Malaysia: Advocacy for Women’s Rights Within the Islamic Framework

Sisters in Islam
The Experience of Sisters in Islam.
A paper by Zainah Anwar, Executive Director of Sisters in Islam, presented at a conference on women and Islam organised by the International Human Rights Law Group.
The setting

The Islamic resurgence that has engulfed most Muslim countries today has thrown forth different levels of tension and competing ideologies within these societies: what Islam, whose Islam is the right Islam? Very often, it is the status and rights of women that have become the first casualty in this battleground.

The struggle for equality and justice for Muslim women must therefore be placed within the context of women living in Muslim societies where Islam is increasingly shaping and redefining our lives. Since the early 1970s, Muslim societies in all parts of the world have been caught up in the throes of a resurgent Islam. However, all too often, in the turn to Islam as a way of life and the source for solutions to the ills and injustices that beset our societies, it seems that the place of women has become the first (and easiest) measure of a group’s or society’s commitment to the faith.

It is therefore not surprising that in many Muslim countries today, women’s groups are at the forefront in challenging traditional authority and fundamentalists and their use of religion to justify women’s subordination and inferior status, and most perniciously, to use religion to silence any dissent or defame or incite hatred against those who offer alternative views or protect and promote the rights of women.

For most Muslim women, rejecting religion is not an option. We are believers, and as believers we want to find liberation, truth and justice from within our own faith. We feel strongly we have a right to reclaim our religion, to redefine it, to participate and contribute to an understanding of Islam, how it is codified and implemented - in ways that take into consideration the realities and experience of women’s lives today.

Today’s Muslim women in a country like Malaysia that is fast modernising and industrialising will no longer accept their inferior status, not even when it is justified in the name of religion. Today’s women will not accept that Islam actually promotes injustice and ill- treatment of half the human race. Today’s women are challenging the values of patriarchal society where power and authority reside exclusively with the husband, father, brother to whom the wife, daughter and sister owe obedience. For too long, men have defined for us what it is to be a woman, how to be a woman and then to use religion to confine us to these socially constructed limitations that reduce us to being the inferior half of the human race.

Times, however, are achanging. We live in an era where women are educated, travel the world, hold positions of power and responsibility in increasing numbers. Today in Malaysia, 70 percent of the students enrolled in public sector institutions of higher learning, are girls. The female labour force participation stands at 47 percent and is rising. It can only be expected that women, with increasing knowledge and education, with economic independence, will gain more confidence and courage to speak out in the face of injustice. If the injustice is committed in the name of religion, then today’s women will go back to the original source of the religion to find out for themselves whether such a great religion could indeed be so unjust to half of its believers.

Of course there are many other Muslim women activists who have decided it is futile to work within the religious framework because they believe that all religions, including Islam, are inherently patriarchal. To work with religion will only serve the interest of the male oppressors who use religion to control and maintain women's subjugation. To them, the choice that groups like Sisters in Islam has taken to work within the religious framework, is a losing battle because for every alternative interpretation that women can offer to justify equality and justice, the ulama will offer 100 others to challenge that interpretation, they say. They have therefore chosen to struggle for women's rights within the framework of universal values and principles.

However, in the past ten years, more and more progressive scholars have challenged the Islamic agenda of the traditionalist and also the fundamentalist ulama and activists and their intolerance and outright oppression of women. These works which recognise equality between men and women in Islam, which argue for the imperative of ijtihad (re-interpretation of the Qur’an in the context of changing times and circumstances), which address the dynamics between what is universal for all times and what is particular to seventh century Arabia, which look at the socio-historical context of revelation, which articulate the need to differentiate between what is revelation and what is human understanding of the word of God … Such research, methodology, conceptual frameworks developed to deal with the challenge of Islam and modernity have enabled more and more Muslim women activists all over the world to realise the validity and possibility of working within the Islamic framework, that indeed we can find liberation from within Islam. Women have begun to study the Qur'an for themselves and the traditions of the Prophet to better understand Islam and with this knowledge and new found conviction, have begun to stand up to fight for women's right to equality, justice, freedom and dignity within the religious framework.

Our strength comes from our conviction and faith in an Islam that is just, liberating and empowering to us as women. Groups like Sisters in Islam are reclaiming for ourselves the Islam that liberated women and uplifted our status by giving us rights considered revolutionary 1400 years ago -- the right to own, inherit or dispose of our own property, the right to divorce, the right to contract agreements, -- all introduced by Islam in the 7th century.

