It is time for Muslims to stand tall and take pride in a faith that was once revolutionary in recognising the primacy of justice in all human relations, instead of cowering in fear and silence in the face of mere mortals who abuse religion to maintain privilege and to stir up discontent for political gain.
THE Deputy Minister of Law says the government has no plans to criminalise marital rape. A Perak exco member wants to amend the Islamic Family Law to make polygamy even easier for Muslim men. Women are being caned in Terengganu under a law that turns “sins” into crimes against the state. Our leaders tie themselves into knots trying to take an unequivocal position against child marriage.
In all these instances, the subtext for the troubling positions taken is a particular understanding of Islam – a punitive, discriminatory understanding that regards women as inferior beings who do not deserve respect nor the right to enjoy a life of dignity, let alone be treated as equal to men.
We live in the 21st century. It is a world where without equality, there is no justice. It is as simple as that. But I guess very hard for those brought up with an ideology that God made men superior to women, never mind the realities galloping before their very eyes that women today are in public life and are providers and protectors of the family.
I have met fathers who say they found the “son” they wanted in the daughters they have. They go hiking, white water rafting, climbing mountains with daughters. It’s the daughters who are high-achieving, responsible and protective of the family. They transfer properties to their daughters to ensure no discrimination takes place upon their death. They buy insurance policies abroad to ensure that their wife and daughters become sole beneficiaries because they fear some male members of their family might want their “faraid” share of the policy benefits.
An ideology that privileges men on the basis of nothing more than their Y chromosome just does not work anymore given the realities on the ground. This is reflected in the ways individuals, men, and women, are taking steps to ensure that their loved ones are protected and their assets are distributed according to their wishes.
Now that the minister in charge of religious affairs has announced that this government’s new policy on Islam will be based on “rahmatan lill alamin”, he needs to establish a process that keeps the leadership on message and takes steps to scrutinise all laws and practices in the name of Islam to ensure that compassion and justice, inherent in the teachings of Islam, are upheld.
How can a compassionate understanding of Islam recognise rape in marriage? How can Muslim women continue to be discriminated against in this country when women of other faiths enjoy rights equal to men?
And yet, over the decades, laws in Malaysia have been amended to make it worse for Muslim women, while the trajectory of law reform for women of other faiths have moved forward towards recognising equality and non-discrimination. Why? Because Islam says so, seems to have been the easy answer out.
But whose Islam? What Islam?
In the past two decades or so, there has been a prolific production of new rights-based scholarship on Islam to deal with the realities of today. There are new forms of activism among women’s rights activists living in Muslim contexts as well as at the global level to reconcile religion and rights to bridge the gap between law and reality.
If this new Pakatan Harapan government believes in equality, justice and non-discrimination as it says it does, these principles must apply to how they treat women, including Muslim women.
The days of using Islam to justify discrimination and abuse without any cost to their political legitimacy are over. The issue is political will. There are numerous verses in the Quran that can guide them and a smorgasbord of juristic principles and concepts within Islamic legal theory that can be used to move forward to enable Muslim women to enjoy the same rights as men, and as their sisters of other faiths in this country.
Before bad habits get encrusted and we hear the same old misogynistic pronouncements in the name of Islam, it is critical that this new government take the conscious and deliberate steps needed to examine the ways Islam is understood and used as a source of law and public policy. Words must be translated into deeds.
To be fair, a number of committees have been set up to review Islamic laws and institutions, not least the high-level panel of the Conference of Rulers. Diverse voices and points of views are being heard, a major step forward compared to past practices.
For decades, women’s rights groups in Malaysia have been struggling to get their issues effectively addressed by the authorities. At the top of the long-standing list of issues is the need to reform the Islamic Family Law to end discrimination against women.
In 1984, this law was regarded as the most progressive in the Muslim world. But two rounds of law reform that chiselled away at rights granted to women and further enhanced men’s privileges killed that global standing. The Syariah Criminal Offences law has turned a long list of “sins” into crimes against the state. It is better known for intrusion into citizens’ private lives and discrimination against women and transgenders than making Malaysia a more moral society.
Amendments to the Guardianship of Infants Act and the Distribution Act, which finally recognised equal right to the guardianship of children and equal right to inherit, only benefitted non-Muslim women. In the name of a patriarchal understanding of Islam, Muslim women continued to be excluded from law reform efforts to recognise equality and non-discrimination.
As if discrimination through exclusion was not enough, the Insurance Act and EPF regulations were amended so that the named beneficiaries could act only as administrators. The benefits are to be divided according to faraid, thus discriminating against wives and daughters who have been named as sole beneficiaries.
It is my prayer that as Islam “rahmatan lil alamin” takes root in this country, the use and abuse of a patriarchal understanding of Islam to justify power and privilege, and the wilful refusal to move forward with changing times and circumstances to ensure that justice is served, will come to an end.
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