The 1996 fatwa exists as an attempt to control the public conduct of Muslims in terms of dress and indecency, specifically Muslim women. Yet, despite the organisers’ assurance that the contestants will not be required to wear swimming costumes and instead be wearing long pants, their participation was still deemed ‘sinful’. How, where and on what basis do the religious authorities draw the line as to what is indecent dress or indecent behaviour? Do long pants now fall in the category of ‘sinful’ and indecent attire?
There is also the issue of gender bias. If there can be a fatwa that prevents Muslim women from taking part in a beauty contest, then by the same argument should not there be a fatwa on Muslim men taking part in a body building contest? Does not the Constitution say all are equal before the law and that there can be no discrimination on the basis of gender? We are not saying the simple solution is to ban all such activities, but to raise the point of inconsistency and double-standards.
However, what is of greater concern to Sisters in Islam (SIS) is the larger question of how gazetted fatwas have the automatic force of law without going through the legislative process, and are used as a tool to undemocratically pass laws that infringe on our fundamental liberties.
After approval by the State Executive Council and the Sultan, a fatwa only needs to be gazetted to become law. It is not tabled for debate in the legislative body. Any violation of the fatwa is a criminal offence. Any effort to dispute or to give an opinion contrary to the fatwa is also a criminal offence. Such provisions have no basis in the Quran and historical practices of Islam and violate several articles in the Federal Constitution.
Constitutionally, only Parliament has the legislative authority to make laws in Malaysia at the federal level, and legislative assemblies at the state level. Those not democratically elected, sitting in a closed body, and who do not believe that others have a right to discuss, debate and question matters of religion, cannot be allowed to make law by decree that affect our fundamental liberties.
To remove this threat to parliamentary government, each fatwa should be subjected to affirmative resolution by the legislative body before it can come into effect. This is to ensure that the fatwa goes through a democratic process of debate before it becomes law, thus fulfilling the principle of shura in governance in Islam. Such open debate will also invite public participation in the making of legislation that affect fundamental liberties.
Sisters in Islam
22 July 2013