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
By Simon Elegant / KUALA LUMPUR
Issue cover-dated July 27, 2000
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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."