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Women to the fore ... not just yet - The Star - Sharing The Nation (3 March 2013)
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Women to the fore ... not just yet


Sunday, March 3, 2013

With the general election coming up, women’s groups will be scrutinising political manifestos on issues of equality and justice for Malaysian women.

IT’S that time of the year when we, women’s rights activists in Malaysia, sigh again as we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8.Malaysia’s third report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), due in August 2004, has not been submitted. Neither has its fourth report due in August 2008.

It’s 2013 (and the fifth report due soon) and there is still no news on when the government is going to submit these overdue periodic reports on the status of women in Malaysia and its compliance with its treaty obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

In the meantime, the NGOs have given up on waiting for the government and have prepared their own alternative report to assess the government’s progress under CEDAW. It has been submitted to several ministries and departments dealing with women, law, labour, health, education, and rural development; only one has bothered to acknowledge receipt.

Six years have passed since Malay­sia’s combined first and second report was heard before the CEDAW Committee in 2006. The Committee issued several important recommendations in its Concluding Comments to the government on steps to be taken to fulfil its obligations under the Convention.

Until today, almost all the recommendations just remain words on paper.

The government has not incorporated the CEDAW Convention into national law. Nor has it defined the term “discrimination” in the Federal Constitution, thus resulting in conflicting interpretations by the courts. While the government lifted its reservation on the prohibition of child marriage, it has not amended national laws that still permit child marriage.

The Federal Constitution is still not amended to allow Malaysian mothers married to foreign men to automatically confer citizenship on their children if born overseas – while Malaysian fathers can. Neither has it been amended to entitle Malaysian women the same right as men in enabling their foreign spouses to apply for Malaysian citizenship. Nor has the government amended the laws to ensure that Muslim women enjoy the same rights and protection in marriage and family as women of other faiths.

Even when negotiations for reform took place, there has been no positive outcome. The Women, Family and Community Development Ministry held consultations with government representatives and NGOs on a Gender Equality bill and promised “something concrete” by November 2010. Nothing has happened since.

Sisters in Islam and the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) held several rounds of meetings with the Attorney-General and the Syariah Community to reach agreement on necessary amendments to the discriminatory Islamic Family Law. And yet, since 2006, those agreed upon amendments have not been tabled in Parliament.

Efforts at introducing a Sexual Harassment Act, establishing a fully functioning joint family court system for both civil and syariah laws, a Child Support Agency to ensure all children are maintained upon the breakdown of a marriage have all not moved far.

Over the past decade, JAG has submitted 22 memoranda to the government that highlighted urgent areas for reform to end discrimination against women or to introduce new legislation to protect and uphold the rights of women. Most of these have received scant attention from the government. In some, meeting after meeting with various government agencies have come to naught.

There is little political will to treat women as human beings of equal worth and dignity in this country. There’s been plenty of rhetoric, but little action. Even when there has been action, such as rounds of consultations, the government shows little will to push through the final outcome documents because of squeaks of objections from some patriarchs resistant to change and fearful and threatened by the realities of the 21st century. Thus the gross disconnect between law and reality continues, to the detriment of national, community and family well-being and productivity.

Every so often, at the right occasion, our political leaders do promise to take action to end discrimination against women. The latest came from the Prime Minister last month who promised that “the government would hasten effort to make changes to legislation, regulations, practices and thinking that obstructed the progress of women”.

All the homework needed for the government to translate this promise into reality has been done. There are memorandum upon memorandum submitted by women’s groups, draft laws prepared, supporting research and documentary evidence to justify why reform is necessary. The precious missing link is political will.

With the 13th general election coming up, the women’s groups will be scrutinising the party manifestos and their priorities on issues of equality and justice for Malaysian women.

Are the parties committed to ensuring that all state and federal laws prohibit gender-based discrimination, in line with Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution; and that all national legislation is consistent with the CEDAW Convention?

Will they find the political will to table the long-awaited amendments to the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) (Amendment) Act that were agreed upon in rounds of negotiation with the Attorney-General in 2006?

Will they amend the Federal Constitution to define “discrimination” and ensure that Malaysian men and women enjoy equal rights?

Will they undertake systematic gender sensitisation training for the whole bureaucracy and the judiciary so that judges can learn that sacking a woman or withdrawing an offer of employment on the basis of her pregnancy is gender discrimination, or that setting different retirement ages for men and women is gender discrimination?

Will they adopt a plan of action to effectively implement the national policy of appointing 30% women to decision-making positions in the private and public sectors by 2015?

Will the political parties immediately lead by example by ensuring that 30% of their candidates standing for parliamentary and state seats in this coming elections are women?

