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The Star - Musings - Comparative religion from the earliest years (29 January 2015)
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Comparative religion from the earliest years

The idea is that young children will become used to diversity naturally and hopefully grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

FOR three consecutive years I’ve been invited to speak to a group of Norwegian students visiting Malaysia about the work that my colleagues and I do on Muslim women’s rights. These students are learning about different faiths in order to be better able to teach comparative religion back home in Norway.

Instead of merely learning about all these religions in theory, every year, their university organises a trip for them to visit various South-East Asian countries to observe first-hand how these religions are lived and practised.

In Norway, every child learns about comparative religion from the age of six with the idea that they will grow up understanding the diversity of faiths and beliefs in their society and the world today, and respecting all the faiths equally. The books they use are vetted and approved by the respective religious authorities, so, for example, the Norwegian Islamic authorities approve the books on Islam.

The students who came to listen to me will eventually become the teachers of those Norwegian school kids. Lest anyone think they only get to listen to “liberals” like me, they also meet and talk to all sorts of people with knowledge on the religious landscape in our country, including in our universities. This is to ensure that they get a balanced picture of things in Malaysia.

I was really impressed by this approach by the Norwegian government to address potential issues in a rapidly diversifying society. Obviously, one of the ways to avoid conflict in society is by ensuring that everybody understands each other.

Including comparative religion in their school curriculum from the earliest years means that young children will become used to religious and cultural diversity naturally and hopefully will grow to become adults who are respectful of religions other than their own.

In a study comparing the English and Norwegian comparative religious curriculums and how schoolchildren reacted to them, most of the students viewed the classes positively, with one student saying, “It is important to understand religions in order to understand humans, sort of improving our social intelligence a little.” It is interesting that Norway, with a population of under six million people, 82% of whom are Lutheran Christian, is so concerned about the possible conflict that ethnic and religious diversity might cause that from 1997 the country decided to educate people on other religions.

Undoubtedly, the concern was well-founded when in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a self-confessed fascist and hater of multi-culturalism, murdered 77 people, blaming Norway for allowing immigrants into the country. Norway, too, is home to many right-wing groups claiming white supremacy and that Muslims are taking over Norway, despite being all of 3.6% of the population.

Perhaps it is in the nature of supremacist groups everywhere to make up stories about threats to their people without the need for supporting evidence. Still, the policy of educating children about religions other than their own is a step in the right direction. And bringing students to countries where those other religions are the faith of the majority helps to humanise those faiths, and prevents the stereotyping that extremists like to do.

It’s too bad that if anyone were to raise the issue of including comparative religion lessons in our schools, our own religious supremacists would undoubtedly go ballistic, claiming that this was a plot by a Muslim-majority government to Christianise their people, as ironic as that may sound.

Obviously, supremacists all work from the same manual. There is no evidence that learning about different religions in school, with each (including atheism by the way) given equal weight, has led to the conversions of anyone to another religion. It does, however, based on my experience with these Norwegian students, lead to far more intelligent questions than from those of my own faith.

Meanwhile, few people here in Malaysia are coming up with any bright ideas on how to reduce the polarisation that everyone acknowledges is a growing problem in our society. The best that anyone can come up with is putting everyone in the same school, which would be a good solution if the standard of education in those schools was higher (as measured globally) and if everyone was taught to respect differences.

But the way they are now, even many Muslims do not want to send their children there if they can afford it. Our children live in a multi-religious society where they won’t be able to avoid noticing that different people worship differently.

If they ask questions of adults around them, do we take our inability to answer as a personal affront or as an opportunity to learn? The former is the arrogant way while the latter is more humble. Which should we choose if we genuinely want peace and harmony?

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - The answer lies in between (15 January 2015)
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The answer lies in between

by marina mahathir

While some claim freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend, others claim such freedom of speech led to the violence in Paris.

JUST when we thought the year might get off to a good start, Paris happened. In three days, 20 people were killed; 12 in the original attack, five hostages in two related incidents and three of the assailants.

By any measure this was a terrible tragedy, causing pain and suffering to all the families of the dead and injured.

Sadly, it will also cause lasting pain to the French Muslim community, in particular, and all Muslims elsewhere, in general, because once again, the entire community has been linked unjustly with extremism and violence.

Debates now rage about the value of freedom of speech. Some people say that in any democratic society we must have freedom of speech including the freedom to offend.

Others say that it is that very freedom of speech that has led to this violence.
Like most things in life, the answer probably lies in between. Some commentators have pointed out that while satire is certainly part and parcel of a democratic society, it is usually aimed at the powerful as a way of pointing out their foibles and abuses.

True satire that aims to bring justice in society never targets the weak and marginalised, voiceless people who look to others to bring their problems to society’s attention. As one tweet brilliantly put it, “I think satire should be a punch aimed up at the powerful, not a blow rained down on the weak.”

I wonder sometimes what would happen if some of our rabid supremacists decided to launch a satirical magazine to draw cartoons of minorities in this country.
On the other hand, there are comments from some people that events like Charlie Hebdo “prove” that we need the Sedition Act.

This is simply another way of saying that those journalists deserve to be killed because they were asking for it. If France had had a Sedition Act, they reason, then the magazine would have been stopped much earlier from drawing those cartoons, and the French Muslims would have been happy, despite being marginalised, suffering from poverty, unemployment and all the other things that generally breed disgruntlement. We seem to have a propensity to blame the victims for their troubles, much like we blame women who get raped for the way they dress or for being out at night.

I’m not sure how the Sedition Act that targets people talking and writing about local issues is going to stop Malaysians from going to join the Islamic State, arguably the most serious danger we now face.
Perhaps some people did not notice that the first policeman who was killed, brutally shot in the head as he lay wounded, was a Muslim called Ahmed Merabet.

In a moving tribute to his dead brother, Malek Merabet said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims…Islam is a religion of peace and love. As far as my brother’s death is concerned it was a waste. He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”
More than anything, Ahmed Merabet underscored what this was really about.

