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The Straits Times - Muslim women fight for equal rights
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By Carolyn Hong
IN MALAYSIA, being liberal is often a dismissive term. And when an event is described as 'liberal Islam', you can be sure that this is criticism in the harshest terms.  This was the five-day gathering of 250 Muslim scholars from more than 40 countries in Kuala Lumpur that ended yesterday. It was the culmination of a two-year effort to seek ways to forge equality and justice in the Muslim family.  The conservative Parti Islam SeMalaysia's (PAS) youth section had labelled it as an event promoting 'liberal Islam' to confuse Muslims.  'I call for people to oppose this programme to promote liberal Islam because it is also the agenda to destroy the dignity of the Malays,' Mr Riduan Mohd Nor, the head of the missionary section, was quoted as saying in PAS newspaper Harakah.  The Penang ulama association also joined in the criticism against this 'liberal Islam' programme.  Their strong words spell out the obstacles that Muslim women, and feminist-minded men, face in trying to upend a patriarchal family system said to be rooted in religious tenets.  The patriarchy of the system was recently reinforced by two fatwas (religious edicts) in Malaysia that stirred controversy for their content, as well as the fact that they appeared to target women. The fatwas were on tomboys and yoga.  More serious are family law disputes that occasionally make the news. The problems of Muslim women in divorce, obtaining maintenance and child custody are well documented.  'Musawah came about due to frustrations women's groups felt when pushing for reform to the family law that discriminates against women,' Ms Zainah Anwar, founder of the Sisters In Islam (SIS) women's rights group, told the New Straits Times.  SIS is the core group behind Musawah, a global movement launched at the conference to advance equality and justice in the family. Musawah is the Arabic word for equality.  Ms Zainah pointed out that civil law in Malaysia has already progressed in areas such as guardianship of children, marriage and divorce. 'So the Muslim world must also move towards justice and equality. It must recognise that religion can no longer be used to hold back women,' she said.  Muslim women are not turning away from religion. In fact, they are going back to the fundamental texts of Islam to persuade people that Islam does not discriminate against women. They say it is the interpretation of Islamic laws that has left women disadvantaged. 'When we say, 'Islam says men and women are not equal', it is not Islam that is saying that; it is the 'me, I' - the person who said that,' said Ms Zainah.  Musawah's strategy is to build up a bank of knowledge of Islamic laws and to formulate campaigns for reforms.  Ms Nik Noraini Nik Badlishah, the legal adviser to SIS, said participants at the gathering brainstormed over religious arguments, the social aspects, international laws and human rights documents.  'We are saying that justice and equality are both necessary, and that there can't be justice without equality,' she said.  Musawah builds on the work of women's groups and activists.  It is a coordinated effort this time, but its message is not new. Indeed, it is the very same message that the SIS has carried since it was formed 20 years ago.  Yet even today, SIS is regarded with wariness by some Muslims in Malaysia, and these include women as well.  Law lecturer and writer Azmi Shahrom said the group is still considered radical, even among its own constituency.  'The concept of Islam in Malaysia is infantile. Only those in authority may speak, and this is deeply ingrained in the Malaysian psyche. When a group like Sisters In Islam takes its own interpretation of the Quran, it's not easily accepted,' he said.  SIS shakes the entire system loose from its traditional moorings.  Thus, Dr Azmi said there will be strong opposition not just from those who disagree with its views, but also from those who have the old mindset that only religious leaders may interpret religious laws.  This, he believed, is likely to be the case for countries with a strong Islamic orthodoxy. Dr Azmi said there is consensus that the Quranic texts are authentic, but they should be applied within context.  A Nigerian participant, Ms Asma' U Joda, was quoted by The Star as saying that it was not an issue of convincing men to allow women their rights. 'It is an issue of the community, and men are part of that community,' she said.  Ms Nik Noraini acknowledged that the long road is just beginning. She pointed out that the codification of Islamic family law was a good start. But many of these laws chose selective provisions from the classical texts, and needed reform.  She cited Morocco's overhaul of its family law in 2004 as a tremendous step in reforms. Marriage was redefined as a partnership, rather than the dominance of husbands over wives.  But it remains controversial. Even Malaysia, which is a curious mix of progressive and conservative Islam, is strongly resistant to such efforts.  'We have to work hard because many don't understand,' said Ms Nik Noraini.

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