Three Malaysian transgender women on Friday won a landmark bid to overturn an anti-cross-dressing law in the Muslim-majority nation.
A three-judge appeals court panel ruled on Friday that a state provision barring Muslim men from dressing as women was unconstitutional, saying it "deprives the appellants of the right to live with dignity."
The law "has the effect of denying the appellants and other sufferers of GID [Gender Identity Disorder] to move freely in public places. ... This is degrading, oppressive and inhuman," one of the judges, Hishamudin Yunus, said.
The verdict overturns a 2012 lower court ruling, which had dismissed the challenge by the three plaintiffs — Muslims who were born male but identify as women — over their arrest four years ago under the law in Malaysia’s southern Negri Sembilan state.
Malaysia has a double-track court system with state Islamic laws governing civil matters for Muslims, who account for 60 percent of the country's 30 million people.
Under state Islamic laws, individuals deemed male by the government who dress or act as women can be sentenced to up to three years in jail. Some Malaysian states also outlaw cross-dressing by women.
Aston Paiva, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said the ruling could be used to challenge any arrest of transgender people throughout Malaysia.
"It's quite historic. ... This will be a precedent. ... This court binds all other high courts," Paiva said.
Nisha Ayub, an advocacy manager at Justice for Sisters, an activist group for the transgender community in Malaysia, described the case as "a historical moment for everyone in Malaysia in regards to gender identity."
"This has never happened in Malaysia; no one has ever challenged the [state Islamic] law. We could use this case as an example for us to challenge other cases in Malaysia itself," Ayub said.
The state's Islamic Religious Department could still appeal the ruling at the top Federal Court, although it wasn't immediately clear if it plans to do so.
International advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls Malaysia one of the world's worst countries for transgender people, as they face constant harassment, sexual abuse and arrest by the authorities.
Since the 1980s, every Malaysian state has passed criminal enactments that institutionalize discrimination against transgender people, according HRW.
Figures for how many people have been arrested and sentenced under the law are hard to come by, but HRW said it interviewed transgender women who said they had been jailed from four months to three years.
Several of them were placed in male wards, where they face sexual assault from both guards and other prisoners, it said.
Most recently, 16 transgender women were arrested at a wedding party on June 8.
Al Jazeera and wire services