It is this ethical vision of the Qur'an that insistently enjoins equality and justice, it is this liberating and revolutionary spirit of Islam that today guides our quest to be treated as fellow human beings of equal worth.

The Path

How and why did women's groups like Sisters and individual Muslim scholars, women and men, many of whom have been incredibly generous with their time and scholarship in helping us activists, decide to study the Qur'an and strive to hear the voice of the divine will speaking to our concerns.

Let me just share with you the process Sisters went through. Like many other women's groups, it is injustice, oppression and ill treatment that mobilised us Muslim women. Sisters in Islam first got together because of our deep concerns over the injustice women suffered under the syariah system. As professional women and as activists, other women often approached us to confide in us their marital problems and the problems they faced when they approached the religious authorities to seek redress to these problems. We got together first to look into the problems women faced with the implementation of the Islamic Family laws.

However, increasingly, we felt that dealing with the law alone was not enough. We felt powerless in the face of complaints by women that they have to suffer in silence because Islam demands that they be obedient to their husbands, because Islam grants their men the right to beat their wives or to take second wives. We felt powerless to hear talks, again and again, in religious classes, over radio and television, in interaction with those in the religious departments and syariah courts where women were often told that men are superior to women, that men have authority over women, that a man has a right to beat his wife, that a woman must obey her husband, the evidence of two women equals one man, the husband has a God-given right to take a second wife, and therefore it is a sin for a woman to deny him that right, that a wife has no right to say no to sex with her husband, that hell is full of women because they leave their heads uncovered and are disobedient to their husbands.

Where is the justice for women in all these pronouncements? This questioning, and above all, the conviction that Allah could never be unjust, eventually led us to go back to the primary source of our religion, the Qur’an. We felt the urgent need to read the Qur’an for ourselves and to find out if the text actually supported the oppression and ill treatment of women.

This process Sisters went through was the most liberating and spiritually uplifting experience for all of us. We took the path of Iqraq (“Read", the first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad saw) and it opened a world of Islam that we could recognise, a world for women that was filled with love and mercy and with equality and justice. We need not look any further to validate our struggle. Women’s rights were rooted in our tradition, in our faith. We were more convinced than ever that it is not Islam that oppresses women, but interpretations of the Qur’an influenced by cultural practices and values of a patriarchal society, which regard women as inferior and subordinate to men.

For much of Islamic history, it is men who have interpreted the Qur’an and the traditions for us. The woman’s voice, the woman’s experience, the woman’s realities had been silent and silenced in the reading and interpretation of the text. Thus, when Sisters read the text, we discovered words, messages and meanings that we were never exposed to in all the traditional education on Islam that we went through in our lives.

For us, it was the beginning of a new journey of discovery. It was a revelation to us that the verse on polygamy (Sura an-Nisa, 4:3) explicitly said “…if you fear you shall not be able to deal justly with women, then marry only one”. How come one half of the verse that said a man can have up to four wives becomes universally known and accepted as a right in Islam and is codified into law, but the other half of the very same verse that promotes monogamy is unheard of … until women began to read the Qur’an for ourselves.

It dawned on us that when men read the verse, they only saw “marry up to four wives.” In that phrase, they saw the word of God that validated their desire and their experience. When women read the verse, we clearly saw “…if you fear you cannot deal justly with women, then marry only one”. Those were the words of Allah that spoke to our fears of injustice. We understood that the right to polygamy was conditional, and if a man cannot fulfil those conditions of equal and just treatment, then Allah said marry only one. In fact the verse goes on to say that “…this will be best for you to prevent you from doing injustice”. What further validation do we need to argue that polygamy is not an unconditional right in Islam, but is actually a responsibility allowed only in exceptional circumstances.

We did more research on the issue and found out that such interpretation of the verse on polygamy and the Qur'anic view on marriage is actually not something new. It is not the invention of the women's movement in the 20th century. There were many prominent ulama over the centuries and Islamic movements which interpreted that monogamy is the ideal state of marriage in Islam. But their views were marginalised by the ruling elite or the religious establishment. The Qarmatians, a movement that challenged Abbasid rule actually banned polygamy among its members and it also banned the institution of concubinage so loved by the ruling elite of the Abbasids.