Should I even bother to hold my breath? Someone, surprise me please!

Long, winding road to democracy - The Star - Sharing the Nation (17 February 2013)
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Long, winding road to democracy


Sunday, February 17, 2013

More and more Egyptians are beginning to recognise the reality that the choice before them is not between Islam and Democracy, but between Democracy and Despotism.

I WAS in Cairo in the days running up to the second anniversary of the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. I felt an overwhelming sense of wanting to bring order to the country. I dreamt of buying all the jet sprays in the world to spring clean the buildings. I wanted to buy all the brooms and sweep clean the streets. I wanted to drag traffic policemen to junctions, traffic lights and roundabouts to bring some order to the choking traffic.

Then I thought, ahh..., let’s just send Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad or Lee Kuan Yew and in five years, Cairo will be spick and span and a five-year development plan will be in place and the whole country will be focused on growth, job-creation and poverty eradication. And they will make it happen.

While the Egyptians I met remain hopeful that in the long term things will get better, in the short term there is little that gives them hope. From taxi drivers to shop keepers, waiters, academics, and activists I met, young and old, everyone is disappointed that two years after the overthrow of Mubarak, things are not only not getting better; they are getting worse.

Growth is under 2%, unemployment rose to almost 13% last year, and estimated at 25% or more among the youth. One academic estimated that about 40% of Egyptians in the cities and about 78% in the rural areas live on less than two dollars a day and depend on state subsidies on bread, cooking oil, sugar, tea and rice to survive.

The Egyptian pound has slid to its lowest value in seven years and the price of food and goods is rising, fuelling inflation. More Egyptians are expected to drop below the poverty line. Tourism, a major pillar of the Egyptian economy, has slowed down to a trickle. Except for a few European backpackers, I saw no busloads of American or European tourists that usually crowd the pyramids.

So what is wrong?

It’s politics, stupid! Only seven months into office and President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are haemorrhaging support. The country is deeply polarised. The ballot box brought to power patriarchs and autocrats, not democrats. There is no iota of trust between President Morsi and his government on the one side and all other forces reigned against their rule – youths, the old elites, secularists, democrats, disillusioned Islamists, and Coptic Christians.

The youths who spearheaded the revolution that overthrew Mubarak believe the newly-elected Islamists have betrayed the ideals of the revolution and its call for “bread, freedom and social-justice”.

The women who were at the frontline of the revolution, united in the demand for change, are now sidelined and can barely make their voices and issues heard, lost in the jostle for power among men.

President Morsi is accused of ramming through a new Constitution and elections in quick time as he knew his Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, would gain the most from the ballot box as they were the best organised on the ground.

Instead of concentrating on reform, he and his party are accused of trying to grab power through a “brotherhoodisation” process, replacing officials in ministries, government departments and the judiciary with its political apparatchiks.

The Sunday I was there, imams at the Endowment Ministry staged a protest, accusing the minister of trying to replace officials with Muslim Brotherhood members. The ministry, of course, rejected this accusation, stating that the new regulation would only terminate the services of those whose contracts had ended. The imam would not be fooled.

The secular opposition alliance, the National Salvation Front, alleged that Morsi and his Freedom and Justice party have lost their legitimacy to rule and should step down. In turn, they are being accused of mobilising the streets in an attempt to overthrow a democratically-elected government.

The youths remain angry and defiant, determined that the revolution will not be stolen by the Islamists. They still occupy Tahrir Square, often paralysing downtown traffic. They still have the power to mobilise hundreds of thousands of young people into the streets in the major cities, in defiance of states of emergency, curfews, tear gas and water cannons. They did not risk their lives to get rid of one dictator, only to allow for another dictatorship in the making, they charged.

Women’s rights activists are fearful of the misogynistic medieval rhetoric from Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Members of Parliament to reverse the few gains they have made under what remains a discriminatory Muslim family law.

While the country is collapsing, they find it mind-boggling that their newly-elected political leaders are hell-bent on debating how best to make life more miserable for women by attempts to lift the official ban on female genital mutilation, to reduce the marriage age for girls from 18 to nine and to claw back the gains women have made in custody and divorce rights.

I tried to get a discussion going on the government’s or the Opposition’s development plans. I tried to search for a debate on these issues in the newspapers.
What do these political leaders have to offer to the people in one year, two years, five years? What are their promises on the economy, education, health, agriculture, poverty eradication?

Where is the road map to bread on the table, freedom and social justice that the youth who make up 60% of the population are crying out for?

What percentage of the budget goes to social services, poverty eradication, and what percentage to defence, and to debt servicing?