That this was a killing of French people by French people, not of non-Muslims by Muslims. Just as, at one time, Northern Irish people killed other Northern Irish people. Undoubtedly one set of people felt disgruntled by treatment from the other and a small number decided that violence was to be their response.

To then tar an entire community, as if every single member is a likely killer, is surely compounding the injustice.
Framing this tragedy entirely in Muslim/non-Muslim terms is of no use when life is much more complicated than that.

Not only was one of the murdered policemen Muslim, so was one of the employees of the Jewish grocery where two gunmen held hostages. Lassan Bathily was hailed a hero for saving the lives of several hostages by hiding them in a freezer room. Malek Merabet made the same point: “I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites.

One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither colour or religion,”
Which is a really pertinent point. Only mad people think that the way to solve problems is to gun down a bunch of cartoonists. On the other hand, it is also not reasonable to clamp down on people who are already downtrodden, or who already have no outlet to air their grouses and not expect some form of reaction. We should perhaps be thankful that in our country this reaction only comes in the form of peaceful demonstrations, articles and Facebook comments.

The real lesson to be learnt from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is that inequality has consequences. But that may be lost on some people.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - The year of the Malaysian citizen (1 January 2015)
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The year of the Malaysian citizen

by marina mahathir

I WAS afraid that this first column of the year would be a depressing and doleful one. 2014 had been remarkable for its sheer awfulness, with not one but three plane accidents in the region, the worst floods in our history and any amount of angst among our people due to the words and actions of various groups.

Would 2015 be better or worse?
But for every action, there is a reaction and happily these reactions have also been unexpected and gratifying. In January, when a church was a possible target of violence, a group of people turned up to give out flowers to churchgoers and did much to ease the tension of that day.

That was the birth of a group called Malaysians for Malaysia (M4M) that set out to promote unity and harmony among their fellow citizens.
M4M then went on to organise the Walks in the Park in several cities that gave Malaysians the opportunity to simply gather and do things together.
When MH370 and MH17 happened, M4M was on hand to unite Malaysians with the Walls of Hope that allowed thousands of Malaysians and others to pour out their grief and hopes for the safety of the passengers of the former and prayers for the souls of the passengers of the latter.

M4M is certainly not the only group that sprang up to bring Malaysians together, not just in grief, but also in volunteerism.
When there was a threat to shut down soup kitchens, KLites banded together to keep them going and even started new ventures to support the existing ones.

Various individuals and groups have formed to do all sorts of charity work to help the poor, the marginalised, disabled and even animals. Civil society has stepped up and is going from strength to strength, a healthy sign.

Then when the worst floods ever in our history turned several states into exact replicas of countries far less developed than us, with people stranded and starving, Malaysians truly showed how generous and kind they can be.

Collection centres for relief goods were set up in various neighbourhoods and when the calls for volunteers spread through social media, dozens showed up.
I visited one and was truly moved and heartened by not only the number of people lending their time and energy to the effort to pack and send off the goods but how diverse they were.

They were young, old, male, female and represented every ethnic group including expats. And they worked side by side and took instructions from supervisors cheerily. There are even people who have organised convoys of cars and trucks to try and reach the stranded folks on the east coast with tonnes of food and other essentials.

Nobody told them to do it, nobody ever paid them to do it. They just did it because their fellow citizens were suffering and this was the right thing to do.
You have to wonder where those self-proclaimed champions of race and religion are in these times and what they would say about these multiracial, multireligious efforts to send aid to flood victims. Indeed one of the happiest things that has happened in 2014 is the emergence of voices calling for more common sense in the way we discuss things in our country.

The Group of 25 has been a pleasant surprise and has inspired more people to speak out against extremists and racists.
Young people especially have welcomed this new development, having previously despaired of a positive future in this country.

They have responded by organising petitions and writing articles of support for the G25, most notably by a multiracial group of 33 prominent citizens and a group of young Islamic Studies graduates from Middle Eastern universities.
These developments have really brought hope to many concerned Malaysians.

So perhaps when you look at it from this perspective, things were not so bad after all in 2014, despite the major tragedies. While we mourn those we lost, and sympathise with those who are suffering in the floods right now, we can also rejoice in the fact that 2014 was really the year that The Malaysian Citizen showed that their natural kindness and generosity enabled them to respond much faster and more efficiently than any politician can. This is truly community leadership at its best.

For 2015, perhaps we can put our hopes in The Malaysian Citizen and therefore be more optimistic about the coming year.
Their sense of unity that arises out of a sense of fairness is fully developed. What The Malaysian Citizen has shown is that there is no law needed to foster unity. They will unite naturally against suffering and injustice. The only proviso is obvious: keep the politicians out of it.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good”. Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - So, what do you want to watch? (18 December 2015)
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So, what do you want to watch?

by marina mahathir

Trying to determine if a TV programme is threatening to one’s faith can be a real challenge.

YOU can read very interesting things in the news these days, some of which can be rather puzzling. At a conference on entertainment and Islam recently, a paper presenter said that many people have asked him how to tell if a TV programme is threatening or not to their faith.

I really had to wonder who these people were and why this was such a problem. Most people can tell within five minutes of watching a programme whether it’s any good or not.

Perhaps it is harder to tell if an interesting programme, say about the mating habits of bees, will shake your faith but what most sensible people do is to see if it makes them feel uncomfortable or not.
If it does, then their faith is probably shaky.

And the most obvious thing to do is naturally to switch it off.
I don’t particularly like scary horror type programmes not because I think they would shake my faith but because I don’t find them enjoyable. So I switch channels to something more innocuous like Downton Abbey.

Apparently in Victorian times, nobody ever does any public displays of affection so I reckon that’s pretty safe for anyone.
But the paper presenter actually spent a lot of time thinking about these questions from people presumably without on/off buttons on their TVs nor channel-changing remote controls. So he then proposed that all TV programmes should carry halal and haram certificates.

