Morality, Spies and Chastity Belts...

When Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi shot down a move last month by the Islamic government in the northeastern state of Terengganu to train spies to watch couples engaged in “immoral activities” like premarital sex, he was taking notice of a rising tide of fundamentalism in the country.

“There’s no need for that. Why should we ask people to spy and then reward them?” Abdullah told Malaysian journalists during a two-day working visit to Indonesia.

It isn’t the first time a Malaysian state government has moved to set up so-called ‘khalwat” (close proximity) informers to watch unrelated men and women, a seeming anomaly in what is one of the world’s most liberal Islamic countries. Nor is it the first time the federal government has batted them back. But it is emblematic of the growing tensions between increasingly sophisticated urban Malays, particularly women who have discarded their hijab hair coverings and prefer tight-fitting blue jeans to the floor-length dress of rural Malays.

As the country has zoomed upward economically, Terengganu and its rural, poor, Islamic northern sister states are an increasing anomaly. And, despite Abdullah’s quick renunciation of the practice, it has stirred renewed fears that conservative elements in the country are seeking to re-assert their authority, which former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad kept firmly in check during his 22 years in power.

“I think what most frustrates me is a general acceptance that women hold a lower position in society despite the strides we've made,” Marina Mahathir, the former prime minister’s outspoken daughter, told Asia Sentinel. “Women's sexuality is always taboo. Nobody asks about boys having sex. It's so blatantly unfair yet nobody questions these assumptions. I guess my real hope is that more women will voice their frustration with these attitudes. “

Nor are just women concerned. Moderate Muslim-Malays as well as the Chinese and Indian communities who do not profess faith in Islam in great numbers are worried that the rising conservative tide among some Malays will affect their way of life as well.

The concerns were given considerable impetus in a widely publicized incident last October when an American couple in their 60s were intercepted in their rented Lankawi Island bungalow by khalwat police threatening to break down the door; the moral enforcers refused to leave without seeing a marriage certificate despite the fact that the couple, both Caucasians, had been married for 42 years. The crusaders were only persuaded to go after seeing the couple’s passports.

The latest incident cropped up in a Feb. 23 interview with Terengganu Islamic official Rosol Wahid in the New Straits Times. “In Terengganu, we have informants who voluntarily provide information on immoral activities, including khalwat, to enforcement officers of the state Religious Affairs Department. They are not vigilantes or members of a special squad who snoop around to catch couples but they can be anyone who feels it is his responsibility to check immoral activities in their area.”

Being nailed in a khalwat raid can mean a two-month jail sentence. The issue obviously affects women the most due to the stigma and shame attached to such raids. Sisters in Islam, a Muslim women's group that champions gender rights, issued a statement saying that "moral policing by state religious authorities and their auxiliary services have often led to rampant abuses of power."

Sisters in Islam and other women’s organizations regard the Terengganu situation as only the latest event in a long buildup against women’s rights. In another recent incident, Abu Hassan Din Al-Hafiz, a respected Muslim advisor, suggested that chastity belts would help reduce cases of rape and incest. He quickly backed away said he was joking but many Muslim women didn’t find it funny.

“In a nation that has built the world’s tallest twin towers, a multimedia super-corridor, and is now planning to send a man into outer space, we find it flabbergasting that, at the same time, there are calls to send women back to the Dark Ages by strapping chastity belts on them,” Sisters In Islam said in a statement.

The subservient status of women can have sudden and dramatic consequences, according to Zainah Anwar, a prominent women’s rights activist. She recounted a conversation with a friend whose 34 year old daughter was unilaterally divorced by her husband of eight years.

"He wished her 'Happy Birthday', and then pronounced 'I divorce you'! Can you imagine such cruelty, such heartlessness?"

Women’s rights groups contend that a Muslim man's unilateral right to divorce his wife at will is the cause of a rising rate of divorce among Muslims.

The practice in which men could simply pronounce talaq (repudiation) and divorce led religious authorities to put a stop to the practice in the 1984 model Islamic Family Law adopted by each of Malaysia’s states, making the country one of the first Muslim countries to require that divorce take place only in court.