My friends don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the naiveté of my questioning. Everyone is caught up in the grab for power that neither Morsi nor the opposition National Salvation Front is interested in trying to win public support by offering serious policy choices for a better future.

Or even to build public confidence that politics in the post-Mubarak era would not be a zero-sum game.

Or even to do the immediate to win support by getting rubbish collected, streets swept and policemen in place to untangle the unbearable traffic gridlock.

And in the latest round of demonstrations to mark the second anniversary of the revolution, two youth groups have emerged publicly calling for violent public protests as the only language the Muslim Brotherhood would understand. They are now willing to die for the goals of the revolution.

There are fears that should the Islamists unleash their mob to meet violence with violence, the Egyptian state would plunge into deeper chaos.

Amid this downward spiral, Al-Azhar, and its Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, has emerged as the voice of moderation, with moral authority to bring all sides together. Where President Morsi failed in getting the opposition to the dialogue table, the Grand Imam, regarded as a progressive scholar in the midst of turbulence of politicised Islam, brought the leaders of all the major political parties, Islamists, secularists, and key revolutionary youth leaders together to condemn the violence and pledge support for a national dialogue to end the political crisis. He felt only a national dialogue would constitute a “guarantee against the monopolisation of power which leads to tyranny.”

But with the latest round of violence and widespread anger over the live picture of a man stripped naked, beaten and dragged into an armoured vehicle, this attempt at reconciliation and national dialogue might just turn out to be stillborn. No one, not least the youths in the streets, seem to be in the mood for compromise at this stage.

Governments and dictators can be overthrown within weeks. But building a functioning democracy after decades of authoritarian rule is no easy task.

My Egyptian friends are determined to be optimistic. They are confident that Egypt would not return to the days of dictatorship. People have lost their fear and will never be silent or silenced any more, not by a President, not by a General, not by an Islamist. Thus the bitter fight over the constitution, the election laws, and the spoils of victory. And the determination to use the streets if democratic elections did not bring the change they prayed for.

But building a democracy is also about building trust, a civic culture of debate, respect for differences, embracing diversity and pluralism, and a willingness to compromise for the common good. This is a long and difficult struggle in a country that had never experienced any form of democratic governance – from the Pharonic period to the monarchy, to socialism, to secular authoritarianism and now Islamism.

Egypt is too big and too important to fail in this struggle for democracy in the Arab world. Ever the optimist, I have faith in the people of Egypt who are dead tired of decades of misrule and impoverishment, but not tired enough to allow their revolution to be hijacked.

Their revolution that overthrew Mubarak will not be lost in the way the Iranians lost their revolution and found they had replaced a dictatorship ruled by a Shah to one ruled by Ayatollahs.

The choice before the Egyptians is not between Islam and Democracy, but between Democracy and Despotism. More and more Egyptians are beginning to recognise this reality; and this gives me hope.

It’s possible to be a builder of bridges - The Star - Musings (14 February 2013)
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It’s possible to be a builder of bridges


Thursday February 14, 2013

For so long we have managed to live together quite happily, regardless of race or religious differences.

THEY say fact is often stranger than fiction. Well, real life can often be better than slogans.

Long before we had this slogan about being all one, Malaysians already were.

We went about our lives familiar with diversity, used to being citizens of many different hues.

I suppose it’s true when we say that we are not in fact a racist people, just that when something happens – an economic crisis, political insecurity – then we express ourselves through racist behaviour.

In Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he shows how inter-racial or inter-tribal conflict often arises out of some economic issue, over land, food or some other ingredient essential to survival.

But the point is, when everything is going fine, people are not really racist and would probably remain so, even in troubled times if opportunists did not stir things up.

After all it is as much a choice to explain things through economics as it is through a racist lens.

I for one generally believe that our people are essentially good, especially if left alone.

For so long we have managed to live together quite happily, regardless of race or religious differences.

And we have numerous real-life examples to prove it.

A friend was telling me about a family he met in Sabah that comprises a brother who is a Christian priest and a sister who is an ustazah.

Both had made conscious choices to take these paths in life, and they remain loving siblings.

In Sabah and Sarawak, it is not a situation that anybody bats an eyelid at.

In the peninsula, in urban areas I think there are many more of these mixed families than we really know.

While it may be unusual to find such a situation among siblings, it is not unusual inter-generationally.

That is, the parents may be of one religion and the children another.

Nor would it be unusual among cousins and in-laws.

I know one family where each daughter married a Christian, a Muslim and a Jew, respectively.

Thus, their children would be all cousins of different religions. Last I heard it wasn’t an issue.

When I worked in HIV, too, neither race nor religion was an issue in our everyday work.

