31 March 2006

Wednesday March 22, 2006

A first for women


Sometimes history is made without us even realising it. There we stood, my two sisters Hanis, Nori and I, to make a case for why justice for Muslim women in this country needs to be of paramount concern to everyone. With trembling hands, we read from letters which women (and one man) had written asking for help, for information, to protest.

One woman complained about a husband who provided nothing for her and their children, another of being beaten, still another of discovering upon her husband’s death an ex-wife who then claimed his savings. A father of three daughters complained about the amendments to the Islamic Family Law that eroded their rights and suggested a campaign to promote silence as a sign of refusal by future brides to ensure that no woman is compelled to have her rights taken away from her. Many asked questions about their rights in the courts, whether judges would listen to them and grant them justice, or would the many injustices simply continue? until when?

At the end, when all three of us said that we hoped and prayed that fairness and justice for Muslim women in this country would prevail, there was silence and then applause. I wasn’t sure whether people were just shocked at first, and then applauded our “performance”.

Then all three of us read our own personal statements. For me, this moment was of enormous significance. So many of our audience told us they were moved to tears when we spoke. I think it was not just what we said but also the fact that we were saying it.

All three of us were invited to do this, not just because as women we were all personally concerned about the misinterpretations of our faith that have resulted in injustice, but also because we each have pedigrees that place us in very public positions. As someone who has been publicly castigated for being “ignorant” and a “bad Muslim”, I have some experience in taking these sorts of public stands and exposing myself to pretty violent negative reactions. Hanis had none while Nori has some. It therefore involves a lot of personal risk to do this, especially if you’re basically a gentle soul who would never hurt a fly – like Hanis – or someone young, like Nori. I would therefore like to personally congratulate both my sisters for their enormous courage and thank them for their solidarity with their many less privileged sisters in this country.

What made this moment historical is that it has never happened before. Compared with many countries in our region, daughters of political leaders have generally stayed out of the public eye. I know I have been the exception but I became a public figure by choice because I took on a cause that needs to be discussed in the open. Besides I am essentially a writer with an inborn social conscience. But until now I have strongly resisted being tagged with the title First Daughter (the title rightly does not exist in our country; it is foreigners who like to use it) as well as being associated with other so-called First Daughters, especially those with dubious social contributions.

But times are a-changing. Along with the continuing progress of women in our country, personal laws notwithstanding, comes greater awareness that women’s issues are hidden away only at great cost to society. Therefore it is no wonder that the daughters of leaders have also become more educated, and, having been brought up with the right values at home, cannot and will not keep quiet.

There is no guarantee of course that any so-called First Daughter is going to be doing and saying the right things each time (just think of the Bush twins). But last Saturday, at least three of us proved that right now we are lucky in being united in our values, concerns and hopes. We knew that by taking such a public position we had taken on an enormous responsibility, but one that our consciences are perfectly comfortable with.

I think the wish of all three of us was that with this significant act, we give our sisters who are suffering injustices in this country hope. We would like them to know that they are not alone, that they have in us champions who empathise with them and who are willing to fight for their rights. We believe that as women who have positions of privilege, we have an enormous capacity and a responsibility to bring attention to issues that affect women in this country. Furthermore, as women who believe in the inherently just spirit of our faith, one in which the Almighty explicitly states that men and women are equal, it is therefore our duty to not keep silent.

All women need to speak out. Let’s hope we just encouraged more to do so!

17 March 2006

Friday March 10, 2006

No cheer for Muslim women


IN 1948, one of humankind’s most despicable ideas, apartheid, was made into law in South Africa where racial discrimination was institutionalised. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. Although there were 19 million blacks and only 4.5 million whites in South Africa, the majority population were forced to be second-class citizens in their homeland, banished to reserves and needing passports to travel outside them, even within their own country. It was only in 1990 that apartheid began to crumble and South Africans of all colours were finally free to live as equals in every way.

With the end of that racist system, people may be forgiven for thinking that apartheid does not exist anymore. While few countries practise any formal systems of discrimination, nevertheless you can find many forms of discrimination everywhere. In many cases, it is women who are discriminated against. In our country, there is an insidious growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, that between Muslim and non-Muslim women.

We are unique in that we actively legally discriminate against women who are arguably the majority in this country, Muslim women. Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened for Muslim women.

For instance, since the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, polygamy among non-Muslims was banned. Previously men could have as many wives as they wanted under customary laws. Men’s ability to unilaterally pronounce divorce on their wives was abolished and, in its place, divorce happens by mutual consent or upon petition by either spouse in an equal process where the grounds are intolerable adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion of not less than two years, and living separately for not less than two years. Compare that to the lot of Muslim women abandoned but not divorced by their husbands.