OK, all those who volunteer to certify the haram programmes, please put up your hands!
What would probably happen is that 90% of the programmes will wind up in one way or another with a haram certificate while the rest would be deemed kosher. That is probably because the criteria for halalness is going to be very strict and long.

How long should the tudung be? How tight can her sleeves be? How many sequins is too much? Is that a hipster or a halal beard? These are all questions to be decided by arguably the least hip people in the country.
But the scenario that plays in my mind is this. Here is a Muslim household where the head of the family, a man of course, is sitting in front of the TV feeling somewhat guilty about the choice of channels he has before him. He thinks he should just watch the religious programmes but really he would rather watch the hot Indonesian or Latin American actresses on all those never-ending soap operas.

But no matter what he does he keeps being tempted to switch back to those channels.
He sits there chained to his armchair unable to move from in front of the TV, hapless at all the choice in front of him. During the Olympics the problem is worst.

There’s women’s beach volleyball, women’s swimming, women’s gymnastics. What threats to his faith!
Of course women are not so threatened by this terrible dilemma because they are busy cooking, cleaning, helping the kids do their homework that they simply have no time to watch the TV.

Besides they’ve already been warned that during the World Cup they are not to watch any matches because the sight of those nice athletic long legs might do something bad to their insides.
Still, wives have been blamed too for not switching the channels for their husbands from women in swimsuits to women in hijab. But the men, seated with their t-shirts pulled tight over their big nasi-lemak-filled bellies, are at real risk.

They are helpless.
They cannot get out of their seats and go do something else, like go for a walk, play with their kids, help their wives with the washing up. They are stuck and therefore their faith is endangered. Hence, the need to have a whole conference to discuss this.

Meanwhile there is a huge financial scandal that is threatening to turn the entire population into paupers, climate change is causing floods, mudslides and turning people out of their homes by the dozens, there are hungry and homeless people in our streets, more and more poverty in our faces today.

And the siege in Sydney means yet again Muslims are going to be stereotyped as terrorists.
But none of these are as important as which TV programmes will get us to heaven and which will not. And whose fault it is really for producing programmes which put us on the fast-track to hell. I’m going to spend my time either reading, watching good dramas on TV and going out to visit friends for Christmas.

In fact the only thing worth watching is actually my waistline.
Meanwhile may I wish everyone Merry Christmas and a new year that is more hopeful, joyful and peaceful than 2014 was!

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - True leaders (4 December 2014)
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True leaders

I AM often asked if there will ever be a woman Prime Minister in this country. My answer to that is always no. The current system is stacked against women, regardless of whichever party they might be in.

It is difficult for women to become Prime Minister on their own merit.But it is interesting to me that people, many of them men, should keep asking me this. I think it is because people are so tired of the lack of talented leaders in this country that they want a different type altogether.

And it might as well be a woman.We only have nominal leaders, not real ones. We have people who are put in positions of leadership whether they have the talent for it or not.

And unfortunately, most of the time they are decidedly talentless.For instance, true leaders would have some vision of where they want to take the country. But more importantly, they would be able to articulate that vision over and over again so that people know that they are consistent and committed to it.
Instead, not only do we not know what the vision of our leaders are but they remain completely inconsistent, chopping and changing as they please. This confuses people, and yet they have the gall to blame others for that confusion.Real leaders step up to the plate when things go wrong.

They have personal values and principles which drive them and they are not afraid to stand up for themselves. Thus, if anyone says or does something which they find abhorrent, they will speak out, even when the offender might be someone on their side.

To them, when something is wrong, it is wrong, regardless of who does it. It is not wrong only when people they don’t like do it, and right when people they like do it.Sadly, what we often see are leaders without principles, ready to follow wherever the loudest voices are.

They actually believe that loud is might and soft is meek, and therefore are ready to sacrifice the majority for the interests of a few. Over time their consciences become hardened until they sleep soundly at night despite the many wrongs they are committing daily.A true leader speaks no words but his own, because those are the only ones that are authentic to him.

He will not speak the words of others, especially without vetting them first. He has no need for disturbing visuals, as if he was speaking to a class of illiterate schoolchildren who would not understand a single word he said otherwise. He would be wise enough to know that to manipulate people’s emotions through images is the lowest trick in the book.

No leader worth his salt believes his own public relations or basks in false glory, boosted by artificial means. A leader needs to be clear-eyed about his own popularity, and to be humble about it. There is nothing more grotesque than a leader puffed up with pride and hot air.

Such a leader would get away with it if there were nothing to compare him with.

Unfortunately within his neighbourhood he has counterparts far more visionary and certainly far more humble than he. Unfortunately too, we live in an age where we can follow what other leaders do very closely. And then we find our own wanting.

Leadership by example is not a new concept. But what examples are our leaders setting? When they can be humble, they instead have hubris. When they can be kind, instead they are uncaring especially of the poor and marginalised. When they have the opportunity to do the right thing, they don’t.

When they can be gracious, they are not.Is it any wonder then that people learn from these examples to be arrogant, uncaring and even corrupt? When we look at the number of incidences of people being simply unkind to each other, sometimes violently, doesn’t it make us wonder why it is happening? Could it be that unkindness is all that they see from our leaders and they therefore equate that with power over others? Rather like abused children who become abusers themselves, abused citizens are just as likely to do the same.

It is totally weird logic to say that violence in the form of draconian laws is the only way to ensure stability. This is a bit like saying that if we beat our children every day, they will become obedient. They may indeed cower in submission. But they will grow up twisted and unhappy.Perhaps it is time we abandoned the colonial system of having our leaders chosen by only a few and chose them directly instead.

> Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Musings - Warriors who lack vision (20 November 2014)
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Warriors who lack vision

IMAGINE if you will, a band of warriors making their way through some tall grass. They are armed to the teeth because they are convinced that within the dense foliage, there are untold numbers of hostile parties ready to attack them at any time.

