

In Malaysia, there’s a lot of criminalisation of LGBT people. In the last 10 years or so, together with LGBT groups in Malaysia, including Justice for Sisters, I have supported several strategic litigation efforts to assess the constitutionality of these anti-LGBT laws and state actions.

We’ve also not just undertaken some strategic litigation of these bad laws, but also state actions banning books, for example. We have been successful in some cases and it has set good legal precedents for similar challenges, not just limited to challenges that involve LGBT people. 

Currently, there is a challenge in the federal court in Malaysia that is looking at the constitutionality of several provisions within the Kelantan Sharia enactment. This is using the legal precedents of the Iki Putra legal precedents. In this case, Iki Putra challenged the constitutionality of Section 28 of the Selangor Sharia enactment, which criminalised sex against the order of nature.

A group of men were arrested and they were charged for attempted sex against the order of nature. There was no proof of them having sex. There was no proof of them doing anything non-consensual. However, they were charged in court for attempted sex against the order of nature. And out of that, some of the folks who pleaded guilty were caned.

They were caned, I think, maybe five or six times. And one of them, Iki Putra, then challenged the law in the federal court a few years ago and got a very good decision. And this decision then has a reverberating impact on at least 10-13 laws that criminalises the same subject matter.

I think I would say this is one successful legal challenge that we’ve had and the positive impact that it has had on other just general legal frameworks in Malaysia. I guess we’ve also seen some of the legal challenges that we have undertaken, although it may have not been successful at all levels.

I guess by virtue of mounting these challenges, I think one of the things that we have seen, positive impact that we have seen is that we’ve seen more visibility of trans activism, for example, and visibility on the human rights issues that trans people face.

Because, for example, when we supported the legal challenge of Section 66 of the Negeri Sembilan, Sharia enactment, that challenge basically opened up people’s consciousness to the the humiliation that trans people face on a daily basis, and the arbitrary arrests and the humiliation that people face are for simply for being themselves.

I think even though we were not successful at the end when we got to the federal court, the decision was, the Court of Appeals decision, which was a progressive decision, was overturned on technicality.

But the fact that through the legal challenge, I think we were able to open up people’s minds and to some degree and it really raised the consciousness of the situation of trans people in Malaysia. I think those are some things I know have gone on for too long with this response.

I think other than that, we’ve also taken legal analysis of discriminatory laws. I think the legal analysis is important. For me personally, it’s important because we need to have a good understanding of what are the problems with the law.

Because if we don’t have a good understanding of what it is? What is the problem? Then it’s very difficult for us to explain these problems to other people and how it impacts our lives. We have to undertake legal analysis and such.

We also constantly make it a point to raise awareness about how bad laws have an impact on all areas of our lives. In Malaysia, especially because there’s the Sharia laws and the civil laws, sometimes people assume that just because some of these anti-LGBT laws within the Sharia system or under the Sharia state laws, people think that it doesn’t affect non-Muslim people, right?

But it does. And of course, that’s not true. Of course, it has an impact on all people, including non-Muslim people, because one, it creates an environment of criminalisation and creates an environment of impunity. And also it creates an impact. It creates an environment where nobody is going to get rights.

We see the various fatwa against trans people that was introduced in 1982, I believe. In this fatwa it says that trans people are prohibited or haram. This fatwa then has had a huge impact, a systemic impact on the availability of trans-specific healthcare for all people and the ability for trans people to have legal, gender recognition, regardless of religion and race.

Sometimes people assume that just because it’s Sharia laws, it really doesn’t have an impact on non-Muslim people, but it does. I think this is something that we also try to tell, we constantly try to raise awareness around.

I’m also happy to share with you folks, with you both, I guess, all of you, that in relation to the conversion practices stuff where you talked about mukhayyam, we are also doing some research around that area and we’ve published a few research reports and we’re currently developing a knowledge portal or information portal where a lot of these research that we’ve done is hosted so that it is more accessible to people so that we can raise awareness about the issues the conversion practises issues in Malaysia.

The term ‘balik ke pangkal jalan’ or ‘return to the right path’ is often used against LGBT people to convert us. We are reclaiming that through this microsite. We want to guide people to the right path of acceptance, information, and protection. Yes, I’m going to stop there, sorry.

Research Needed

No, I love guiding people back to the right path of going against the order of nature. I think that’s perfect. But I think there’s this through line that I think you mentioned a lot of times also and Rani has also mentioned about the effects that laws have on all people, not directly, not only the people who’s directly affected by it, directly supposed to be affected by it, but also how new progress, how advocacy work and successful advocacy work, or even the ones that are still being done can open up new imaginations, new consciousness, raising all of these consciousness about what… Yeah, if it’s possible in India, then why not in Malaysia and all of those things? I do think that’s very, very important and at the same time as doing research, research on all of these effects and all of these laws and stuff like that. Thank you so much for sharing that. I guess my question now and, Rani, you can follow up on this next, but still to Thilaga is that if other researchers like Rani, like other people, like some of the listeners listening here, if researchers would like to help with advocacy work, what research is actually needed for advocacy, for the progress of human rights? How can allies, how can allied researchers help in this effort, do you think, Thilaga?