In more modern times, renowned Egyptian ulama such as al-Tahtawi and Muhammad Abduh who was Egypt's Grand Mufti at the turn of this century both held the opinion that the Qur'an viewed monogamy as the ideal marriage in Islam. In this century, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, the translator and interpreter of the Qur'an into English that is widely used throughout world, also held the same view. However, in the new edition of his translated Qur'an, published in 1989 by IIIT based in Washington, his commentary on the verse on polygamy in which he says that the ideal and original state of marriage in Islam is monogamy, has been deleted by the publishers. Maybe the review committee felt that too many people are reading his version of the Qur'an and are quoting his interpretation to oppose polygamy. Wallahualam.

Those who support polygamy very often say that they are only following the Prophet's way; but they have conveniently ignored the fact that the Prophet married a woman 15 years older than him and he remained monogamous for the first 25 years of his marriage, ie throughout the life of Siti Khadija, his first wife. It was only after Khadija's death that he married other women, and except for Aisha, the other women were all widows or divorcees and he married them to cement family ties and unite warring tribes.

There is also an authentic hadith (sunan Ibn Majah) which reported that the Prophet objected to his nephew, Saidina Ali Abi Talib who was married to the Prophet’s daughter, from taking another wife. He said, Ali could take another wife, only if he divorced Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter "…because my daughter is a part of me and what saddens and hurts her, saddens and hurts me too, and any problems that befall her will be felt by me too."

And yet while from young we knew that a Muslim man could have four wives, we did not know that the verse on polygamy actually advocated monogamy, that key Islamic scholars had supported monogamy, that an authentic hadith existed which expressed the Prophet's displeasure that Ali would take another wife and would not allow him to do so without first divorcing his wife.

The Challenge

As we continue to study, to campaign for women’s rights, for the right for people like us who did not go to that venerable university in Egypt for the study of Islam, al- Azhar, and who cannot speak Arabic to participate in matters of religion, we know the task before us is uphill all the way.

Through our readings, through consultations and studies with progressive Islamic scholars inside and outside the country, through networking with other women's groups engaged in the same struggle, we developed a conceptual framework and a methodology through which we could stand up and argue for justice and equality for Muslim women in contentious areas such as polygamy, equal rights, dress and modesty, domestic violence, hudud laws, and freedom of expression and other fundamental liberties.

SIS Advocacy Work

Our advocacy work takes two main forms: as memorandums or letters to the Government on law or policy reform; and as letters to the editor on current issues to educate the public and to build a constituency that would support a more enlightened interpretation of Islam on specific issues that are in contention.

Central to our advocacy work, is our research into alternative interpretations of the Qur’an and alternative juristic positions in Islam that uphold the principles of equality, justice, freedom and dignity. This work feeds into our writing and press statements on contentious issues where the conservative religious authority or the Islamic movements are pushing for laws and policies that discriminate against women or violate fundamental liberties.

Advocacy through Memorandums to the Government

As part of our effort to influence law and policy making, SIS has submitted several memorandums and letters to the Government on issues such as the appointment of women as judges in Shari’ah courts, the right of Muslim women to equal guardianship of their children, memorandums on Reform of the Laws on Polygamy specifically, Reform of the Islamic Family Law as a whole and the Administration of Justice in the Shari’ah System, and Reform of the Shari’ah Criminal Laws.

In these memorandums, we express our concerns on provisions in the law that discriminate against women in substance or implementation, or violate fundamental liberties, or conflict with the federal constitution and with civil law, offer a justification for why these laws should be amended or repealed and then provided specific wordings or position to make clear the changes that we want to see take place.

Advocacy through Letters to the Editor

Our memorandums to the Government are often, though not necessarily, accompanied by letters to the editor which are sent to the major newspapers in the country. This strategy plays a crucial role in educating the public about alternative positions in Islam on a particular issue and hopefully, through this process, we can help engender a more informed public discussion on the issue and build a constituency that would support our advocacy for a more enlightened and progressive Islam to take root in Malaysia.

Some of our letters and memorandums are submitted jointly with other women’s groups to demonstrate to the government and the public that the women’s movement is speaking with one voice on a particular issue, that the position SIS has taken is not an isolated position.

The advocacy strategies we have used have worked in many small ways in our ability to influence policy and law reform. Nevertheless, it is an approach that is fraught with challenges. By going public with our positions, we have been attacked and condemned by conservative Islamist scholars and Islamist activists and movements – a common experience of other women’s groups and progressive scholars in other Muslim countries.

The attacks and condemnations by Islamist groups and individuals against those who challenge the mainstream orthodox views usually take two forms: First, they try to undermine the legitimacy of the women’s groups to speak on Islam by accusing us of having deviated from our faith. They question our methodology of interpreting the Qur’an, they accuse us of using our brains and logic and reason (akal) instead of referring to classical exegetical and jurisprudential texts or just echoing the teachings of the popular ulama. They also say we have no right to speak on Islam because we do not speak Arabic, we were not traditionally educated in religious schools, and we do not cover our heads.