As they make their way, not the least bit quietly, their nerves tensed, they are on the constant lookout for enemies.
At the slightest sound or the faintest whiff of a possible attack, they pounce, with clubs and spears, and do their best to beat their presumed enemy to death. It’s a take-no-prisoners approach, judge first before asking questions.
Except that there is nobody to question once the warriors are done with them. In this way, the warriors believe they are guarding the tall grass territory that they live in. The “enemy” is always unseen, they believe, so anything that seems different must be treated with suspicion at best, immediately “dealt with” at worst. To do nothing is to allow these opponents to breed and their ideas to spread “like a cancer”. But the tall grass hides the true picture of what is happening because it hides the warriors’ vision.

They can only see what is at the sparse top of the grass and not what is underneath, where discontent is seething. The warriors cannot see that they are standing on the shoulders of those underneath and the glimpses and sounds of the “enemies” they see and hear, and whom they attack immediately, are simply the attempts by those underneath to find air to breathe in the upper reaches of the grass.

In the undergrowth of the grass lie many humans hiding in the shadows fearful of the warriors.
They work hard to keep the habitat growing, and for so long they have been quietly contributing to it as much as they can.

But the warriors won’t have it.
The grass, they say, is only for the cleanest, purest warriors, of which there are only a few. Those who do not fit into their definitions of “clean” and “pure” besmirch their habitat and therefore must either be gotten rid of or be rehabilitated to cleanse them of their “impurities”.

The warrior class is a special one. To qualify, they have to be of a certain community and be male. The few females allowed to join can only do so if they agree with everything their male leaders say and do. All must agree never to use their brains, only their voices, and it helps that they have many outlets at which their voices can be heard and listened to.

Brawn is everything, might is always right, loud is proud.
The problem with being a warrior, however, is that one is required to have one’s nerves perpetually on edge, beneath a paper-thin skin. One must be ready to see ghosts behind every door, crucifixes on every cookie, proselytisers under every carpet and porcine DNA in high-calorie junk food.

Conviction of one’s own rightness is a must, even when it is scientifically proven that one is wrong. Science is simply not the warrior’s forte; therefore science is an unnecessary inconvenience. Meanwhile, outside the land of the tall grass, where the grass is cut to a level where everyone can breathe the same air and be all seen and heard, people are progressing.

Every day, someone gets a chance in the sunlight to show an invention that makes life better for everyone, regardless of who they are.
Innovators are rewarded and nobody pays attention to those who want to go back to the days of the tall grass.

But the warriors who live in the tall grass, because they cannot see beyond the grass they live in, do not fathom how far behind they are being left. Innovators who need air to breathe in order to be creative are trampled on, so eventually they escape the grass to live in lands with shorter ones.

Anyone who complains of the unjust access to air is shot down immediately, and told that only those defending the right to keep the grass tall and dense are allowed to breathe. Zoom out and looking at the globe from afar, we see that there are fewer and fewer patches of tall grass.

Everywhere people are cutting the grass short to give everyone a chance in the sunshine, recognising that it is in everyone’s nature to yearn for fresh air to breathe.
With sunlight, everyone is happy and friendly with one another.

The land of the short grass is calm and peaceful.
In the land of the tall grass, the warriors thrash wildly and fiercely at everything that moves, not realising that underneath there is in fact nothing.

Marina Mahathir is a human rights activist who works on women, children and HIV/AIDS issues. Her column in this newspaper goes back 25 years and has likewise evolved because, in her own words, “she probably thinks too much for her own good.” Marina continues to speak out and crusade for causes that she passionately believes in. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
The Star - Sharing the Nation - A lot more to learn (7 June 2015)
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A lot more to learn

by zainah anwar

THE Education Minister recently expressed shock at the poor performance of Malaysian students in the PISA 2012 survey of over 500,000 15-year-olds in 64 countries on their levels of knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving.

In every single domain, we are ranked at the bottom 10% to 15% of countries surveyed. For a high middle-income country that prides itself in spending at least 20% of its annual budget on education, something is seriously wrong with the way these resources are allocated and used.

The return on investment is dismal. I visited the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) website and found the summary page for Malaysia. The findings are scary.
The Government owe the rakyat answers as to why we continue to perform so badly in spite of all kinds of reforms that have taken place over decades and the money spent annually on education.

Somehow we still have not gotten it right, while our competitors in the region are flying high. Yes, we now have the Education Blueprint, yet another reform effort. Obviously the 2006-2010 Blueprint did not achieve the results planned for given the rock bottom performance of Malaysian 15-year-olds, and the need for yet another Blueprint.

One can only pray that those in charge have the will, dedication and passion needed to ensure the outcomes of the 2013-2025 Blueprint address the dire weaknesses identified by this comprehensive survey. Let’s look at the scores and ranking.

In terms of reading, Malaysia is ranked 58 out of 64 countries. About 52.7% of those surveyed could not read beyond the minimal Level 1. In Singapore, only 9.9% of its 15-year-olds are at that poor performance level. At the top proficiency levels 5 or 6, only 0.1% of our students made it there, compared to 21.2% in Singapore.

Only two other countries have a lower percentage of top performers than Malaysia. In spite of the annual parade of students scoring double digit As on the front pages of our newspapers, by international standards our education system is actually not producing top performers.

Our examinations obviously measure content knowledge, not analysis and interpretation, the real skills needed to survive and thrive in a knowledge economy. This is not surprising in a culture that punishes those who do not conform, who ask difficult questions, who give answers out of the box. And in the domain of religion, it can actually be a criminal offence to ask questions or have a different understanding of Islam than the one sanctioned by the religious authorities.

In a society where those with power are obsessed with maintaining control, dominance, compliance, uniformity and conformity, it can only be expected that our education system eventually reflects those values, in spite of attempts at reform.

I looked at the assessment framework of the survey and found that what PISA measures is not just the capacity to read and understand literal information, but how students retrieve information, form a broad understanding, develop an interpretation, reflect on and evaluate both the content and the form of a text. How do you teach a student to interpret, reflect, analyse, evaluate a text? How are the teachers trained to be able to impart these skills?

