Malaysia: Open letter from "Sisters in Islam" regarding anti-women fatwas

The Nut Graph
"And how do the authorities define manly behaviour? Not gentle and demure enough? Talking too loudly? Who would and how could one define and determine whether a woman is a tomboy or a lesbian?"
"Does Malaysia have serious morality and social problems? Definitely. To name a few: corruption, money politics, draconian laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA), abuse of power, violation of citizen's rights, environmental problems, failure to reduce the high crime rate, rampant snatch theft, domestic violence, and failure to chase after errant fathers who do not pay maintenance.
Sisters in Islam (SIS) urges the government, political and religious leaders, including the National Fatwa Council, to give more focus to the effort of upholding justice, equality, civil liberty and democracy in Malaysia, which are intrinsic values in Islam.

Malaysia has made some good progress in the advancement of women's rights. Thus, it needs to ensure that women's movement, the freedom to live our own daily lives, and the ability to define women's identity and lifestyle are not curbed and controlled by those who have narrow perspectives. The Malaysian government and all political parties have to enhance their efforts in creating gender awareness among civil servants, and political and religious leaders.

SIS is concerned with the continuous sexist and discriminatory approach towards Malaysian women, especially Muslim women. Sexist remarks issued by our Parliamentarians, instructions by political leaders for women not to wear high heels and lipstick, prioritising non-beautiful women for jobs, prohibiting women from singing in public, and now a fatwa on tomboys, are all alarmingly regressive trends.

The fatwa on tomboys can lead to arbitrary arrests and undue harassment towards Muslim women and girls. How do the authorities define a tomboy? A woman with short hair? Who wears pants? Wears shirts? Has no make-up? Many Malaysian women sport short hair, wear pants, shirts and don't wear make-up. It is culturally normal for Malaysian women to be body comfortable with each other - many women hold hands, hug their friends or kiss their friends on the cheek.

And how do the authorities define manly behaviour? Not gentle and demure enough? Talking too loudly? Who would and how could one define and determine whether a woman is a tomboy or a lesbian?

Women who do not dress or behave in ways that are perceived by certain quarters as "not feminine" are not a menace to society. In fact, many of these women hold respectable positions and actively contribute to society.

Women being targeted

An important question that needs to be raised is why is the fatwa only imposed on women? This is yet another example of selective prosecution in Malaysia. In 2000, the Selangor religious department (JAIS) charged a woman singer who sang in a premise that served alcohol for "insulting Islam" while the male members of the band were not charged.

In 1997, JAIS also arrested three young Malay girls, charged and fined them for indecent dressing and for taking part in a beauty contest. But it took no action against the Malay men in skimpy swimming trunks who paraded their glistening bare bodies in the Mr Malaysia contest that was held at about the same time. Is it because women are deemed as easy targets?

SIS believes it is not Islam's obsession to police people's morality, find people's fault or to spy on its followers. Islam is also totally against defaming one's character. In fact, Islam regards privacy and preserving one's dignity as an intrinsic basic right. Thus any human-made law cannot violate these basic rights enshrined in Islam.

All Malaysian citizens should uphold our Constitution that promises justice and equality for all, and prohibits discrimination based on gender. Hence, if any injustice or discrimination is perpetrated on any group or segment of society, every Malaysian citizen, Muslim and non-Muslim, has a right to speak out against such unjust laws and policies.

In Malaysia, unlike some Muslim countries, a fatwa is enforceable by law once it is gazetted. Therefore, any fatwa or ruling that discriminates against any segment of society, especially minorities, will be detrimental towards gender justice in Malaysia."

Norhayati Kaprawi
Programme Manager
Sisters in Islam