My simple answer is all kinds of research. I think all kinds of research is useful because we need both qualitative research, we need quantitative research, and we also need a mix of that. But I think it’s also very important when we do research, and this is something that I remember my lecturer saying at one point that we want to do research with people, not on people.

I think that’s the principle of, again, we go back to feminist research principles, where we want to make sure that

When we are doing research that we are equalising power and we are giving people power to tell their stories and for them to know that their stories are going to have a transformative impact.

As a researcher myself, I truly believe in the power of evidence and our experiences and I believe in the power of information, especially in hostile context. Because I think when it comes to, especially in a hostile context, it’s very, very difficult for people to share their stories because of the risk, as we’ve talked about a lot.

Just what Rani mentioned, in the context of religious fundamentalism, OGBV or online gender-based violence is extremely high. Self-censorship is extremely high. People are alienated from each other and find it very difficult to participate in public discourse.

In this context, research can really help reduce the risk for people to share their stories and also their experiences. I think in a hostile context, it’s really important when we can highlight through trend studies or by consolidating these experiences that, one, our experiences are not taking place in isolation, and two, these experiences are so similar.

That also allows us to interrogate why these experiences are so similar? I think to me, especially in a hostile context, I fully, fully encourage researchers to do all kinds of research, but using a feminist principle, using feminist research principles, and also with the intention of giving back power to the people and to the communities that they work with.

Yeah, I like that. That’s also very much aligned with what we’re trying to do here in New Naratif. Over to you, Rani. What are your thoughts on this?

Actually, what Thilaga has said is very powerful as well. But yeah, what I want to say is again and again what we are facing now, the heteropatriarchal system is very, very powerful. And in order to face that or even better to dismantle this heteropatriarchal system that underlies various oppression that we experience, we need to have our own evidence.

We need to have our materials to push for change. We need to show people what’s going on and we need to try our best to show it based on the people who experience it firsthand. So that’s where research comes in handy because as they said, it’s centring the people, people’s power.

I think research work is there to dig that up to gather the various perspectives of people to show that they are not powerless.

The power is within all of us. And then the research is there to bring these power, these voices for people to understand more and spark more discussion and spark inspirations because we are researching with people.

I think our research and I believe the research that has been done by Justice for Sisters as well as many gender justice movements in Southeast Asia. I think this is the way that we show it because I realised that, of course, one research cannot cover everything that we want to show, but it is one of the first steps that we can do to understand what’s going on.

And it also serves as an evidence that there are so many things that we need to improve and in this context is our democracy. I think what’s more important about research is it can bring more and more people to engage in this issue because I guess, as I said, when research cannot cover everything and it also gives us a lot of room to discuss and improve the way we see things.

For example, as Thilaga previously said that we need to discuss or elaborate examine more about the laws. But again, I am not experienced in law. I’m a qualitative researcher with a background in philosophy and anthropology. I guess understanding much deeper about law is not my forte. But this means that this research can engage a lot of people, for example, people with the expertise of law to understand more so we can walk hand in hand in our solidarity.

And it also serves as hope, I guess, because as a researcher and activist myself, I sometimes find it very devastating to read research about so many bad things happening around me, and originally, especially about democracy and general justice.

But it also sparks hope within me because it means that I am not alone in this journey. It means that there are so many people that are walking with me with our own power and if we can combine it together because we read and do research, I think that must be very amazing.

Regional Solidarity

Yeah, I love how the perspective is now. I think it’s very important that everyone adopts this perspective that you research with people, not on people. But that means that you research not to extract information from people, but to give them a safe space to tell their stories and their lived experiences. I feel like that’s very powerful but… Yeah, very powerful and transformative. But sadly, it’s not done enough. I don’t think it’s really ever done enough with the whole issues that we are facing right now. I’m mindful of time. Let’s just tie this back to your initial thoughts, Rani, earlier in this podcast, in this conversation you mentioned building transnational solidarity. Tying back to your answer just now about the role of research to give hope and in your own work, how would that contribute to building transnational solidarity? And also for the non-researchers out there, what can they do to help this process of building solidarity? Maybe help with the research, maybe help amplify the research results, maybe help with the advocacy work. Yeah, this is a question for both Rani and Thilaga, but let’s hear from you, Rani. What are your thoughts on this?

