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MALAYSIA

 

Bound by Tradition

 

Women in one of the world's most sophisticated Muslim-dominated societies

still find themselves battling discrimination--and political polarization

in the wake of the Anwar scandal hasn't made things easier

 

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By Simon Elegant / KUALA LUMPUR

Issue cover-dated July 27, 2000

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IT WAS A PRETTY GOOD crowd for a Saturday. As midnight approached, the

Ship, a pub and restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya, was

buzzing: Waiters bearing platters of grilled steak and corn on the cob

scurried about downstairs; upstairs, a singer entertained the crowd with

easy-listening standards such as The Wind Beneath Your Wings.

 

Then a group of men burst in. Officers from the state Islamic Affairs

Department, they arrested 25 restaurant workers--15 of them women,

including Azlina Abbas, the singer. The women were charged with "insulting

Islam," by being at a restaurant where alcohol was served. The 10 men,

including members of Azlina's back-up band, were freed without being

charged.

 

And there's the rub. Malaysia has had its share of controversy over the

enforcement of Islamic laws among its majority Malay Muslim population. But

this time what sparked widespread criticism wasn't how and when such laws

should be enforced in a rapidly modernizing, multi-ethnic society: It was

the fact that only women were charged.

 

Incidents like the one on June 12 at the Ship "stem from a fundamental

belief that women are inferior," fumes Zainah Anwar, who heads Sisters in

Islam, an activist group. The episode sparked an unprecedented sense of

outrage among Malaysian women of all creeds and races, says Zainah.

 

This time, officials dropped the charges after Deputy Prime Minister

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the mainstream media, which usually reflects

official views, joined a wide coalition of women's groups in criticizing

the raid and its selective enforcement of the law. Within a week, Azlina

was back singing at the Ship.

 

But the emotions raised by the incident remain high. Some activists

characterize the raid as a wake-up call for Muslim women. Malaysia boasts

of being one of the world's most developed Islamic societies, in which

women have attained unprecedented levels of success in the workplace and

classroom. Women now outnumber men at universities, for example. But

despite these gains, Muslim women in Malaysia have made depressingly little

progress in overcoming a daunting range of institutionalized inequities and

prejudice, perpetuated largely by conservatives in the religious

establishment.

 

Paradoxically, while the arrest and jailing on corruption charges of former

Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim opened politics to wider debate two

years ago, that pivotal event has actually made life more difficult for

Muslim women. Maznah Mohamad of Penang's Science University argues that

polarization between the fundamentalist opposition Islamic Party of

Malaysia, or Pas, and the ruling United Malays National Organization has

left little middle ground for debate about principles such as gender

equality. Some women have found themselves in an uncomfortable situation in

which supporting the political opposition means siding with religious

conservatives.

 

"Because of the Umno-Pas split, people feel they have to take sides, and

seeking a more liberal interpretation of Islam with greater women's rights

automatically means you support Umno," says Maznah. "We are being caught in

between."

 

Kristina Ramlan, a 29-year-old executive at Petronas, the state oil

company, agrees: "Quite a number of us prefer to be apolitical. Many of my

friends and colleagues at work are not comfortable being identified with

either side."

 

The travails faced by Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar's wife and head of the

National Justice Party formed in part to seek his release, vividly

illustrate the pressures. In response to a ruling by the Pas-controlled

state government of Terengganu obliging all Muslim women to wear the

tudung, or Islamic headdress, Wan Azizah said wearing the tudung was a

personal choice. "There is no compulsion in religion," a local newspaper

quoted her as saying.

 

A few days later, Wan Azizah alleged she had been misquoted--a statement

that was widely interpreted as a political compromise to please Pas, which

is her party's main coalition partner.

 

Despite the political sensitivities, some women, especially younger ones,

are increasingly vocal about their frustration with second-class treatment.

Take Shariza Kamaruddin, whose letter to the English-language daily New

Straits Times after the Ship raid led to a flood of similar complaints.

Wrote Shariza: "As a young, educated, financially independent Muslim woman,

why should I want to get married when I am told . . . that my husband has a

right to four wives and it is a sin for me to object to his wishes, I have

to be obedient to him and seek his permission to work, to leave the house,

to visit my relatives and friends and he can divorce me" in a few minutes.

 

"Is it any wonder," she concluded, that "increasing numbers of women are

postponing marriage, have given up hope of finding a man able to treat them

as equal partners" and that the Muslim divorce rate is the highest in the

country.

 

Some Muslim women, however, continue to defend a highly conservative

interpretation of Islam, arguing that it doesn't unfairly limit women. One

such woman is Lo'Lo Mohamad Ghazali, a doctor who runs a Pas-sponsored

medical clinic in Kuala Lumpur. "I am a professional Islamic woman, a

doctor, and have been practising for 20 years and for me there are no real

limitations," says Lo'Lo, a member of Pas's central working committee and a

self-described believer in fundamentalist Islam. "As long as we adhere to

the Islamic code, we can freely do any job in the guidance of Islam."

 

The earnest, bespectacled Lo'Lo acknowledges, however, that although the

sexes do have different roles, the Koran ultimately designates men as

leaders. When asked if a woman could ever lead Pas, she is temporarily

struck dumb, finally saying she doesn't think anyone has even considered it

as a possibility.

 

But even Lo'Lo can find common ground with her more liberal sisters in

criticizing the treatment of women by Malaysia's sharia courts, which run a

parallel system of justice for Muslims alongside the common-law system.

"Most of those practising sharia are male and that's why unfair things

happen to women," she explains. "It is very difficult for men to understand

the suffering of women."

 

Indeed, the list of horror stories emanating from cases heard in sharia

courts is depressingly long. Examples of the courts' heavy male bias--such

as reluctance to grant divorces when the husband doesn't wish it, or to

grant custody of children to women--are all too common, activists say.

 

In the last several years, says Zainah of Sisters in Islam, intolerance and

discrimination by religious authorities against women have grown. For

instance, Muslim women are denied child-access rights that federal law

grants to non-Muslim women, conservative clerics have tried to prevent the

Domestic Violence Act being applied to Muslims, and the Pas-ruled state of

Kelantan disqualifies women from acting as witnesses in court and presumes

unmarried mothers have sinned even though they may be victims of rape.

 

So what will it take to bring about change? According to Zainah, in part it

will be the actions of conservative Muslim men like the raid at the Ship.

"The more stupid things the religious authorities do, the more they

mobilize women to stand up and challenge them."

 

For Maznah of the Science University, external impetus is needed. "It takes

something more than internal outrage," she says, noting that the Islamic

revolution in Iran in 1979 triggered a wave of fundamentalism in Malaysia.

"If Iran succeeds in setting up democracy and liberalizing--a movement that

women are leading--it will have a big impact in Malaysia."

 

To change a deeply entrenched aversion to challenging religious orthodoxy,

Kristina Ramlan advocates teaching the progressive values of Islam outside

the established education system. One step, she believes, would be for

more-liberal Muslim clerics to begin discussing gender issues in talks in

mosques and villages and classes for both children and adults.

 

"It will take time," she concedes. "I can see the challenges, but I'm

positive it can be done."