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Syariah Criminal Laws abuse women & minorities

Sisters In Islam (SIS) conference on Islam Unsurrendered: Women Rising Against Extremism took a deeper look at the structural flaws of Islamic jurisprudence during the eye opening panel session on Syariah Criminal Law.

Powerful and reflecting lived reality, panelists from Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia painted a stark picture of the great injustices, prosecution and persecution which Syariah Criminal Laws subject women and minorities to, while raising the ever important existential quandary of Syariah’s relevance within a human rights framework.

Moderator Ratna Osman, former Executive Director of Sisters in Islam, opened the session with the sincere hope that “… because we are better placed, we can actualise Islam in ways not available to our predecessors.”

Honourable Justice Professor Muhammad Khalid Masud, Ad Hoc judge, Shariat Appellate Bench, Supreme Court of Pakistan acknowledged that Islam’s unjust Syariah Criminal Laws stem from the conflict of interpreting traditional perspectives in a post modern globalised world.

According to Professor Khalid, “Women as the most vulnerable segment of society face the brunt of extremism.” Yet, he also highlighted the diversity and pluralism of women’s voices as leaders, pointing out that, “Islam raised the question of women’s dignity and human rights 1,400 years ago,” and the imperative need for the current generation to press forth for reform of archaic interpretations on issues related to syariah criminal offences.

Professor Dr.Nina Nurmila, Professor of Gender and Islamic Studies at the State Islamic University (UIN) Bandung and Commissioner of Komnas Perempuan, Indonesia, contextualises the basis, impact and reaction to Aceh province’s deeply troubling and newly formed Syariah Criminal Laws, which have entrenched rigid, unyielding social and moral expectations of Muslim women, men and even religious minority groups since 2002.

Suicide, revictimisation of rape victims, non Muslim women flogged for alcohol sale and even erasing Muslim women’s economic empowerment through strict social censure of contact between the sexes has been clearly documented.

She linked Aceh’s poor socio-economic conditions to women losing their rights under Islam, despite the province being unable to afford execution of convicted persons. Public pressure has however encouragingly resulted in Syariah authorities moving public floggings away from the mosque, while Muslim Women Human Rights Defenders like Balai Syura and civil society movements are active and outspoken in criticising discriminatory Syariah laws and encouraging Acehnese to flout ridiculous policies such as the 2003 mayoral dictate prohibiting women from straddling motorcycles.

Dr.Mohd Faizal Musa, essayist, novelist and researcher at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation, National University of Malaysia (UKM), focused on the fierce rejection of Shia Islam by Malaysian Muslim society. He explained that misattribution confused the true debt of Sunni Islam’s revival in Malaysia to the 1979 Iranian revolution. He noted also the quadruple bind of Syariah Criminal Laws Against Shia Muslim minority ethnicity women in Malaysia.

Tracing the roots of wholesale Salafisation, he pointed to much older roots; Majlis Ugama Islam Kelantan’s push for rigid Syariah Criminal Laws since its inception in 1917 through traditional clerics from Patani. The 1920’s also brought Wahhabi Saudi scholars to Perlis, which resulted in Ahlus Sunnah of Perlis. The Muslim Brotherhood’s extremist ideas spread to Kedah, particularly in the 1960’s through Egyptian and Syrian members residing in Malaysia. Clearly debunking the misconception that Shia Islam or anti Iranian sentiment has any connection with rising Malaysian Muslim conservatism.

Even Malaysian Muslims favourable opinion for implementing Hudud Laws is a direct outcome of local Islamic academic, the late Dato Dr Haji Harun Din’s influential resurgence and dakwah work in the 1970’s. Dr.Faizal expounded on the need to return to a genuine and compassionate form of Syariah which centres human rights under a compassionate Islam, over the Salafised interpretation which in fact, commits human rights violations, demonising Islam.

Nisha Ayub, Project Director for SEED Malaysia, the first ever Trans Led Non-Government Organisation In Malaysia and listed on BCC’s 100 Most Inspirational Women 2019, highlighted the toxicity of current Syariah Criminal Laws on transgender lives in Malaysia.

She pointed out that, “as recently as 1987, transgender individuals were broadly accepted by Malaysian society, in fact, the Malaysian Social Welfare Department funded the Association of Transgender Women, supporting them in both entrepreneurship and social development.”

However, extremism and rising Islamic conservatism since the 1990’s has encouraged an increasingly transphobic narrative from the state, religious authorities, politicians and media conflating as hate speech on social media from Malaysian netizens and even resulting in the three devastating murders of trans women in 2019 alone.

According to a study by Justice for Sisters, criminalising crossdressing results in 68% of trans women arrested experiencing violence by state religious officers, police and municipal council members. Nisha shared her own heart wrenching experience of being raped as a 21 year old convict, while detained for cross dressing. Heavy fines, constant threats of bodily harm and social ostracisation are other facets of the horrific lived reality for transpersons. Human Rights Watch even lists Malaysia as having the most discriminatory laws in the world against trans women.

In the spirit of Women Rising against Extremism, we must all take heart and move forth in solidarity for reform of Syariah Criminal Laws. Laws are merely man made, not divine and if they’re harmful and oppressive they should be changed and reformed, to best reflect the true compassion and beauty of Islam, our religion of peace.