Promoting an understanding of Islam that recognises the principles of
justice, equality, freedom, and dignity within a democratic nation state

Opening Speech by Zainah Anwar
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Assalamualaikum wbt

The fact that three daughters of the current Prime Minister and two past Prime Ministers could share the same stage, the same passion, the same guts to stand up, to speak out their convictions in public represents so much that is good about Malaysia, and that is hopeful about Malaysia. Thank you Hanis, Marina and Nori for being here with us and showing how much you care.

Friends, welcome to this International Consultation on Trends in Family Law reform in Muslim countries.

In 2001, Sisters in Islam held a regional consultation on Islamic Family law and Justice for Muslim Women, where we examined the areas of discrimination against women in marriage, polygamy, divorce, financial rights, and custody and guardianship of children in our respective family laws, and we shared best practices from our countries in order to develop strategies for reform. A number of the women activists from Southeast Asia who attended that meeting are here today, ever strong and ever committed to the struggle.

All of us, in Malaysia, Indonesia, Southern Philippines, have been engaged in the past several years to get our governments and our religious authorities to support the necessity for reform of our discriminatory Islamic Family Law.

We submitted memorandums identifying the discriminatory areas and proposing language and principles to be changed to reflect the changing realities of women's lives today. We submitted completely new draft laws as in the Philippines and in Indonesia. But the response from those in power and those at the vanguard of a political project to establish an Islamic state and supremacy of shariah law have, too often, been disappointing to say the least.

In Malaysia, we suffered setbacks through two rounds of discriminatory amendments to the Islamic Family Law, in 1994 and now. But the big difference is that while the amendments of 1994 which made divorce and polygamy easier for men, passed without public knowledge and protest, the 2005 amendments created a ruckus as women's groups, women senators and the public mobilised to protest the injustice against women.

The public outrage over the discriminatory amendments to the Islamic Family Law led to the cabinet agreeing that the law would not be gazetted and therefore not be enforced. The Attorney-General was instructed to review the law, taking into consideration the concerns of women's groups. For the first time ever, we sat at the same table, as equals with the ulama of the land, to negotiate changes over the discriminatory amendments.

What this tells us is that the government moves when there is public outrage over injustices. This is why your voice, your presence, your courage is important. The government will not change unless the rakyat demands change. We all know that change does not come on a silver platter, especially when those most resistant to change are the ones holding power, whether in the home, in the community or in the highest political and religious authority.

Many of us in the women's movement in Muslim countries are not just at the forefront of the democracy and human rights movement, but we are also at the forefront of reform of Islamic knowledge and understanding to stop the use of religion to discriminate against women and violate fundamental liberties as upheld by our constitutions.

It is a long and difficult struggle. We are often accused of being westernised elites, anti-Islam, anti-shariah, women who have deviated from our akidah. Reports are submitted to the heads of religion, to the police, to the religious authorities to take action against us, to silence us, to charge us for insulting Islam, to ban our groups.

But this does not deter us, as really it has become par for the course. We all know that in order to bring change one must not be afraid to speak the truth as one sees it, to be angry in the face of injustice, to take difficult positions and to be marginalized and condemned.

For us in Sisters in Islam and I am sure I speak for my fellow activists and scholars who have been so supportive of our work, it is an article of faith that God is just, Islam is just. If justice is intrinsic to Islam, then how could injustice and discrimination result in the codification and implementation of laws and policies made in the name of Islam?

We do not believe that to question such laws, policies and their implementation is to be anti-Islam or anti-shariah. It is because of our love for Islam that we stand up and speak out and question and challenge. If Islam is a just religion, then anything done in the name of Islam that brings injustice cannot possibly be Islamic.

But in a society where so many are brought up and socialised to believe that only the ulama have a right to speak on Islam, then those who dare to speak to challenge traditionalist views that justifies discrimination in the name of Islam, are often condemned. But Sisters in Islam believe that if Islam is used as a source of law and public policy, then all citizens have a right to speak on the subject, Muslims or non-Muslims, experts or non-experts. Public law, public policy must by necessity be opened to public debate and public feedback.

