Islamic Women Challenge Malaysian Crackdown

Saying religious "Rottweilers" are out to destroy her organization, one of the leaders of a progressive Islamic women's group in Malaysia is vowing to challenge an edict by the Selangor Islamic Religious Council (MAIS)* seeking to put Sisters in Islam out of business.

“Women are earning more than men, topping the universities, they are financially independent, they are not going to take any shit over this,” said Zainah Anwar. “Refusing to recognize and acknowledge that change is galloping before their eyes, that doesn‘t work anymore.”

Sisters in Islam has been in the business of helping Muslim women find out about their rights for more than two decades, including telling them their husbands only need one wife and that they have a right to property. Sometime earlier this year, that got to be too much for Islamic religious leaders. The department issued a fatwa, or religious ruling accusing the organization of “liberalism and pluralism” – in effect ordering SIS, as the group is known, out of business.

The fatwa calls for publications by SIS that are deemed “liberal and plural” to be banned and seized and the religious authorities have demanded that any form of social media printing or broadcasting Sisters in Islam materials to be blocked by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.

But Sisters in Islam, led by Zainah and Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and others, is refusing to go, saying they were never asked to explain their activities before the ruling was issued and that they only found out about it by reading the department’s website.

It’s easy to see why SIS, as the organization is known, is getting up conservative religious leaders’ noses. Religious themselves, they have put themselves at the interstice between religious conservatism and a society that is urbanizing and liberalizing and whose political underpinnings are fading. The United Malays National Organization, which has claimed to represent the interests of the country’s 60 percent Malay Muslim population for more than half a century, is losing its grip because of corruption and cronyism.

As it has sought to reclaim its hegemony, UMNO has increasingly turned to Malay supremacy organizations like Perkasa, headed by supremacist firebrand Ibrahim Ali, and the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) to try to quell the rebellion.

SIS pins its hopes on the fact that as Malaysia matures, Islamic groups, Zainah said, are evolving and splitting in different directions, with some becoming more progressive while others are becoming more hardline.

“There is a larger political challenge where UMNO is losing support, they released the Rottweilers to use race and religion to maintain their position, a fiction that Malays are under threat to bring them back into the fold. They are becoming more radical than PAS. They have out PASsed PAS,” she said.

Over the past 10 years, SIS says, it has served nearly 10,000 Muslim women who have turned to it for legal advice to redress marital problems. It has trained more than 4,000 women on their rights through legal literacy workshops and 90 percent of them said the legal advice has empowered them to know their rights under Islam.

Obviously those rights are considerably different from the rights some Muslim clerics think women should have. SIS accompanies women to court and recommends lawyers to represent them in a society in which males believe they only have to announce they are divorcing and that there are no property rights for a spurned wife.

"The Muslim clerics “are losing it, they are going crazy,” Zainah said. “They believe the way to get at us is to use a sledgehammer. They do not realize that in this country, Muslims are educated. With the click of a mouse, they can find out stuff. What they find out is that while there are many opinions in Islam, the clerics use the most oppressive and discriminatory of them against women. They can no longer claim to have the authority to do that.”

The Sultan of Selangor, Sharafuddin Idris Shah, urged Muslims not to criticize fatwas, especially those released in Selangor, as he ‎is personally responsible for approving them. "A fatwa that is issued in Selangor is only valid after it has obtained my approval and consent," the sultan told a crowd in Shah Alam, to which SIS answered that while they were not going against the sultan, they certainly do have the right to question the content of fatwas.

In fact, instead of being anti-Islam, Zainah said, the impact of her organization’s work has strengthened the faith of many women “whose experience with their husbands and the religious authorities had led them to believe that Islam was unjust and discriminatory towards women.”

They are challenging the ruling on the grounds that it violates the fundamental right to freedom of expression, association and religion as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, that it trespasses federal powers as only Parliament has the legislative authority to make laws restricting fundamental liberties and that the religious authorities have no authority to direct federal institutions like the Ministry of Home Affairs to ban and seize books and the media communications authority to block social media sites.

In a statement on its website, SIS said the excessive powers exercised by the religious authorities, “with the complicity of the executive and legislative bodies are dragging the country down the road to theocratic dictatorship. The criminalization of non-compliance to a fatwa deviates from Islamic legal theory and practice. A fatwa is merely an advisory opinion to guide Muslims to lead a life according to the teachings of Islam. It is not legally binding and it is optional for the individual to follow it, or seek another fatwa.”

“This [fatwa] is a blessing in disguise,” Zainah said. “It is opening up the debate.”

*Corrected Nov. 9, 2014