Other progressive reforms in the civil family law in the late 1990s were amendments to the Guardianship Act and the Distribution Act. The Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 was amended to provide for equal guardianship for both father and mother, rather than the previous provision where only the father was the primary guardian of the children. In contrast, the Islamic Family Law still provides for the father as the sole primary guardian of his children although the mother is now allowed to sign certain forms for her children under an administrative directive.

The Distribution Act 1958 was also amended to provide for equal inheritance for widows and widowers, and also granted children the right to inherit from their mothers as well as from their fathers. Under the newly proposed amendments to the Islamic Family Law, the use of gender-neutral language on the issue of matrimonial property is discriminatory on Muslim women when other provisions in the IFL are not gender-neutral. Muslim men may still contract polygamous marriages, may unilaterally divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons and are entitled to double shares of inheritance.

These differences between the lot of Muslim women and non-Muslim women beg the question: do we have two categories of citizenship in Malaysia, whereby most female citizens have less rights than others? As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women here are only going backwards. We should also note that only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing; in every other Muslim country in the world, women have been gaining rights, not losing them.

01 March 2006

Wednesday February 22, 2006
Khatami speaks
In the 1970s when Ayatollah Khomeini came into power in Iran, the world was presented with a vision of Islam that was dour and uncompromising. The Ayatollah never smiled, at least not in the media, his dull robes gave the impression that Islam disapproved of colour.
Iranian women suddenly covered themselves in black from head to foot, and thereon the image of the Muslim woman became embedded in the global imagination as inseparable from that of the Iranian woman. Not only that, it also became embedded in the minds of certain Muslims that that is what a Muslim woman should look like. As a result, Muslim women who don’t dress like that have had to suffer stereotyping ever since from both non-Muslims and Muslims.
The other stereotyping that has occurred is that Iranian mullahs are uniformly dour, dull, strict and dislike women. So it was an interesting revelation the other day when former President Khatami of Iran, in KL for a conference, asked to meet NGOs working on women and Islam issues. About 10 of us gathered to see him for the one-hour meeting. He asked us to introduce our work, and ourselves, and then he spoke and answered questions.
The first impression of Khatami is that he is not dour. A man with kind eyes, he displayed a warmth and sense of humour that one doesn’t expect from religious men. That he wanted to know what was going with Muslim women in Malaysia was already a surprise. But certainly we welcomed the opportunity to inform him and seek his opinion.
Khatami was indeed a surprise in several ways. For one, his view on Islam is more progressive than one would expect. He thinks that for Islamic societies to progress, we must have education and science and technology. But for this to happen, we must have democracy. And to have democracy, we must have freedom of thought and women’s rights.
“There are some traditionalist views which are not related to Islam which have taken on incorrect Islamic views...the best way to counter these views is to encourage women’s presence in society,” he said.
He stressed that countries must have democratic forms of government. Otherwise no wealth or science and technology is achieved or will not last long. “The most important need for Islamic countries is to achieve democratic governments and then acquire science and technology,” he argued.
However, there are particular difficulties in Islamic countries. Firstly, there exist traditional views and thoughts which have taken on an “Islamic” exterior and that includes “discrimination, depriving women of rights and regarding men as superior.”
This has resulted in two injustices, “the injustice to women and other weaker classes, and the injustice to Islam itself by saying that the first injustice is Islamic.” (Could we have been forgiven for wishing at that moment that various politicians and religious officials had been there to hear this?)
Khatami said that our most important duty is to solve the paradox of promoting women’s growth while keeping families strong. But we must provide the grounds for the education and “intellectual effort” of women “so that they can defend their own rights.” And he is putting his money where his mouth is by establishing the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue in Geneva that has three women trustees, “because it is not possible to have dialogue without women.”
Not only were his views on women progressive, even his views of religion in society were quite surprising. He believes that religion should not be based on static principles because “with time and changing questions and equations, these principles will lose effectiveness. Therefore we must change the principles.... If we insist on these principles, then Islam will fail.”
Now how radical is that? Not that he was saying that religion had no place, but that it “is not important for religion to intervene in the social life of people.” What was more important was how religion could be read in a way that it offers new thoughts in approaching current problems. If not, “this will lead to the destruction of society. If things are imposed in the name of religion, then this will cause people to dislike religion.”
For people to like religion, even for religion’s own survival, Khatami thought that we must have freedom of thought. We must have the ability to think for ourselves. “Where religion and freedom of thought have confronted each other, both have suffered. But if we read religion as conforming to (the idea of) freedom of thought, then freedom will ensure that religion will not become regressive. If we have an interpretation of religion in favour of freedom, then we will be able to achieve much. Otherwise religion will be wiped out of social life.” Hear that, those who like to ban books?
Khatami came into power in Iran because of his progressive views. Unfortunately he was not able to deliver on them, not least because the traditional forces against him were still very strong. Which is the tragedy of the Islamic world really, that even in a supposedly modern country like ours, the backward have the upper hand.