Ladies and Gentlemen, codification of Islamic laws has been taking place since the end of the colonial era. It is because of public feedback that in recent decades, Muslim governments began to reform their Islamic family laws in response to the suffering of women in marriage and divorce. However, much of the reform was mostly through the talfiq (patchwork) or takhayyur (selection) methods of replacing individual provisions in the codified law with less discriminatory ones from other schools of law in Islam. But the legal framework of our Islamic Family Law remains one of inequality as it was constructed during the classical period of Islam when women were seen more as sexual beings rather than social beings.

It may be surprising and even painful for many of us to know in the 21st century that the classical juristic framework of marriage in Islam was influenced by the logic of a contract of sale. In exchange for the payment of a dower, a woman comes under her husband's authority. At the core of this marriage contract is the wife's submission (tamkin), which the classical jurists defined as unhampered sexual availability. This is regarded as a man's right and a woman's duty; in exchange for her submission, the women gets maintenance (nafaqa), defined as shelter, food and clothing, which is a woman's right and a man's duty.

Scholars such as Kyai Hussein Muhammad, Dr Ziba Mir Hosseini and Dr Kecia Ali who will speak in the first session today, have brought to public light the construction of gender in Islamic legal thought in the classical period that informs the legal logic and framework of control and dominion over women in the Islamic Family law that until today, governs our lives.

Given the changing realities and complexities of men and women's lives today, such a medieval conception of marriage is no longer sustainable. These three scholars and many others, together with Muslim women activists many of whom are here today, to share with us their experiences, are now advocating creating entirely new sets of laws based on an egalitarian approach to marriage one that is based on a partnership of equals. The legal framework that governs Muslim women and the conception of marriage must change to reflect the changing realities of our lives today.

We have with us today, Amina Lemrini from Morocco who will share with us the success of the women's movement in Morocco in their campaign for a new Moudawana, the Personal Status Code which recognises equality between a man and a woman in the family and removed degrading and debasing terms and obligations for women in its wording.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have no doubt that the message of the Qur'an, our rich and diverse juristic heritage and the realities of the world and our lives today provide compelling arguments for a comprehensive reform of the Islamic Family Law within a framework of equality and justice.

Just to begin with, we all know that several verses in the Qur'an talks about equality before the eyes of God, a relationship of mutual protection between men and women (9:71), of men and women being each other's garment (2:187) and of love and mercy and tranquility that dwells in the relationship between spouses (30:21). These verses provide a strong Islamic framework for reform to recognize equality, mutual love and compassion in the relationship between men and women.

As the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said last year, the problems that contemporary Muslim societies are confronted with today are not the problems of the 6th century, and the solutions we need today do not lie with the notion of a Shariah purportedly final and complete fourteen hundred years ago particularly in the case of women.

Therefore it is imperative that we engage in ijtihad and develop new interpretations and new jurisprudence to deal with marriage, divorce and the sustainability of the family institution within the Muslim community in the 21st century.

Ladies and gentlemen, yes, the road ahead is uphill and filled with mineholes. But I am optimistic. At a time when democracy, human rights and women's rights constitute the dominant ethical paradigm of the modern world, I know and we all know that Islam and Muslims cannot forever remain impervious and isolated from the palpable changes around us. We need to confront the challenges before us in our search for solutions so that Islam and Muslims will live, be guided and inspired by knowledge, and a faith and tradition that we all can be proud of and we can offer to share with the rest of the world. A faith that in theory and in practice truly brings about justice, equality, freedom, dignity and peace in this world.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope you will find today's proceedings thought provoking and empowering and that you will be a part of the growing international movement in the Muslim world of Muslims and citizens of all faith who will find the courage to speak the Truth to Power.

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