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!