Malaysia: Religion and Women: the Feminist Experience in Islamic Malaysia

Nazia Y. Izuddin
Patriarchal societies most often consider feminism to be a rebellious break away from culture and religious traditions.
Many feminists who have strongly responded to the hierarchical norms and basic gender inequality in a cultural set up have been subject to criticism for having strayed away from the root culture itself.
After having worked with several organizations and people, on issues related to Islamic jurisprudence, I feel that a Muslim feminist is most often confronted with the accusation of abandoning one's religion, on every attempt to question convention and traditional knowledge.

This summer I was on an internship with Sisters In Islam, an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia formed by a group of Muslim women who thought that Muslim women were being robbed off their social space and legitimate rights in Malaysia. They felt that the so-called norms the Islamic authorities wanted to enforce were against the larger principles of Islam primarily human dignity, equality, justice and freedom.

What attracted me to the work done by SIS is their approach to reform and how they address the role of law in this entire campaign for just and equal rights. Unlike many organizations that speak about Muslim women's rights in a very general manner, Sisters in Islam has identified core areas that affect not just women but also all the different minority groups in Malaysia defined on the basis of the social fabric and life style of Malaysians.

The basis of this approach is essentially the core of both Islamic philosophy and all legal philosophies that law has to match times and circumstances, that is the dynamics of the current society. It is important to question a number of conventional practices that have been given the legitimacy of rights on these parameters. This is precisely what Sisters in Islam has done in Malaysia. It is commendable to see how Sisters in Islam, even though a small group has created unrest among the Malaysian government, politicians, media and clerics, not to exclude the people of Malaysia. The group emerged at a time in Malaysian politics when the Islamisation process had started invading Malaysian laws. As a result of the same process, the Hudud Bill came into enforcement in Kelantan, one of the prominent Muslim states in Malaysia. This was followed by a series of other events like Hudud Ordinances in other states, passing of the Syariah Criminal Offences Act in several states and enforcement of these laws in a selective, arbitrary and authoritarian manner.

Several of the laws created under the garb of Islamisation were an outright violation of minority rights including that of Muslim women. The apostasy law is an example. The Malaysian law on apostasy does not acknowledge conversion of a Muslim from Islam to any other religion. Hence, a person who has converted from any other religion to Islam may easily do so but loses all his rights to reconvert. Similiarly, the Syariah criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act, 1997 states that if a Muslim is found in a place or doing an act that may result in the insult of Islam, this would be deemed a criminal offence. It is important to note here that the law neither offers an explanation of what it means by insult nor ensures uniformity while being enforced. The law enforcement pattern surely depicts double legal standards and an evident case of selective persecution.

Recently, a Muslim girl was arrested in Damansara, one of the uptown markets, on the pretexts of insulting Islam by singing in a pub. The girl is a professional singer. However, the irony is that all of those who were arrested were women. No Muslim men were arrested for the same offence. Also, all the arrests made on these offences that related to moral wrongs under Islam, have always been of men and women of the lower economic strata. Upper class Muslims are usually excluded from the ambit of this law.

While addressing all these issues, Sisters in Islam has on several occasions been a lone and single voice and at most times, a hated voice. The opposition against them becomes even more vehement on their feminist approach to Islam. In the course of my work, I had to interact with several Malaysians on different occassions. I never missed an opportunity to ask them about Sisters In Islam. I wasn't surprised at some of the more common responses. It is the same I have heard in India, from Kerala to Aligarh Muslim University. A person I met, Editor of a newspaper published by PAS, the Islamic party in Malaysia, also the leading party in opposition said very angrily that these women did not know of what they spoke. They do not know anything about Islam and they have no right to speak about Islam. I asked him why he thought so? He said that Islam has already given women certain rights. It is ok to limit oneself to those certain rights and virtuous women must be happy within these limits. It is 'unislamic' to ask for what is outside the prescribed limits. And then I asked him, "Who prescribes these limits?"

Definitely, the Quran has not authorized a certain group of people, or a certain gender or a certain political party to prescribe limits for women. But as with most Islamic societies, what is Islamic for a woman and what is not, is defined by the male members. SIS is also hated by clerics and extremists groups for the very reason that feminism is not acceptable to Muslim men and a woman activist is acceptable only if she supports the popular male view and talks about reform within those parameters. Sisters in Islam is mostly criticized for their polygamy campaign, which is a public awareness campaign based on the Quranic verses that justified polygamy and what circumstances allowed polygamy. Contemporary circumstances deny the need and the relevance of polygamy. Nevertheless Muslim men deem it a right within Islam and resort to it without adhering to the principle behind the rule. Several men oppose the campaign saying that it is their Islamic right.

Sisters in Islam has a very strong research unit and has brought out several publications that can be classified under modern Islamic thought and jurisprudence. A lot of their publications are less academic in approach and are aimed at addressing issues mainly in Malaysia, most often which the common man fears to ask. Religion in the Islamic society constantly binds you in a fear of being an apostate on questioning customs, rites and rituals. Somehow, the easiest way the fundamentalists resort to, to curb contemporary thought and processes in Islam is to engulf people in this fear. And those who speak up are invalidated by calling them 'Un-Islamic' and western and by raising allegations that those who speak up for reforms are questioning the religion and have therefore abandoned the religion.

For Sisters in Islam, this is something they face everyday. But like a friend said, "the very fact that a small group such as them make so much of an impact and is feared this gravely, speaks for it that the society is listening to what they say and is also thinking on what they say."

Nazia Y. Izuddin is a final year student of Law at the Aligarh Muslim University. She can be contacted on