Malaysia: SIS founder Zainah Anwar answers your questions

The Star online

Zainah Anwar, Sisters in Islam (SIS) founder answers ... What are your thoughts on the French government's ban on Muslim women from wearing the burqa in public? Susila B, Johor. Z.A. I believe the state has no role to play in deciding whether a woman should cover or uncover her hair. In Iran or Saudi Arabia, you cannot leave home without the hijab but in Turkey you cannot be in any public school or university or government building with the hijab. I wish the state would leave women's heads alone. However, when it comes to the burqaor niqab (face covering), I find myself conflicted about the role of the state in this. 

Personally, I find the burqa really disturbing. I see the at the sight of Arab men in shorts and sleeveless T-shirts walking in KLCC with their wives all enveloped in black. Why does he have the freedom to dress appropriately for a holiday in our hot and humid climate, while the wife is sweating underneath her layers of clothing? Worst is the sight at hotel swimming pools. The men and boys are having fun playing in the pool and the women in black are walking in circles around the pool, seemingly dying to jump in and join the fun. I see not freedom of choice here, but oppression and discrimination at work. In fact, once I saw a woman in full flowing black chador (outer garment or open cloak) andniqab jump into the pool with a trail of black behind her. In a conservative, patriarchal Muslim context, face veiling really symbolises women's invisibility and inferior status. That a woman should not be seen and heard, and should she venture into the public space, she must be as invisible as possible, is an affront to human dignity. It also puts pressure on other women to conform as it sets a standard that a good Muslim woman is someone covered from head to toe. In a Muslim majority context, I would support a law that bans the face veil on security and public interest grounds.

There is enough literature to show that the face veil is not a requirement in Islam. So I do not believe that a ban is an infringement of someone's right to practise her religion. I think the state has a scope to enforce a ban, just as a bank has a right to ask customers to remove their crash helmets when they enter. So a woman can be asked to uncover her face if her identity cannot be determined. In fact, a friend saw an Immigration officer at the KLIA turn back an Arab couple when the husband refused to allow his wife to lift her face veil for identification purposes. This can apply in many other instances too, including schools, courts and hospitals, and when applying for identity cards and driving licences. However, since the face veil is a rarity in Malaysia and France, I do not think a blanket ban is worth the debate and outcry generated thus far.

Do you agree that Islam is a much misunderstood religion; what has contributed to this? Bulbir Singh, Seremban

Absolutely and by both Muslims and people of other faith. I've always grown up with the belief that God is just and Islam is just. I've always understood that the discrimination against women was due to culture and tradition, not religion. However, the rise of Islam as a political ideology changed all that. Suddenly, all forms of discrimination against women in law and practice were supposedly divinely revealed by God! While all forms of equality are Western and alien to Islam. Any effort by women to challenge these were projected as efforts to question God and God's law and therefore to be against Islam. This reinforces the belief among many non-Muslimsthat Islam is a backward religion that oppresses women. I feel most heartened when many Muslims and people of other faith say to me that it is the work of Sisters in Islam that gives them a positive understanding of Islam.

What do you think of the perception (still) that women are the weaker sex? David Tih, Malacca

I think it's a waste of time and a waste of resources and opportunities. It defies reality and it defies logic. Think of it this way; 50% of the country's human resources are prevented from realising their full potential just because some men who believe their privileged status should not be challenged in any way still hold so much power over our lives. There are a million and one things that we can do to change this perception. For a start, let's not discriminate between our sons and daughters. Get the boys to help with the cooking, cleaning, looking after their younger siblings. Applaud the girls who choose to play with trucks and cars and climb trees. Let the most qualified student be the class monitor or head prefect, instead of reserving that for boys only as practised in many schools.

Wouldn't it be a better place, indeed, if women's rights were respected? Bernard KH Lim, Penang

Why wouldn't it? Isn't it logical that if all men and women are treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity, there would be much more happiness, peace and prosperity in this world? The reality on the ground has changed so much, but laws, values and attitudes towards women have not caught up. At Sisters in Islam trainings, it is common to hear women describe the men in their lives as the ones “missing in action”, “lost in space”, “gone with the wind”. It is the mothers who have become the providers and protectors of their families. Yet, law and society still regard the man as the leader of the family and with this comes privileges and rights that he does not ever lose even though he may have failed to fulfil his responsibilities.

