Malaysian rights advocate Nisha Ayub, 36, is the first transgender recipient of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award, an honor she says “is not just for me but for all transwomen, as it shows we are recognized and accepted as being a part of this international award that is for women.” She received the award from Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday. “Nisha Ayub for your extraordinary work to promote societies that are more just, fair and tolerant, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, we honor you,” Kerry said. “She continues to face threats but remains committed to her work because it’s what she cares about and because she knows it’s the right thing to do.”
Nisha became an advocate for Malaysian transgender rights after suffering sexual abuse from a warden and other prisoners after being jailed in a male prison for cross-dressing in 2005. She went on to found the non-governmental organization Justice For Sisters, which helps fund defence cases for transgender people in Malaysia’s Syariah Court, a court that deals exclusively with Islamic laws and has jurisdiction over every Muslim in Malaysia. She also heads the Seed Foundation, which aids transwomen, sex workers, and HIV patients. Her work led to a landmark 2014 ruling by Malaysia’s Court of Appeal that made state laws against cross dressing unconstitutional and discriminatory. That decision would, however, be overturned a year later by the Federal Court.