Since we were dealing with a virus that doesn’t care what anyone believes in, neither could we discriminate against anyone if we wanted to be effective.

We are all human with a common enemy.

It did not make any sense to fight it individually in our own little corners.

I know of one story that truly illustrates how Malaysians can be caring without looking at people’s race or religion.

It also shows how the lack of political interference can allow people to be easily humane and compassionate.

Several years ago, our army and police peacekeepers in Timor Leste befriended some orphans and took their orphanage under their wing.

In the course of this, our medical corps realised that some of these orphans were in dire need of medical treatment that could not be found in that very poor country.

So they arranged for them to be flown to Malaysia and one by one, each got the treatment they needed and most of them recovered very well.

Today, 12 of the original 17 are still here studying because the Malaysians who cared for them realised that for them to have any chance at all in life, they had to be educated here.

And here’s the best thing of all: these orphans are being looked after by a whole array of Malaysians who have simply ignored any racial or religious differences in order to do the best they can for these kids.

Timorese are very devout Catholics but the army and police personnel who have been looking out for them are mostly Muslims.

They organised their medical treatment and since they have been living here, often take them out for treats, invite them for Hari Raya open houses and lavish much affection on them.

Additionally, a group of ladies from a Buddhist society helps to fund their groceries while others from various religious and social backgrounds assist in fundraising for their schooling and other daily needs.

A local doctor – Muslim – lets them stay in a house he owns rent-free and doesn’t fuss when they hang up religious pictures or builds a nativity scene at Christmas.

Every time I visit, my heart swells with pride at how generous and hospitable Malaysians have been towards these kids.

Not only are these orphans getting a school education, they are also learning that people of different races and religions can live in peace together and not have to descend into civil war like their home country did.

It is possible to be bridge-builders. As long as we don’t listen to politicians.
■ If anyone would like to help the Timorese kids in Malaysia, please contact Touch of Hope Charitable Society (Secretary: Ms Chua Lay Choo at
Q&A Booklet: Hadith on Women in Marriage
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Q&A Booklet: Hadith on Women in Marriage
This booklet is written to provide the reader with an understanding of the Hadith and its complex history and methodology in determining its authenticity. Sisters in Islam hopes that with this understanding, Muslims are better able to evaluate and question the authenticity of Hadiths which are degrading to women that are popularly used in the media, publications and in talks on women in Islam.

Download our full version of Q&A booklet: Hadith on Women in Marriage Here
Q&A Booklet : Are Men and Women Equal Before Allah
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Q&A Booklet : Are Men and Women Equal Before Allah

Download our full version of Q&A booklet: Are Men and Women Equal Before Allah. Here
Q&A Booklet: Islam & Family Planning
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Q&A Booklet: Islam & Family Planning

The rights of Muslim women to attain a high standard of sexual and reproductive health, make their own decisions regarding marriage, motherhood, contraception and sexuality free of coercion, discrimination and violence are encompassed by the basic principles of Shariah. Yet, Muslim women the world over lack the power to express views on sexual relations, child bearing, contraception and other areas of reproductive and sexual health. Muslim women must be able to claim control over these issues as they have a direct impact on the physical, emotional and psychological well being of women and consequently on the entire family.

Download our full version of Q&A booklet: Islam & Family Planning Here
Q&A Booklet : Islam & Polygamy
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Q&A Booklet: Islam & Polygamy

In Malaysia, ever since the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 was enforced in 1982, banning polygamy for non- Muslims, polygamy has increasingly come to be associated with Islam. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, certain attempts were made to control the abuse of polygamy among the Muslims. However, these attempts have have not been very effective in practice, and it is most unfortunate that any vigorous measures against the abuse of polygamy are often condemned as being "un-Islamic", due to a general mistaken notion that polygamy is a sacred male right guaranteed by Islam.

Download our full version of Q&A booklet: Islam & Polygamy Here
Q&A Booklet: Are Muslim Men Allow to Beat Their Wives?
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Q&A Booklet: Are Muslim Men Allow to Beat Their Wives?

Wife- battering is now increasingly recognised as a serious social problem in Malaysia affecting the well-being, physical security and health of women, children and families. More battered women are turning to friends, relatives, counsellors, women's organisations, shelters, lawyers and the Religous Department for help.

There are a number of views being expressed on what the Qu'ran says about a husband beating his wife. This booklet puts forward the perspective of the group, Sisters in Islam, based on its understanding of the Qu'ran. It is hoped that the booklet will be of value for Muslim women and men who are concerned about the issue, both those directly affected by wife- battering and those who are in a position to help.