What is SIS' stand on Islam? How does it differ from that of other Islamic bodies, including the Religious Department, Fatwa Council and PAS, which have one way or another criticised SIS?Rick D, Kuching

SIS believes Islam is a religion that upholds equality, justice, freedom and dignity. Thus, any law or practice made in the name of Islam must uphold these principles. We believe there is a difference between what is revealed in the Quran and what is human understanding of the divine Text. Much of what we call Islamic law or Syariah law is in fact human constructed. It is not divine. Islam does not speak without human intervention. It is human engagement with the divine Text that produces knowledge, understanding, laws and practices. Thus they are human constructed - fallible, changeable, given a different time and context. We believe that in a country like Malaysia that uses Islam as a source of law and public policy, everyone on the basis of citizenship has a right to engage in the discourse on Islam and how it impacts our lives and our future. Public law and public policy must pass the test of public reason. To those opposed to any public debate on Islamic matters, I suggest that their campaign for Islam to be taken out of the public sphere and remain a private matter between the believer and God.

Please share your thoughts on whether polygamy is a social ill in society? Faizal Majid, KL

Needless to say, it is. SIS has just completed field work on the emotional, social and financial impact of polygamy on the family. We interviewed over a 1,200 husbands, first and second wives and children. There are many tragic stories, and the most tragic are the unheard voices of the children. It was therapy for many of them as it was the first time that they were able to talk frankly on the impact of what they saw as their fathers' betrayal of family life, love and commitment. We interviewed children in their 30s and 40s who still feel the pain even though it happened when they were a child. One daughter said that when she asked her father for pocket money, he asked her, “Mak mu siapa?” (who is your mother). He had too many wives and children to remember their names, their mothers, their age, their birthdays, let alone spend any time with them. Now, she looks at him as nothing more than an ATM machine. It breaks your heart.

How worrying is the state of social values in Malaysia currently and what can we do to improve the situation? Susan Ang, Johor

I am particularly worried about the disproportionate number of Malays in data on such problems as drug addiction, incest, HIV/AIDS infection, abandoned babies and illegal racing. I don't understand why couples want to have so many children when they don't have the time and money to really provide them the kind of care and attention they need. Or in some circumstances, they have time or money, but have bad parenting skills. I think love must come with discipline and values, and the setting of clear rules and parameters on what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour among children. I am pretty conservative when it comes to children and family. A high standard of behaviour must be demanded of every member in an age of easy access to abundant forms of temptations and enticements.

Who is your role model? What are the qualities that you have learnt from him/her? Ahmad Zin, Shah Alam

My father, a man of principles, honour and integrity. My mother who was determined that her daughters should be well-educated, financially independent and be no slave to any man. Nelson Mandela as a political leader who knew not to stay a day longer in power.

What are the things that you normally do to make your life more interesting apart from work? Paul Smith, KL

I love movies, music, and plays and I have a wonderful family and set of friends I hang out with.

What are the impediments that we need to remove to achieve 1Malaysia? Pushnita Arumugam, Kuantan

To start with, our children of all races and religions must study, play, eat and work together. The best start is through the school system. So, let's make our national schools truly the school of choice for ALL Malaysians. I have heard this promise made by ministers past and present, but the majority of Chinese still go to Chinese schools, Indians to Tamil schools and Malays to national schools while the rich of all races send their kids to private schools. So now, we not only have an ethnic divide, we also have a widening class divide. We should all be very worried.

Over the past five consecutive years, Perusahaan Otomobil Kedua Sdn Bhd (Perodua) has been enjoying pole position in the country's auto sector, in terms of sales. Managing director DATUK AMINAR RASHID SALLEH has been helming Perodua since November 2009. He was previously executive director and head of the strategic marketing group at UMW Toyota Motor Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of UMW which is a major shareholder of Perodua with 38% stake.

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