A friend who has a son in Form 1 is shocked that his English literature text book on the Swiss Robinson Family is not only so thin, but also filled with pictures fit for a nine-year old. Are we dumbing down our students and the syllabus so that more can score strings of As? The PISA test requires students to read selected texts and answer a series of questions to evaluate their capacity to interpret and analyse.

From reading an extract from a novel to a product notice on peanut content and the right of the buyer to return the product. What PISA evaluates is called “reading literacy” whether the Malaysian 15-year-old is understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate effectively in society.

At level 1, the reader is only asked to locate explicitly stated information, recognise the main theme of a text or make a simple connection between information in the text and common every day knowledge. In the 2009 PISA survey, 44% of Malaysian students performed at this level. Instead of doing better in the 2012 survey, a further 8.7% dropped into this level.

At level 2, the reader is asked to locate information which may need to be inferred, understand relationships, or construe meanings when information is not prominent. Only 31% of the Malaysian students could perform at this still low level. PISA also measures students’ engagement, drive and self-belief. Again not surprisingly, the survey finds Malaysians at the bottom.

They are less likely to report that they are quick to understand, seek explanations, link facts together easily, and/or like to solve complex problems. Malaysia ranks 55 out of 64 countries. The dismal findings of the level of knowledge and skills in mathematics (rank 61/64) and science (55/64) reflect similar distressing realities of the Malaysian education system. While 40% of Singapore students performed at the top level in mathematics, only 1.3% of Malaysians achieved that level.

The only piece of good news is that Malaysia is one of the few countries where girls outperform boys in all three subject areas – reading, mathematics and science, with the biggest gender gap in reading. PISA conducts an assessment domain in the area of problem-solving competency.

It believes the study of an individual’s problem-solving strengths offers a window into their capabilities to employ basic thinking and other general cognitive approaches to confronting challenges in life. It provides a basis for future learning, for effective participation in society and for conducting personal activities. Again, Malaysia scores close to the bottom.

Of the 42 countries surveyed, Malaysia ranks at 37 with half of the students reaching only level 1 performance. Only one other country did worse than Malaysia in terms of the percentage of top performers at proficiency levels 5 or 6.

While our mathematics mean score has improved since the 2009 survey (still, only three other countries did worse than us), the scores for reading and science have fallen. A significant percentage, if not the majority of Malaysian students, continue to perform at below minimum proficiency level as defined by PISA.

While the Government might tout that its education budget is high, the survey found that the cumulative expenditure by educational institutions per student aged six to 15 is actually one of the lowest among PISA-participating countries and economies (rank 45/49).

Obviously, either the money went largely to tertiary education and other expenses or the total budget is just not high enough to produce the outcomes envisaged. Another disturbing, but not surprising finding, is the gap in performance between Malaysian students in government and private schools – one of the highest gaps in participating countries, with the gap in Mathematics the biggest.

So obviously the rich who are able to afford private education for their children are getting a better deal in setting up their children for life, while over 90% of those surveyed who go to government schools are being disadvantaged because of a failing education system. In the 2009 PISA survey, 80% of the participating schools (121/152) fell into the poor performance bracket.

About 13% made it to fair and only 7% entered the good performance bracket. None was great or excellent. I could not locate this score in the 2012 survey. Just comparing Malaysia’s performance to Singapore (which ranks second in mathematics, third in reading and science and first in problem-solving), what these scores and rankings mean is that 15-year-olds in Malaysia are performing as if they have received the equivalent of almost four years less schooling in reading, mathematics and science compared to the Singapore 15-year-olds.

If these data do not wake up our authorities to the dire straits we are in, I don’t know what else will. If we are serious in believing in the PISA philosophy that learning outcomes at school are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run, then those in charge of the education system and the parents who worry about their children’s future must crack the whip.

The Education Blueprint promises a major transformation by 2025. By then, Malaysia will be in the top one-third of the PISA ranking, it states. And standards for student outcomes and learning practices will be benchmarked against the high performing education systems.

The focus will be on higher order thinking skills such as application and reasoning, and not just content knowledge. This means looking at the success of the top five countries and economies – Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan – and even Vietnam, ranked a high 17.

Almost two years have passed since the Blueprint was launched. Is performance on track? How has recruitment into teachers training colleges changed to attract the brightest? How has pedagogy changed to enable students to develop high order thinking skills? There must be better transparency and an annual progress report presented to the public.

I hope the Parents Action Group for Education Malaysia will take up the cause in demanding and monitoring the implementation of the Education Blueprint and access to the full results and analysis of the PISA survey and how the Government uses this data to guide implementation and monitor outcomes.

The Blueprint notes that internationally, education system reforms fail for common reasons – insufficient will, time and commitment from all political and ministry leaders; inability to stay the course under intense challenges from those opposed to the changes; paralysis in the face of polarising debates led by teachers and other stakeholders, resistance to change amongst teachers, or capacity gaps within the ministry. It points out that while these obstacles are daunting, research shows it is possible to overcome them and deliver fundamental improvements in as little as six years. So please get cracking and transform these words into deeds.
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.
The Star - Sharing the Nation - Making the right choice (3 May 2015)
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Making the right choice

by zainah anwar

THERE are many verses in the Quran that speak about love and compassion, about men and women being each other’s friend and protector, about men and women being as close as each other’s garment.

These are wonderful Quranic values to guide the marital relationship between women and men. If we choose to lead our lives by these values, there is no place to treat one’s wife as if she is nothing more than a sex machine, duty bound to satisfy a man’s lust on demand. And yet, we have many men of religion and men in politics who shamelessly pronounce the idea of taking your wife by force is Islamic.

And, therefore, there is no such thing as marital rape in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad married a woman 15 years older than him and stayed monogamous throughout his first marriage to his beloved Khadija.
And yet, so many men choose to value his marriage to a young Aishah and other women after the death of Khadija as the model marriage to follow to justify child marriage and polygamy.