However, in 1994, amid objections from Muslim fundamentalists, the law was amended to allow the registration of divorces outside the courts, defeating the original intent and spirit of the 1984 reform. Now, only a minimum fine is required for breaking the law by pronouncing talaq without court permission. Women's groups object to the devastating emotional pain a woman goes through when her marriage is terminated without her being consulted or given any power to prevent it or negotiate the terms.

The problem is further compounded by the lack of female syariah (Islamic religious court) judges, making the religious system on the whole predominantly a man’s domain. The Women’s Section of Jemaah Islah Malaysia (JIM), an NGO, said that Malaysia has been slow in allowing female syariah judges even compared to countries such as Sudan, which already has hundreds of women judges.

"There has been a misunderstanding over the capabilities of women judges who have been blamed for being emotional, less critical and less objective when making decisions," said Dr Harlina Halizah Siraj, the head of JIM’s women’s section,.

Norma Yaakob, a former Chief Judge of the High Court of Malaya, lamented while on the bench that a lack of female appointments to Islamic courts was leading to prejudicial treatment and that complaints from women in general about discrimination were being denied.

A case in point is the Islamic Family Law Bill, which interest groups argue was rushed through Parliament in 2005 and gained legal approval even though it discriminates against women by allowing husbands to freeze the assets of their wives and children in divorce cases. Although the bill was suspended, it took considerable outcry before the authorities decided against putting it into practice. The three daughters of current and past Malaysian prime ministers – Hanis Hussein, Marina Mahathir and Nori Abdullah – joined hands publicly to denounce the bill, or probably it would have gone into law.

The issue of polygamy is also the subject of hot debate in Malaysia. In a bid to put an end to the practice, opponents of polygamy are seeking to produce a survey to strengthen their case that the practice throws families into emotional end economic turmoil. In what could be the most comprehensive survey ever conducted on polygamy in an Islamic society, Sisters In Islam researchers hope to interview 6,000 members of polygamous households.

“We need evidence-based material to strengthen our advocacy for awareness and reforms, rather than merely use stories or assumptions about polygamy,” Zainah said.

Islam allows a man up to four wives. But in Malaysia, activists say some polygamous husbands neglect their responsibilities to their wives and children. Government statistics recorded 13,516 polygamous marriages between 1995 and 2004, representing 1.4 percent of all Muslim marriages, said Norani Othman, a sociologist at the National University of Malaysia involved in the survey project.

However, activists believe the actual number is much higher because many men fail to report their second or third marriages in order to conceal them from their primary families. There is no official estimate of the total current number of polygamous marriages.

The projected survey is significant because existing research on Muslim polygamy in other countries has only scrutinized a small number of respondents and focused on legal issues. As such, there has been a failure to understand the financial and social impact of polygamy, Norani said.

Sisters In Islam plans to ask polygamous families a wide range of questions, including how their expenditure for clothes and other necessities is affected when the man marries another wife, and whether existing wives and children are forced to make financial sacrifices. The survey would extend to daily issues — including how husbands apportion their time among multiple wives, celebrate holidays and decide which wife to take to social function. The survey would also consider whether existing legal enactments protect wives adequately from mistreatment in polygamous marriages.

A 2005 pilot study by involving 40 members of polygamous households showed that some children suffer emotional problems as a direct consequence of the practice, Norani said. Sisters in Islam plans to publish their findings in early 2008.

Amid the furor over women’s rights, conservatives in general are practically silent on the issue of the exploitation of foreign women. There are bridal parades of hopeful Vietnamese girls at local coffee shops for prospective Malaysian husbands. Women’s groups here have denounced the practice as degrading.

Women's Development Collective (WDC) executive director Maria Chin Abdullah said: "We are living in the 21st century, and it is disgusting that we still resort to such methods to get married. It is revolting to know that we have fallen to such a low level to form relationships."

Women, Chin Abdullah said, are being viewed as a commodity to be bought or sold. "Such a perception should not even exist. This practice can be classified as an extreme form of sexual slavery conducted under a sham legal framework. The authorities need to look into this matter seriously."

In a newspaper column for International Women’s Day 2006, Marina Mahathir put into context the state of women in Malaysia: “These differences between the lot of Muslim women and non-Muslim women beg the question: do we have two categories of citizenship in Malaysia, whereby most female citizens have fewer rights than others? As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women here are only going backwards. We should also note that only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing; in every other Muslim country in the world, women have been gaining rights, not losing them.”