Malaysia: Can Muslim women walk tall again?

Free Malaysia Today

Celebrations for International Women’s Day on March 8 and the days leading up to it were as diverse as Malaysian women themselves. There were concerts, dinner theatre shows, workshops, readings and, if you had followed Sisters in Islam (SIS) and the Musawah Young Women’s Caucus, a pleasant stroll through Taman Jaya. But the placards carried by the women participating in the SIS and Musawah event indicated that it’s no walk in the park for these two organisations in their work to improve the lot of Muslim women. “One Husband = One Wife”, “No Religion Condones Violence”, “Women’s Rights = Human Rights”, said the signs the women carried on their chests and backs and across their arms.

SIS board member Marina Mahathir, whose sign read “Nafkah Anak Adalah Hak Asasi Anak” (Child Support is a Child’s Fundamental Right), said much remained to be done although women had access to education and jobs.

“I read something alarming the other day,” she said. “Only 30% to 40% of the women who graduate enter the workforce.

“Also, there are many Muslim women who are having issues with regard to payment of alimony, among other things. Although the syariah courts instruct that payment be made to them, they still aren’t receiving what’s due to them.

“Our presence here today is to see how people react to the messages on the signs. And their reactions are interesting.”

Hadil El-Khouly, who is with the Musawah Global Movement, said the Taman Jaya outing was a way of paying tribute to courageous women around the world.

“Every day is a battle against tyrants and oppression, and women are always at the centre of it,” she said.

“There are many who would remember Hussain, the martyr of Karbala, but they forget Zaynab bint Ali, who was the granddaughter of the Prophet.”

Tradition says that Zaynab, already in anguish over the death of her brother Hussain and her sons Aun and Muhammad, was forced to march unveiled. This was an extreme indignity to inflict on a high-ranking Muslim woman.

“There are many women like her who are unsung heroes and today we would like to pay them tribute by remembering their efforts,” said Hadil.

Discriminatory amendments

Asked about the desired outcome of the outing, Yasmin Masidim of SIS said: “We hope to bring up names that have long been forgotten, such as Shamsiah Fakir. We would like people to know that we each have the ability to make positive changes.

“But it is heartening that all the work done by women’s rights groups are paying off. Even ministries are talking about gender mainstreaming. The general acknowledgement of the media with regard to these concerns is also very encouraging.

“Having said that, we must never be content. We must continue to push for more acceptance, equality and fairness.”

SIS released a press statement calling on the federal and state governments to make good on their promises to revise what it described as discriminatory amendments to the Islamic Family Law (IFL) passed between 2003 and 2005.

“It is no longer acceptable for Muslim women in this country to be deprived of rights enjoyed by men and their sisters of other faiths,” it said.

In February 2009, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development Shahrizat Abdul Jalil announced that the government would amend the IFL to countermand the discriminatory provisions.

These amendments were to be tabled alongside amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act (LRA) to safeguard the interests of non-Muslim women whose husbands convert to Islam.

These amendments are now languishing in limbo. The bills were withdrawn because the Conference of Rulers wanted time to consult the state religious councils.

Malaysia’s 1984 Islamic Family Law was once regarded as among the most progressive in the Muslim world. But amendments made between 1994 and 2003 had the effect of diminishing instead of strengthening the recognition of Muslim women’s rights.

While women of other faiths have become men’s equals with the reform of the civil family law, Muslim women suffer increasing discrimination with each round of amendments to the IFL.

More rights were given to men, and the use of gender-neutral language extended to men the rights that were traditionally the rights of women. An example would be in the case of matrimonial property (“harta sepencarian”).

The gender-neutral language has the effect of giving a man the right to freeze his wife’s assets and claim his share after contracting a polygamous marriage.

Reducing the husband’s burden

Historically, one of the most remarkable ways in which the syariah was far ahead of western legislation by many centuries was its recognition and protection of a wife’s rights over her own property.

But the recent amendments to the Malaysian law have erased these rights.

The Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act previously stated that a proposed polygamous marriage must be “just and necessary”, but this has now been amended to “just or necessary”.

This significantly reduces the husband’s burden to justify a polygamous marriage. He now merely has to tell the court that the marriage is necessary. The usual excuse is “to avoid committing fornication”.

In 2008, the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality campaigned for MPs to “Kotakan Kata” (Keep Your Promises) in looking into urgent reforms related to women’s human rights.

The silence on amendments to the IFL and the LRA is a regrettable indication that despite the events lined up for International Women’s Day this year, issues affecting women that are seen as contentious remain low on the list of priorities.

Aneesa Alphonsus

March 9, 2011