Why should such choices that cause harm to women and children in today’s world be used to represent marriage in Islam? And not only that, even imposed on the rest of the Muslim community to be the definition of what being a good Muslim means? Why not make the Prophet’s marriage to Khadija as the model Muslim marriage? Why should those Muslims who promote monogamy and demand the minimum age of marriage be set at 18 for girls be accused of going against the teachings of Islam? Whose Islam, really? Which Islam?

This is where values, ethics and principles come in. For there are many interpretations, juristic opinions, concepts and tools that exist in the Muslim legal tradition that Muslims can use to guide them to the right answers to do no harm to others, to serve the best interest of the community and society as a whole.

When men who live in cloud cuckoo land utter pronouncements on a husband’s right over his wife’s body, on a man’s right to marry a 10-year-old girl, on how loud a Muslim can laugh, then they should be willing for their supposed authority to be questioned and ridiculed.

In today’s age of boundless information and borderless communication, many voices are speaking out to challenge the dominant conservative and misogynistic voices that use and abuse the authority of God’s words for authoritarian purposes.

It is heartening to see in this current debate on marital rape that there are other men of religion and civil society groups that are speaking out, challenging the misogyny that is so out of step with today’s realities. I am increasingly meeting many young men and women who were once Islamists and who today have changed their views, now embracing human rights, women’s rights, democracy and believing in diversity of opinions in Islam.

Many are energised by their new knowledge and feel the many unanswered questions from their teenage years that they were too scared to ask are finally being answered.

I meet young women who feel enlightened and empowered to speak out as they cannot continue to believe in the traditional misogynistic teachings that make no sense to the realities of their lives and what they feel in their hearts. While those in authority seem to fear that this questioning and thirst for new knowledge would lead Muslims astray, the contrary is true.

To lead a life with your faith, your heart and your reality all in sync actually strengthen your belief. To realise that your sense of justice and fairness is actually upheld by the teachings of your faith and the possibilities for change exist within your tradition is to feel like a huge dark cloud has been lifted from your muddled mind, so they tell me.

It is possible to be Muslim and feminist, to be Muslim and a human rights activist, to be Muslim and a democrat, to be Muslim and questioning, challenging, and heck, to be Muslim and lead a joyful life. And what is bad about that? Change is always difficult, unsettling and threatening to the comfort zones we have lived in for decades. But if there is anything that is consistent about this world, it is change.

Those in authority, be it in politics or in religion, who continue to think they know best, need all the courage and honesty they can summon to acknowledge that the experience and assumptions that had shaped their certainties are not and will not be what will shape the 21st century. To continue to trot out pronouncements on chopping off hands and feet, stoning people to death, child marriage, having sex on the back of a camel, without engaging with the realities of changing times and values, can do nothing but more harm to the ummah and the religion they proclaim to defend.

While it might be convenient to rally the troops by pronouncing then that Islam or the Malays are under threat, they must know that this cannot possibly be the right answer to the challenges to their authority and dominance, let alone to solving the real problems on the ground that is keeping their community behind.

Our ability to live together and celebrate the enriching diversity in our midst, to make the right choices that would benefit the best interest of our society, to be kind and compassionate, to encourage continuous learning and doing that would improve the lives of everyone, to adapt and adjust in ethical and moral ways to the changes before us – is what God would want us all to focus on in this world. I seriously doubt if life’s priority in the 21st century is about having sex on a camel – should your husband demand it.
  • The views expressed are entirely the writer's own
The Star - Sharing the Nation - Respect Islam’s diversity (5 April 2015)
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Respect Islam’s diversity

If the Malaysian authorities are serious about countering the threat of IS and other movements, they need the political will to bring radical change to how Islam is understood and taught in schools and universities.

IN the midst of the relentless savagery of Islamic State (IS) group and the descent into chaos in countries such as Yemen, Libya and Syria, Muslim leaders, yet again, have been talking about the need for radical reform of how Islam is understood, and taught in schools and universities.

The latest coming from no one more important to Sunni Islam than the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar himself, Ahmed al-Tayeb.

Speaking at an international conference on “Islam and the fight against terrorism” in Mecca in February, the Sheikh attributed the rise of Islamic extremism on “the historical accumulation of extremist tendencies... that grew out of corrupt interpretations of some texts in the Holy Quran and the practices of the Prophet”.

He called for the need to “tackle in our schools and universities this tendency to accuse Muslims of being unbelievers” and for a conference of Muslim scholars to focus on common values that unite Muslims.

At the same conference, the new Saudi King was reported to have said: “Terrorism is a scourge which is the product of extremist ideology. It is a threat to our Muslim nation and to the entire world.”

So if the answer is to bring radical change to how Islam is understood and taught in schools and universities, what is urgently needed now is not more meetings and conferences and summits of Muslim leaders to tackle terrorism, violence and intolerance besetting much of the Muslim world. It is the political will to act.

For a start, these leaders hold power, authority and influence to put an immediate stop to the toxic sermons and pronouncements from so many of their own religious figures and radical extremists who spew hatred and venom towards fellow Muslims and fellow citizens who think, behave, dress, and live differently.

They can start by respecting difference of opinion and building a culture of public debate on matters of religion, and how religion should be used as a source of law and public policy and practice in their own societies.

And this job is actually easy to do, and can be done right now. For there is already much scholarship, new and old, that is out there for the schools and universities to adopt if these Muslim leaders in positions of authority to make the difference is serious about their pronouncements of the dire straits of the Muslim world today and the threat this poses to fellow Muslims and the rest of the world.

Scholars and women’s rights activists engaged in bringing about an understanding of Islam that upholds justice and equality, that eschews violence and terrorism, and that respects diversity and differences of opinion have been working for over 20 years in bringing about change, both in terms of scholarship and activism on the ground.

Unfortunately, much of their scholarship and activism are ignored, at best, or demonised or banned, or at worst, the proponents of change are persecuted and imprisoned because their work towards a compassionate and just Islam do not serve the interest of the power elite and their desperation to remain in power or to gain power.