Yeah, thank you, Bonni. Firstly, it is not my place to say how everyone should act based on research, for example, but I believe by doing research, to answer your first question, by doing research, it means that we are trying to understand the particular issues more deeply.

I guess by doing research, it means that we also engage with a lot more people. This means that our knowledge is not isolated. We can gather inspiration from the people that we are researching or working with. I guess this research, well, reflects this particular research project because the third explainer, the upcoming explainer will also talk about transnational movement building.

I think it is important to not only understand, but also to centre and also give the platform for those who need to speak, for those who have the voice but they cannot put it anywhere.

For example, it means that we are trying to achieve democracy itself by doing this research because we testament to the people that need to speak out loud, speak their voices. About transnational movement building or any movement building, and also to answer the second question, I think by doing this research, the first thing, because the research itself is trying to understand more than by reading the research, it’s like the first step to understand what we have been doing so far. Then after that, what we can do together is, of course, based on our expertise and also our context. 

It’s also important to just keep talking, keep voicing out the issues because we need not to be silent. I think it’s very important to just keep talking about the issue.

I think this research has taught me by understanding my own context as an Indonesian feminist, activist and researcher and by then understanding the context of Southeast Asia and then understanding the similarities and differences between each context. I think that’s also the way we can do things. I mean, like we understand our context first and then we can collaborate.

I don’t think compare is the best word, but like, yeah, just seeing the similarities and also differences between our context so that we can gather our power to create something. And that’s something I think it is up to us. I mean, again, I am not the person who needs to talk, but whatever the form is,

I think research is the first and important step to gather all the powers that we have because we try to understand, we try to seek the similarities and differences amongst us. I think that’s how powerful research is.

Yeah, I like that. Contextualising our struggles. So as you did in the context of Indonesians and then the rest of Southeast Asia, yeah, that can be pretty powerful. Thilaga, what are your thoughts on this?

I just really want to thank Rani and colleagues and folks at New Naratif for the work that you folks are doing. I think it’s really quite amazing that there is a platform for us to really do feminist research and also amplify the feminist research through different ways, through articles, through podcasts, through so many different things.

I feel like we are in a time where we are able to not just research, but also make our findings more accessible to people.

I think this is really quite heartening for me because a few years ago, I remember being in conversation about us, like being in conversation where we were talking about we cannot just do research and just keep it on bookshelves, we need to bring it to the people. I think the fact that we are doing this and making things more information, more accessible and more democratic, I think that’s something really great.

I completely agree with everything that Rani has said in terms of contextualising the struggle and research being the first step to consolidating power of people and evidence and experiences and things like that. I’m also, like Raini, quite hopeful and I also love the Southeast Asian solidarity.

I’ve been part of the African Peoples Forum and other Southeast Asian convenings. I know the analysis, the kind-of discussions that take place in these spaces. I’m always very inspired by the Southeast Asian people and the things that they deal with.

Because a lot of people are dealing with authoritarian governments, a lot of people are dealing with environmental issues and really serious issues within this region. I’m really happy to see how there are more platforms for not just the physical forums, but also there are more online spaces and offline spaces that are coming up to highlight some of the stories and have these regional conversations.

I’m also really happy, truly, truly, truly very happy to be in this conversation with Rani as well, because I think these are the conversations that we need. I’m really glad that New Naratif is providing this platform because in years of working with colleagues in Southeast Asia, I think one of the things that I kept hearing or the recurring thing that I’ve always heard from people is that what we need is really more spaces for us to have discussion and exchanges to learn from each other.

I think writings that do not dictate what people need to do, but just facilitate these spaces for conversations, I think would be really critical in the changes that we want to see. That’s all. Thank you.

Okay, thank you so much, Thilaga, and thank you, Rani. This has been an amazing conversation. We’ve gone quite a bit past the one-hour mark, which is, yeah, I’m sure we can go on. But yeah, this has been exciting. Thank you so much for your time.


And that wraps up our discussion with Oktaria Asmarani and Thilaga Sulathireh. We went way past our regular time since the discussion was so exciting for us, and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.

The most important takeaway for me is how legal battles and advocacy work aren’t just about rules and laws, but about starting conversations and opening up people’s imaginations, about the limits of what’s possible in our civil society.

Which is also why it’s very important for us to contextualise our struggles. Whatever we’re going through, we’re not alone. Our struggles are always part of systemic and structural issues in our country, with echoes throughout the region, and perhaps worldwide and throughout history. So: start those conversations, and build that solidarity.

If you’d like to know more about Justice for Sisters’ project against conversion therapy, you can check out Balik ke Pangkal Jalan in the link in our show notes. If you have similar or related work that you’re working on, give us a shout out! We’re all in this together.

My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and this has been Southeast Asia Dispatches. Brought to you by New Naratif, and produced by Dania Joedo. I’ll see you around.



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