We, women of various faiths and beliefs in the women’s movement, express our deep concern over the growing trend of intolerance and discrimination against women in the name of Islam in the laws, policies, statements and actions of so many of those in government, the opposition, the religious authorities and among religious zealots in society.
The JAIS action against the singer, Azlina Abbas and 14 other women found in The Ship restaurant is the latest in a long series of actions by those in religious authority that display a consistent failure to administer justice in the name of Islam. They violate the principle of equality between men and women and the constitutional provision that all persons are equal before the law.
This latest action by JAIS displays yet again its practice of selective prosecution in the implementation of the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment. The woman singer was charged, but not the male members of the band; the Bangladeshi female workers were charged, but not the male Muslim patrons. In 1997, under the same Enactment, JAIS arrested three young Malay girls, charged and fined them for indecent dressing and for violating a fatwa that bans Muslim women from taking part in a beauty contest. But it took no action against Malay men in skimpy swimming trunks who paraded their glistening bare bodies in the Mr Malaysia contest that was held at about the same time.
The record for enforcement of the Syariah Criminal Enactment displays that the weakest, most disempowered and marginalised in society are subject to prosecution.
We are concerned about the impact of such actions against our rights and fundamental liberties. The religious authorities are increasingly shaping and redefining our lives today and therefore, defining the kind of Malaysia that we can all live in.
We are concerned that the growing religious intolerance will eventually affect race relations in this country. We, Muslims and people of other faiths, do not want Malaysia turned into a country where religious and cultural apartheid is practised. It is unacceptable that Muslim women should live in fear and oppression and discriminated against while women of other faiths enjoy full and equal legal rights of citizenship with their fellow men. We are concerned that the growing spheres of taboos in the lives of our Muslim sisters will eventually undermine the rich multicultural heritage of the country.
The women’s movement is concerned with the trend in the past several years which show this growing intolerance, conservatism and discrimination against Muslim women in the country. This includes:
“The recent amendment to the Guardianship of Infants Act which grant non-Muslim women equal right to guardianship but denies this to our Muslim sisters;
“The attempt by some of those in religious authority to prevent the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act to govern Muslims;
“The Kelantan Hudud Enactment which disqualifies women as witnesses and presumes that a pregnant unmarried woman has committed adultery even though she might be a rape victim;
“Several amendments to the Islamic Family Enactments of the various states which have disadvantaged women further. These include:
- a polygamous marriage contracted without the permission of the court can be registered upon payment of a minimal fine
- divorce pronounced outside the court can be registered upon payment of a minimal fine
- a woman’s right to maintenance is terminated if she is nusyuz (defined by the law as disobedience to her husband);
- the mother for an illegitimate child is held solely responsible for the maintenance of the child
“The adoption of the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment by the various states which contains provisions that have no basis in the textual sources or historical practices of Islam, and furthermore, violate fundamental principles of democracy and civil liberties of Malaysians as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. These include:
- fatwas have been given the automatic force of law, once they are gazetted, without going through the legislative process;
- any violation of a fatwa in force, any effort to dispute or to give an opinion contrary to the fatwa constitute a criminal offence;
- to possess books or publications contrary to Islamic law is an offence;
- to act or behave in an indecent manner in any public place is an offence. What constitutes “indecent manner” is not defined.
“The incessant talks on radio and television and in the community which promote polygamy, insult women as the inferior half of the human race, and perpetuate gender stereotyping without acknowledging the changing realities of women’s lives today;
“Vigilante action by Islamist groups in the universities, the workplace and also in public spaces which constitute harassment of Muslim women who leave their heads uncovered, who mix with non-Muslims, who take part in activities where men and women interact. We’ve been informed that in one university, Muslims girls are told that it is a sin for a Muslim to display her aurat to a non-Muslim to prevent the girls from sharing rooms with non-Muslim students.
The vision of Islam among many caught up in the throes of Islamic revivalism, whether in government or in opposition, very often violate fundamental Islamic principle of justice, equality and freedom. They condemn those who challenge their intolerant and extremist interpretation of Islam as infidels and deviants. Too often, they hide behind the cloak of sanctity of religion to deny others the right to speak out and challenge their views.
We urge the Government and all political parties to seriously consider the implications of such growing intolerance and discrimination on this multi-racial society and to take immediate action to halt this trend.
We must start a rational and informed dialogue on the kind of Islam and the kind of Malaysia we want for ourselves and our children. All have a right to participate in this dialogue, men and women, Muslims and people of other faiths and beliefs. We all have a stake in the future of our country.
Sisters In Islam
29 June 2000