Malaysia: The state is eroding freedoms of women and minorities

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Malay Muslim women have been one of the biggest casualties in the ‘holier than thou’ race between the political parties to outdo each other in demonstrating superior Islamic credentials, says a publication by APWLD.
The Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) adds that gender and sexuality have acted as critical rallying points for the country's national social transformation.
The paper, FUNDAMENTALISMS IN ASIA-PACIFIC: TRENDS, IMPACT, CHALLENGES AND STRATEGIES ASSERTING WOMEN’S RIGHTS, finds that while women may be the first and easiest targets, "fundamentalist forces move on to target minorities and dissenters by demonizing and stigmatizing all difference, gradually leading to the erosion of democratic polity and respect for human rights."

In the case of Malaysia, the authors of the paper continue that "in the 1980s and 1990s a slew of legal, social and political changes weakened the position of Muslim women. The originally progressive Islamic Family Law was amended to make divorce and polygamy easier for men, simultaneously reducing their financial responsibilities towards women while the criminal laws were amended to ensure compliance with Islamic observance in relation to food, ritual fasting, moral/sexual conduct and dress, with punitive measures for non-compliance. Two of the states introduced the Hudood laws prescribing draconian punishments, disqualification against women witnesses and reduction of rape to illicit sex. While the Guardianship Law was amended in 1999 to give non-Muslim mothers equal right to guardianship of their children, Muslim mother’s rights in this area remain unequal as no corresponding amendment was made in the Islamic Family Law that governs guardianship for Muslims.

"At the social level, the pressure on women to display Islamic piety has manifested in increasing pressure to conceal themselves and further, to standardise the length, colour and style of their headdress and finally, to replace the Malay sarong with the Arab style jubbah. That this process of ‘Islamisation’ is Islam is highly debatable.

"Since 2001 religious fundamentalism has co-existed with an increasingly compressed political environment. The Malaysian government has used the pretext of counteracting terrorism to stifle all forms of political dissent and to justify encroachments on civil liberties. The Internal Security Act, which allows detention for up to two years without trial, has been used to mute the rising voice of ethnic Hindu and Chinese minorities protesting against their marginalisation in the political spectrum."

To read this paper, which maps the trends in the region and contextualises fundamentalisms in 10 countries including Japan, Bangladesh, Burma, Indonesia, Pakistan and Fiji, please follow the link: www.apwld.org/pdf/fundamentalisms.pdf