Women Working for Reform

"Sisters in Islam" is a small but effective Malaysian women’s rights organisation that uses their knowledge of the Koran to reform the situation of women in Islamic Malysia. A portrait by Charlotte Wiedemann

'Sisters in Islam' Logo

​​Divorce by text message? In Malaysia, a Muslim man ended his marriage by sending a corresponding text message to his wife three times by mobile phone.

A Sharia court ruled that he was perfectly within his rights to do so. This is a typical case for the Sisters in Islam: they pull out the Koran and publicly reprimand the family law judge. According to Chapter 2: 229, separation should be 'with kindness'. Is a heartless text message in line with Allah's commandment?

The Sisters in Islam are women's rights activists, although they prefer not to use this western label. They prefer to describe their activities as follows: 'We uphold the revolutionary spirit of Islam that improved the status of women 1,400 years ago'. Visitors to the group's website are greeted by the Sisters in Islam motto: 'Justice, equality, freedom and dignity'.

Women enjoy more dignity in public life than in private

Dignity is important and that is why the sisters are well-known opponents of the exclusively male group of Sharia judges. After all, in Malaysia’s rapidly modernised society, women often enjoy more dignity at work and in public life than they do in private, where Islamic law rules supreme on family-related matters.

This is why the sisters repeatedly confront judges for making it easy for a man to get a divorce but very difficult for a woman to do so. In one well-publicised case, it took a Muslim woman seven years to obtain a divorce from her husband. During this time, she was not allowed to leave him.

For the sisters, the text message ruling is yet more proof of a patriarchal blinkered outlook: 'It is strange how willingly religious authorities accept modern technology when it benefits men and how dismissive they are of it when modern science can be of use to women and children: take for example genetic tests that establish who is the father of a child.'

Women drawing their own conclusions from the Koran

The very first 'sisters' – academics, legal experts and theologians – formed an independent women's group in 1988. They were either laughed at or considered presumptuous. Imagine: women drawing their own conclusions from the Koran!!

The reproach that they are godless and anti-Islam is one that is still repeated to this day. But they have since earned standing and respect; their voices are heard and their advice is sought far beyond the borders of Malaysia.

This group of self-confident, knowledgeable, rhetorically agile, modestly dressed women without headscarves speaking fluent English certainly attract attention at conferences. They meet with Malaysian and foreign Koran scholars for study sessions, write columns for the press, train lawyers and service providers in women's issues, and offer legal assistance.

Their brochures have provocative titles like 'Are Muslim men allowed to beat their wives?' In accordance with a free interpretation of Chapter 13:11, they advise victims of marital abuse to help themselves: if you don't do something to change your condition, God will not help you either.

Striving for a complete revision of Islamic family law

With only 24 activists, the group is small. Nevertheless it is effective, especially in the legal sector: when the Sisters in Islam discover anything discriminating in a bill, they drum up a protest.

Their most ambitious project for the future is to obtain a complete revision of Islamic family law. This, as group director Zainah Anwar puts it, is nothing less than 'an attempt to break with a one-thousand-year tradition.'

To a certain extent, this astounding group of intellectual women is a reflection of how far Malay women have come: there are more women than men studying at university, women have better opportunities on the jobs market than their sisters in many western countries and they count among their number a head of a central bank, a public prosecutor and an ambassador.

However, the process of re-islamicisation that has taken place over the past 25 years has made the secularly governed Malaysia more conservative, more narrow-minded and less tolerant, especially with regard to women.

The headscarf did not use to be controversial

'When Islam is adopted as a way of life, the status of women is the first battlefield for all those who want to prove their rediscovered religiousness,' says Zainah Anwar. For her mother's generation, it was normal to only put on a headscarf when going to prayers.

Today, women who don't wear a headscarf are put under pressure to do so. The campus of every university is peppered with pastel-coloured headscarves.

Polygamy is another example: the Sisters in Islam fight polygamy as a glaring product of degradation in the private sphere. Malaysia's laws allow Muslim men to take up to four wives even though in the past, polygamy was officially discouraged.

Today, it is considered to be the natural right of men. Some even consider it to be typically Islamic: even the husband of a cabinet minister publicly took a second wife. So the Sisters in Islam are swimming against the current when they call for a ban on polygamy.

A different meaning to polygamy

Once again, they use the Koran and Sunnah to support their arguments: at the time of the Prophet, they argue, polygamy was permitted to save war widows in distress and their children. Today, such emergency situations do not exist in Malaysia.

'This is why we would like to clarify this erroneous opinion that is widely held among Muslims,' they write pointedly, 'most contemporary examples of polygamy have almost nothing to do with the Sunnah of the Prophet.'

Newspapers in Malaysia that are loyal to the government print such declarations on their opinions page – a hesitant gesture that is typical of Malaysia's secular government-version of Islam.

On the one hand, the women's voices are ammunition in the fight against an Islamic opposition party while on the other, there is a reluctance to ruffle the feathers of the religious authorities. The Association of Muslim Scholars still accuses the director of the Sisters in Islam of making Islam 'contemptuous': the worst accusation of all for a Muslim.

Scholars don't oppose the conservative trend

The state religious authority would dearly love to forbid all Muslims 'who do not have a profound knowledge' from speaking about Islamic issues altogether. 'A theocratic dictatorship!' hiss the Sisters in Islam.

'The only people who are considered qualified are those who use conservative stereotypes,' says lawyer Nik Noriani Nik Badli Shah with derision. She goes on to say that the 'the tragedy' of Malaysia's Islam is that hardly any scholars oppose the conservative trend.

Since 9.11, however, the Sisters in Islam have registered increased interest among lay brothers and sisters. 'Many Muslims have been made aware that they are responsible for the type of Islam that develops in our society,' says Zainah Anwar.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Qantara.de 2003

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

www Website "Sisters in Islam"