Second, they contend that it is dangerous to offer alternative opinions and interpretations of the religion as this could confuse the ummah. Alternative views that differ from the mainstream views are an insult to the Qur’an, inculcate hatred against syariah, and degrade women, they assert.

Such views really constitute an ahistorical disregard for the historical context within which the syariah itself was constructed, and of the consequently historical character of the syariah itself as it was developed and applied within early and classical Islamic civilisation. What needs to be challenged here is the claim by such Islamist forces that only their perspective and interpretation of Islam, of its values and its view of human rights and women’s rights are the “universal” and legitimate view for all Muslims at all times. In the face of general ignorance, fear and indifference by the public at large, the obscurantist view of such Islamists on issues such as women's rights, shariah law and fundamental liberties have dominated the Islamic agenda. This claim of universality needs to be negotiated and challenged within the Muslim worldwide ummah.

It is ironic that many of those who often challenge and question the credentials of women’s groups which offer alternative views on Islam themselves do not speak Arabic and have not been traditionally educated in Islam. Many of those at the vanguard of the Islamic movement calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and imposition of shariah rule today are professionals, engineers, doctors, professors, administrators, without theological training. Their right to speak out, however, is not questioned. The issue therefore is not just about who has a right to speak on Islam, but what is being said about Islam. Thus those who echo the mainstream view on men’s rights and women’s inferior status in Islam, those who believe in the leadership and infallibility of the mullahs, and those who advocate the establishment of an Islamic state and imposition of Islamic laws, have the right to speak on Islam, but those who challenge these views is denied the right and legitimacy to speak out.

While all Muslims accept that the Qur’an is one, the human effort in interpreting the Qur’an had always led to diverse opinions. It is precisely because of this diversity that Islam has survived to this day in different cultures and societies – all could accommodate the universal message of Islam. And yet in many Muslim societies today, there are many among the Islamists who condemn those who offer alternative views as infidels and apostates. They exercise selective amnesia or display ignorance that theological and juristic differences and disputation had been a part of the Islamic heritage from the first century of Islam. So many among the Islamists choose to deny or negate this complexity and diversity of our heritage.

Our position within the context of Malaysia is that if religion is to be used to govern the public and private lives of its citizens, then everyone has a right to talk about religion and express their views and concerns on the impact of such laws and policies. How can a modernising democratic society search for solutions to the multitude of problems facing the ummah when that search is conducted in ways that are so exclusive, restrictive and intimidating, and sometimes even life threatening? The world is far more complex today then it ever was. No one group can have the exclusive monopoly on knowledge. In a modern democratic nation-state, ijtihad must therefore be exercised in concert and through democratic engagement with the ummah. The experience of others who have been traditionally excluded from the process of interpreting, defining and implementing Islam must be included. The role of women who constitute half of the ummah must be acknowledged and included in this process of dialogue, of policy-making and law making.

If we, as citizens of a democratic country, have the right to participate fully in the economic, social and political development of the country, why is it when it comes to religion, we must suddenly shut up and be denied the right to participate or to even voice our opinion? We pose this challenge to those in the vanguard of the Islamic movement that wants to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state: Why would Malaysians support the concept of an Islamic state which assert different rights for Muslim men, Muslim women and non-Muslims and minorities, rather than equal rights for all? Why would those whose equal status and rights are recognised by a democratic system support the creation of such a discriminatory Islamic state? If an Islamic state means an authoritarian theocratic political system committed to enforcing androcentric doctrinal and legal rulings, and silencing or even eliminating those who challenge its authority and its understanding of Islam, then why would those whose fundamental liberties are protected by a democratic state support an Islamic state?

These are real dilemmas that must be dealt with by those who want to create an Islamic state in multi-ethnic and multi-religious democratic societies. If we as believers want to live a life according to the tenets of our faith, a simplistic call to return to an idealised golden age of Islam that have little bearing on the realities of today's world cannot be the answer. And yet the answers can be found within our faith - if only we have the intellectual vigour, the moral courage, and the political will to strive for a more enlightened and progressive interpretation of the Qur'an in our search for answers to deal with our changing times and circumstances. For us in Sisters in Islam, this is not heretical, but an imperative if religion is to be relevant to our lives today.

See the Sisters In Islam website