Download our full version of Q&A booklet: Are Muslim Men Allow to Beat Their Wives? Here - Women groups hold Najib to his promise (6 February 2013)
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6 February 2013

Women groups hold Najib to his promise

by Stephanie Sta Maria

PETALING JAYA (Feb 5): The Joint Action Group (JAG) for Gender Equality is pushing for a meeting with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on the status of 22 memorandums on reform and action that it has submitted to the government over the past decade.

At a press conference today, representatives of three of the nine women's groups that make up JAG pointed out that Najib had promised to give pro-women legislation due attention during his speech at the National Council of Women's Organisations golden jubilee celebrations on Jan 30.

Najib had also assured that there would not be a repeat of the seven-year wait for a bill to be passed, as in the case of the Domestic Violence Act. But Sisters In Islam (SIS) acting executive director, Ratna Osman, said that their call for amendments to the Islamic Family Law (IFL) dates back to 1996.

She reminded the government that members of the Syariah Community Meeting had already agreed to the amendments in 2006.

"In February 2009, we were told that the amendments to the IFL statutes would soon be tabled in Parliament," Ratna said. "But then these amendment bills were withdrawn because the Conference of Rulers wanted time to consult their respective state religious councils.

"We have not heard any updates on their status since then. It has remained hanging and we want the government to look into this," she said.

Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) advocacy officer Yu Ren Chung, meanwhile, highlighted WAO's push for a wider scope under the Domestic Violence Act to cover intimate partnerships, to harmonise it with all relevant pieces of criminal justice legislation, and to standardise institutionalised support for survivors of domestic violence.

All Women's Action Society (AWAM) senior programme officer Lee Wei San added that they wanted the rape law amended to include rape with an object and marital rape, as well as comprehensive laws on sexual harassment.

When asked if JAG had ever had a meeting with Najib before, Ratna said no but added that they had had meetings with his predecessor, Tun Abdullah Badawi and former minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Datuk Seri Sharizat Abdul Jalil.

"But we've never had one with Najib, not even in his capacity as the Minister of Women, Family and Community Development," she said.

Ratna also pointed out that the 57th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women would take place on March 4 and Malaysia was among the elected nations to be involved in this event.

"This year's theme is Prevention of Violence Against Women and if the government makes progress on our recommended amendments, then Najib will have something good to report to the commission," she said.

"In 2008, JAG held our 'Kotakan Kata!' campaign where we called for elected government representatives to fulfill election promises to end gender-based discrimination and uphold women's rights. Today we are saying 'Sekali Lagi, Kotakan Kata!' as we stand at the cusp of a general election."

JAG said that it would give the new ruling government three months after coming into power to get moving on the amendments and memorandums.
The Star - Make marital rape a crime (6 February 2013)
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Wednesday February 6, 2013

‘Make marital rape a crime’


PETALING JAYA: Husbands forcing themselves on wives and women forced to insert objects into their private parts – these should be included in the definition of rape in the law.

This is one of the reforms that the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is hoping will materialise, following the Prime Minister’s pledge that pro-women laws will be implemented swiftly.

The group, which consists of nine bodies including Sisters In Islam (SIS) and Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), said the country’s laws should be amended to expand the definition of rape in line with current needs.

SIS programme manager Suri Kempe quoted a recent case of a father in Kangar who forced his 13-year-old daughter to insert a carrot into her vagina but was only investigated for molest.

“This is why we need to make changes to our laws – to suit contemporary notions of justice,” she said here yesterday.

Molest carries a maximum jail term of 10 years, a fine or whipping under the Penal Code while those guilty of rape can be punished up to 20 years’ jail and is liable to whipping.

All Women’s Action Society senior programme officer Lee Wei San said women had a right to say no to sex at any time.

“However, marital rape has yet to be recognised as a crime,” she said.

The group plans to write to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to arrange a meeting to discuss long-standing women issues.

SIS board of directors member Zainah Anwar said the group would send him all 23 memorandums issued by JAG in the past decade.

One of the issues to be highlighted to Najib, who is also Women, Family and Community Development Minister, will be the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territory) (Amendment) Act 2006.

The law, among others, allows the right of a Muslim husband to claim harta sepencarian (joint assets) from his existing wife or wives upon his polygamous marriage.

“It was agreed that the law be reviewed and a draft of the amended law was prepared in 2006. However, it has yet to be tabled as the Conference of Rulers wanted time to consult their respective state religious councils,” she said.

On Jan 29, Najib had said pro-women legislation would be given due attention and there would not be a repeat of a seven-year wait for a Bill to be passed, as what happened with the Domestic Violence Act.
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