So can change really happen if those in authority tell the world there is a need for change, but on the ground they continue to persecute their citizens for actually taking action to bring about change? Even if these leaders are yet not able to reconcile themselves to the rich and exciting scholarship that exists in the tradition and in contemporary thought and activism towards a more just and compassionate Islam, they could start by revisiting the Amman Message that they themselves signed in 2006, which denounced extremism, radicalism and fanaticism.

It contains many beautiful passages from the Quran about respecting diversity and differences, about calling others to the path of God with wisdom and beauty, about moderation, justice and not betraying the trust of the people, etc.

The Amman Message also included three basic points that specifically recognized the validity of all eight mazhabs (schools of law) of Sunni, Syiah and Ibadhi Islam; forbade takfir (declaring fellow Muslims as apostates) and set forth the subjective and objective preconditions for the issuing of fatwas, to put a stop to illegitimate fatwas.

Some 552 political and religious leaders from 84 countries endorsed the Amman message and its three points, including Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers, top scholars from Sunni and Syiah Islam, and the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar. From Malaysia, then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Badawi, Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, current Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and former UIA Rector Tan Sri Prof Dr Mohd Kamal Hassan were among those who signed on.

And yet we see today so many of the signatory countries, including Malaysia, embarked on demonising Syiahs as infidels and declaring fellow Muslims they disagree with as deviants, persecuting, imprisoning and flogging those considered a threat to their authority.

At the same time, these very same states wring their hands and twists themselves into knots about growing threats of violence and extremism that today they realise pose a threat to their hold on power. Counter terrorism research shows that while not all extremism leads to terrorism, all terrorist acts are inspired by extremist narratives.

That ideas and ideologies that sow discord, hate and bigotry contribute to justifying acts of terror, and therefore cannot be left unchallenged in society. It is a waste of time and money for political leaders to gather in Cairo, Mecca, London, Washington, waging war against terrorism, extremism and violence when those very same leaders are waging war against their own citizens who think differently from them.

The mindset that cannot recognise the legitimacy of differences of opinion on how a country should be governed cannot possibly provide an enabling environment where Islamic scholarship can grow and thrive independent of the interest of the ruling elite. If it is “haram”, “unIslamic”, “anti-God”, “anti-Syariah” to question the pronouncements of a Mufti or a Mentri Besar on any Islamic matter, why should we expect those extremists in Syria and Iraq to disobey the commands of their self-appointed caliph? The mindset brainwashed to believe that they have no right to question or to debate the orders and ideas of their religious leaders in Malaysia is the same mindset that obeys the call to behead, burn alive, and kill fellow Muslims and non-Muslims who think and live differently.

It is this demand for absolute certainty and absolute loyalty that breeds fanaticism that can lead to violence and terrorism. It is this belief that those who speak in the name of Islam are accountable to no one that leads to despotism. It is this belief that there is only one understanding of Islam that represents “true” Islam, and anyone with a different opinion is declared deviant and demonised, that breeds a toxic public culture of intolerance, hatred and bigotry.

The billion dollar question is not whether Islam is a just and peaceful religion. For the scholarship already exists to bring about an understanding of Islam that promotes justice and equality, that embraces diversity and differences, that believes in peace, freedom, dignity, that argues for the possibility and necessity for reform to fulfil Muslim demands for democracy, human rights and social justice.

The billion dollar question is whether there is truly the will among the political and religious leaders of the Muslim world to bring about the radical change that is needed in the ways Islam is taught, understood, codified into law and reflected in everyday practices.

Stop wasting money and time on more conferences of Presidents and Prime Ministers and religious leaders to deal with terrorism.

Spend those resources on reforming the education system, reviewing the discriminatory and unjust laws, changing culture and practices that discriminate against women and violate fundamental liberties in the name of religion.

Enough talk and hand wringing. Show us the beef. And if the Malaysian authorities are serious about countering the threat posed by extremist Malaysians who have joined IS and other movements, then they should take immediate steps to reform how Islam is taught in the schools and universities of the country and what messages are being preached over radio, television, during Friday sermons and in those ceramahs by populist preachers all over the country.

For a start, stop telling Muslims and non-Muslims that they have no right to speak about Islam or to question or criticise any Islamic law or debate the hudud law for to do so is to question God’s law. It is a law drafted by mere mortal men, and passed by the Kelantan state assembly made up of men.

Stop pretending just because they speak in God’s name, that they are therefore infallible and beyond reproach. The brazen cynicism with which the hudud football is played between PAS and UMNO in the face of harm this causes to Muslims and to the body politic of Malaysia shows the futility of expecting change to come from the top.

A member of the Kelantan hudud technical committee, proudly declared PAS did an SMS survey of about 77,000 respondents in 29 state constituencies and 91.7% said they supported the hudud. Well, someone else could do a similar survey and pose this question: Do you think the state government should concentrate on implementing the hudud or on rebuilding the state and improving the lives of the people after the devastating floods, end poverty, eradicate corruption, create jobs, build affordable homes, improve healthcare? I bet an overwhelming majority of Kelantanese will opt for the latter.

What is un-Islamic about improving the standard of living of the people you govern? In the end, the question is about niat (intent). If your intent is to do good, to be just, to be kind and compassionate, to respect those who are different from you, then there is plenty in the teachings of Islam to support this.

But if you choose to pull wool over the people’s eyes for your own failures to deliver on the aspirations of the people, to silence debate and criticism, to pretend that your Islam is the only Islam that all should obey, then as the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar said there are many “corrupt interpretations” of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet to use and abuse to serve your political end.
The Star - Sharing the Nation - Measuring Islamicity yet again (1 March 2015)
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Measuring Islamicity yet again

by zainah anwar
A Syariah Index funded by taxpayers’ money remains unused and unknown to the public while a new study has been launched.

FOR some five years during the premiership of Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian Govern­ment spent millions on a major effort to develop the Maqasid al-Shariah Index to measure the “Islamicity” of a country, both in terms of governance and society.

