Zainah Anwar – Malaysia

Linked with The Sisters in Islam SIS, with TAM – The American Muslim, with Women’s learning partnership, and with Sisters in Islam’s battle.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “I want to live in a society that celebrates our plurality, our differences, our diversity and sees that as a blessing instead of a threat”.

She says also: (I am) … “trying to reconcile the teachings of Islam with human rights principles. It’s a work in progress … It’s very gratifying when people tell us, ‘If not for you, we would think that Islam is such a terrible religion, it is because of your work that we think that there is hope in Islam’, that Islam actually stands for justice, for equality”.

And she adds: “There are plenty of decent people out there who feel this way, it is time for us [moderate Muslims] to reclaim the religion from those who have hijacked it to perpetrate violence”.

She is SIS’ executive director and founding member. Read her text of 1997: modern and moderate Islam. The same is also on AsiaWeek.

Zainah Anwar - Malaysia rogné redim 90p.jpg

Zainah Anwar – Malaysia

She works for The Sisters In Islam SIS (promotes women’s rights within Islam).

Read: Portraits of ordinary Muslims: Malaysia.

With a group of women, Zainah Anwar wanted to find out if it was true that Islam discriminates against women. Turning to the Koran, they found that it advocates justice, equality, dignity and freedom. So they set up Sisters in Islam (SIS) which promotes women’s rights within Islam.

With the Legal Aid Center of the Malaysian Bar Council, the group opened a legal clinic which serves some 700 clients a year. It runs a legal advice column in a Malay daily to help women know their rights, and conducts monthly study sessions, public education programs and training on women’s rights in Islam. A battle is raging for the heart and soul of Islam in Malaysia, pitting conservative forces on both sides of the political divide against those seeking what they say is a more enlightened interpretation of Islam. At the frontlines of the latter is a group called Sisters-in-Islam (SIS), which is seeking to promote the rights of women within the framework of Islam.

For their efforts in trying to link human rights principles with Islam, SIS’ executive director and founding member Zainah Anwar and her team have frequently been labelled as ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘infidels’ by their opponents. But she shrugs off such attacks as “the usual bankrupt arguments to intimidate us into silence … If we clam up (because of that), we shouldn’t be in this business,” says the fiesty activist. “For us, it’s a challenge, its par-for-the-course. In choosing to do the work that we do, we knew that it was not going to be smooth sailing; we knew that there was going to be a lot of opposition; but for us it is very fundamental for the development of a progressive Islam in Malaysia – an Islam that upholds the principles of equality, of justice, of freedom and dignity.”

SIS has come a long way from its origins in the late 1980s, when a group of concerned women got together in a living room to reflect on the many complaints of injustice and discrimination against women in the name of Islam. These came from women who had gone to the ’shariah’ courts or the religious department and had problems getting a divorce, obtaining custody of children or receiving maintenance support. Other complaints centered around polygamy or domestic violence. “The women who complained to us told us that whenever they complained that their husbands were beating them up, they were told that, ‘Oh, in Islam he has a right to beat you.’ And when they complained that he had taken another wife, they were told that, ‘Oh, in Islam it is his right,” says Zainah.

Focusing on the law, Zainah and her group, which grew out of the Shariah subcommittee of the Association of Women Lawyers, looked at the implementation of Islamic family law to improve women’s access to their rights. But as time went on, she recalls they sensed that looking at the law alone was not enough; they had to look at the sources of the law, which meant delving into the sacred texts. “We grew up with the idea that God is just, that Islam is a just religion,” she recalls. “Suddenly, as adults we were confronted with the reality of lived Islam, which was discriminatory against women, which was oppressive to women. It was hard for us, as believers and as thinking individuals, to think that God would ever want to discriminate against one half of the human race.”

That spurred them to turn to the Koran to find out whether the scriptures were actually unjust towards woman. There they discovered verses that talked about mercy and compassion and justice and of men and women being each other’s protecting friend and guardian. “There are verses in the Koran that seem to be discriminatory, but those verses were revealed within a socio-historical context,” she notes. “We learned to differentiate between the universal values that the Koran was trying to promote and the context that was specific of seventh-century Arabia.”

For the women, discovering the Koran’s insistence in enjoining what is just and in promoting the principles of justice, equality and dignity was a refreshing and liberating experience. “That was a turning point for us; it opened our eyes to the fact that this discrimination in the name of Islam was due to interpretation of the text rather than the text itself,” she says, adding that it gave them the courage to share these views with the public.

