On the Islamic Family Law Debate

Pakistan, America, and Malaysia. Three countries that make for strange bedfellows. Yet all three have intersected in my life and molded my understanding of Islam. Born in America and raised in Pakistan, I was educated in the US and now live in KL studying women’s rights and Islamic law.

Having keenly followed the debate on the Islamic Family Law Bill, below are some thoughts on it as an outsider. But first an insight into my Islamic sojourn that brought me here.

Like many Muslim Americans, 9/11 left me soul searching about my faith. That Islam as I understood it did not sanction violence was clear; that some Muslims were regressively interpreting Islam was deeply troubling. And it wasn’t just suicide bombers. Unjust laws were passed in Islam’s name around the Muslim world and the first victims were inevitably women.

Pakistan’s Hudood laws for example punished instead of protecting rape victims. Clashing visions of Islam’s role in society battled over women’s bodies. Turkish women could not enter Parliament with a headscarf; Afghani women under the Taliban could not leave home unless fully covered.

Even “mainstream” Islam was disconcerting in sanctioning polygamy, triple talaq¸ and unequal inheritance rights. Could these be in accordance with Islam’s spirit and today’s realities? What principles and individuals guided the drafting of Islamic laws? Where was the space to discuss such laws?

And so, expanding Muslim women’s rights for me became key to expanding the room for debate in the Muslim world and promoting the just and flexible Islam that I subscribed to. To immerse myself in these issues I came to Malaysia which leads me to some broad observations on the family law.

Contrary to some officials’ claims, to me the bill seems far from a “perfect law.” Surely a law passed with the stated premise that it will be amended cannot be flawless. Moreover, a law ought to be measured by its substance and implementation. Genuine concerns exist on both fronts.

Women’s groups have already noted discriminatory provisions including allowing a man to more easily divorce and take a second wife. But any positive provisions are also jeopardized by the difficulties women face in securing justice in a timely manner, if at all, in the courts. As deliberations progress under the Attorney General’s auspices, the critical issue of implementation needs to be considered.

Another striking feature for me is the debate’s very existence. Malaysia’s vibrant discussion on Islam is a valuable commodity in the Muslim world. My Malaysian friends in the trenches either disagree or brush this compliment aside. Understandably so. Their focus is not on celebrating a high stakes debate; its winning it.

Indeed, Islam’s legal history is one of diversity and discord. Consider the formation of the four primary Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the bedrock of Shariah today and certainly not the only schools. Their founders’ opinions were vigorously challenged during their lifetimes, one of them even poisoned.

Malaysia has inherited some of the dynamism and demons of this intellectual heritage. There are those who want to argue and those who want to silence. Yet Islamic laws today cannot be petrified or dictated by a select few. They are only based on an interpretation. When they govern the lives of citizens in a democracy, the people have a right to speak, discuss, and be heard. Fatwas by unelected councils on beauty pageants, black metal or botox carrying the force of law do not quite gel with this.

One hopes that the greater space for debate created by this controversy remains instead of having to be laboriously and repeatedly carved out during future legal crises. Permanently carrying such discussions in the Attorney General’s office with a wide range of groups before the law goes through would be useful.

A last observation with all due respect is that Malaysia is not a model Islamic state. Some would submit that in model Islamic states men cannot illegally divorce their wives via SMS and then pay a mere RM 550 penalty five years later. But that is not my argument.

For me, there is no such thing as a model Islamic state. Instead of elevating themselves above other Muslim countries, each with its own complex dynamics and history, Muslim leaders should focus on the deficiencies in their own laws, courts, societies, and governments. There are ample in every polity, Muslim and non-Muslim.

Having said this, there is much in Malaysia that other Muslim countries would like to and should emulate. Malaysia is blessed with enviable stability, tolerance, and economic prosperity. Women have greater freedom here than in most Muslim societies including access to education. They outnumber men in higher education institutions.

Some local and foreign analysts say that Malaysia’s “moderate Islam” is going off the rails. I disagree. Malaysia has its dark undercurrents but it has brighter lights. A key question in any society is how conflicting visions are mediated. As a concerned outsider in Malaysia, even as I am troubled by the current family law, I take much hope from the debate itself.

Ziad Haider is a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia studying women’s rights and Islamic law.

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