A team of over 10 international Islamic scholars from diverse parts of the Muslim world, representing all schools of law in Islam, worked with ratings and indexing experts from the Gallup Poll to develop the methodology and measurable indicators for what is supposed to be a rigorous index that can be used to measure how Islamic a country is on the basis of how well it has delivered on the goals of Syariah – to protect and promote life, religion, intellect, family and property.

It seems there was much debate among the scholars on how best to go forward with this huge project. None of them believed that a focus on hudud law and punishments was the way to go to measure how Islamic a country is. But all agreed that nothing but justice can be objective of Islamic law. They developed documents to define the essential features of syariah-compliance governance and embarked on a rigorous exercise over several years to define in scientific, measurable ways what each objective of Syariah should be.

What does protecting and promoting life, religion, family, intellect, and property mean today, and in accordance with Islamic principles? And what are the indicators and ratings indexes that should be used to measure if OIC governments have delivered on the objectives of Syariah to deliver justice, to do good, to advance life and society for all?

For example, in developing the index on protecting life, they looked at data to indicate a govern­ment’s achievement on providing food, housing, healthcare, infrastructure, and other basic needs. The focus was on deliverables to advance the life of citizens.

Except for one public presentation at the International Institute for Advanced Islamic Studies last year, nothing more has been heard of this study, which was led by Imam Feisal Rauf from the Cordoba Institute, and included two Malaysian experts. A book on its methodology and findings was supposed to be published by the end of last year, but until today there is no news of the publication. Malaysia, not surprisingly, came out well among the OIC countries measured by this Index. But now another study has been launched by the current Prime Minister to develop yet another Syariah Index based on the maqasid principles. Why? Has anyone examined the Maqasid Index already developed with millions of ringgit of taxpayers’ money? Why is there a need to launch yet another project to develop a similar index? Do they even know this Maqasid Index was initiated, completed and funded by the same Prime Minister’s Office, just by the last office holder?

The methodology of this new Syariah Index project is already under question. Looking at the survey questionnaire sent out to Umno members, this new project seems like an approval rating exercise.

The 13-page questionnaire made up of 146 questions covers six issues – Islamic law, politics, economics, education, health, culture, infrastructure and environment, and social. For each issue, a list of questions is prepared to measure how well the government has done under the five categories: religion, life, intellect, family and property. Respondents are asked to rate on a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree.

For example, to measure whether Islamic laws in Malaysia have protected life, it asked three questions: whether zakat, wakaf institutions, Jakim and the state religious departments uphold Islam; whether government “shelter centres” for syariah criminals are effective and whether distribution of zakat is effective.

On protecting intellect, it asked if laws to prevent alcohol consumption are effective, if the quality of human resources is adequate and if information on Islamic law is easily obtainable.

In its measurement on social issues, it asked questions on the effectiveness of enforcement agencies’ efforts to prevent Christianisation activities, the system to determine the qualification of religious preachers, the process of inculcating understanding of fardu ain and fardu kifayah in society, and the adequacy of programmes in mosques throughout the country! And it goes on and on in this random mode of haphazard and arbitrary leading questions being asked of respondents. They were in fact asked to rate if the Malaysian Government has done enough to measure how Syariah-compliant Malaysia is.

I am not sure if the research team has any clue how serious and rigorous a process for deve­loping an index that is meant for global use should be. What is the purpose of setting up yet more committees and spending more money to duplicate what has been done just a few years ago by the very same office of the Prime Minister?Perhaps the team can start by examining the Maqasid Index book manuscript, titled Islamic Government and Rule of Law Index. Have they consulted the experts from the previous team? Why the need for a new team and a new Index? What is the budget for this new initiative?

They could also read the academic papers available online written by two professors at George Washington University, Hossein Askari and Scheherazade Rehman, who have developed the “Islamicity Index” and the “Economic Islamicity Index” and who are now working on their own Maqasid Index. They are also working with the Islamic Development Bank to develop a Syariah-based index of socio-economic development.

Their Islamicity Index mea­sured economic and human development, laws and governance, human and political rights, and international relations in accordance with a set of Islamic principles. For example, for economic and human development, they developed 12 fundamental Islamic economic principles that included indicators on equal economic participation, economic equity, personal property rights and sanctity of contracts, poverty prevention and reduction, etc.

Compare this to some of the indicators on economic achievements in the Malaysian Syariah Index survey: “numbers of Islamic insurance consumers are increasing” (how is a respondent supposed to know that?), “financial institutions practising syariah-­compliant finance principles expand” and “prostitution and LGBT phenomena is not a concern in Malaysia (?)” It is hard to fathom the methodology and logic behind these questions and what they are really trying to measure.

As with so many things to do with religion in this country, much suspicion has been aroused as to whether this effort to ­develop yet another Syariah Index on the heel of one just completed, unused and unknown to the public, is yet another effort to lull Muslims into believing how Syariah-compliant this government is.

Never mind if in the end, it is the Muslims that they proclaim they want to protect and serve who will become the biggest losers in this race to prove who is more Islamic than the other. In Kelantan, we see a state government desperate to implement the Hudud law even while any right-minded citizen would think that it should be focusing its attention on helping the rakyat to rebuild their lives and property and repair the massive damage to infrastructure and goods caused by the devastating floods.

When you have nothing much to showcase for your achievements, press the Islam button and hey presto, the rakyat will be pleased – so they think.

At the federal level, a government that has lost popular support in two successive elections and that is desperate to prevent further regression, again and again turns to race and religion to create a siege mentality that the Malays cannot survive without the dominant ruling party in power.

This is all a charade. The sooner we wake up to the games politicians play with religion in order to stay in power or to win power, the more strategic we can be to bring about the real change that we the rakyat are desperate for.

> Zainah Anwar is the internationally acclaimed co-founder and former executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS Forum) and the co-­founder and director of Musawah, a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. She is a former member of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
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