One of the first things that Zainah and her group did when they studied the Koran was to look at the verse on polygamy. “You look at the verse: it says marry two, three or four but the verse goes on to say that if you fear you cannot do justice, marry only one. The question that naturally came to us is how come one half of the verse that says marry up to four becomes known as a right in Islam, is codified into law, put into practice–everybody knows in Islam a man has the right to four wives. How come the verse that goes on to say that if you fear you cannot do justice, marry only one – how come that is not widely known?”

Her worst moment came when the Malaysian ulama association tried to charge her and a few other writers for insulting Islam – in her case, for arguing that polygamy was not a right, it was a privilege, and that Islam was not the monopoly of the ulama. When the association submitted a complaint to the Rulers’ Council, SIS fought back, issuing a statement on the importance of differences of opinion and freedom of expression in Islam. The document was signed by 26 organisations and 29 individuals, including academics, human rights commissioners, several MPs and ex-judges. SIS also wrote to the premier, his deputy and to all the sultans, attaching reading material on the use of Islam as a political ideology as they felt the attack was politically motivated. In the end, “The Rulers’ Council considered the matter and they said this is a political matter, it is not a religious matter; therefore it is not in their jurisdiction,” she recalls.

Of late, SIS has commented on and criticized the Malaysian state’s attempts at moral policing, which includes raids on private homes and night spots. In January, religious department officials briefly detained more than 100 young Muslim women whom they accused of being indecently dressed at a nightclub in the heart of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The following month, officials raided an apartment and detained a well-known actor and his female friend for ’khalwat’ (”close proximity” with someone not a person’s legal spouse) – although the targets countered that they were merely having dinner with friends.

These raids, supported by conservative groups such as the opposition Islamic Party (Parti Se Islam Malaysia or PAS), have alarmed more liberal-minded Malaysians, including Muslims and human rights groups. A hastily formed coalition, Malaysians Against Moral Policing, submitted a petition to the government calling for the repeal of some of Malaysia’s religious laws. This further upset the conservative groups, and there were calls for SIS to be banned.

“The fact that our moral policing campaign got the support of Cabinet ministers and members of parliament – and that the human rights caucus accepted the memo – shows the level of change and progress and a widening of the public space,” says Zainah.

Among the milestones of SIS, Zainah counts the inclusion of Muslims in the country’s Domestic Violence Act as a major achievement after attempts to exclude Muslims from the jurisdiction of the act. “And the fact that we have opened the public space for a public discussion, debate of Islam,” Zainah adds. Today, SIS has a two-story office close to the capital, employing eight full-time staff, including Zainah, and a part-timer. Working together with the Legal Aid Center of the Malaysian Bar Council, it has set up a legal clinic, which is open three times a week and serves some 700 clients per year.

The group receives hundreds of phone calls and e-mails, mostly from women wanting legal advice. At present, SIS is finishing a pilot study on the impact of polygamy – emotionally, financially, social – on the family institution, leading to a national survey on the same issue. It is also looking at model Islamic family law based on the principles of equality and justice. Additionally, SIS runs a legal column in a leading Malay daily for women to become more aware of their rights under Islamic family law. It also conducts monthly study sessions, public education programs and training on women’s rights in Islam.

Zainah, who started her working life as a journalist, finds herself fully occupied. In a typical day, especially when a controversy such as the issue of moral policing erupts, she spends a lot of her time reading, consulting and strategizing with different people and groups. Clutching a pile of books on criminal law, Islamic morality, and human rights on the table in front of her, she says she is trying to reconcile the teachings of Islam with human rights principles. “It’s a work in progress,” she says of her ambitious task. But her work has its moments. “It’s very gratifying when people tell us, ‘If not for you, we would think that Islam is such a terrible religion; it is because of your work that we think that there is hope in Islam – that Islam actually stands for justice, for equality,” she says, adding that this to her is real ’dakwah’ (missionary) work.

So what is her vision of society? “A just society, that’s all,” she exclaims, with no hesitation. “I want to live in a just society – with justice for women as well, not justice as defined by men. I want to see a truly democratic, multiracial, multi-religious, just Malaysia. A society that celebrates our plurality, our differences, our diversity and sees that as a blessing instead of a threat”. But she is quick to add that without real democracy or democratic space, there is little hope for change. “I think it’s ridiculous for Western or American leaders to expect a progressive Islam to develop within authoritarian states,” including those in the Middle East. “How can a progressive Islam thrive within an authoritarian state? It is not possible.” (Read all on 1000peacewomen).

Read: A bid to bring the female voice to Islamic law.

Over one hundred Muslim women religious leaders, human rights activists, scholars and artists from around the world will meet in New York City on November 17th to 19th to launch WISE: The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity to empower Muslim women to play a greater role in their societies worldwide. (See TAM, Nov. 8, 2006).

Read Interview: The Islam Project.


Rent a kini;

The National Interest;


Women’s learning partnership for rights, development and peace.

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