Zainah Anwar is a good Muslim. She is also an outspoken campaigner for women’s rights. To many Muslim men in Malaysia and beyond, these two facts are barely compatible.
Since helping to found the pressure group Sisters in Islam, Ms Anwar has challenged the country’s exclusively male religious establishment on issues ranging from polygamy and domestic violence to women’s rights to work, dress codes, and moral policing.
She has often won the argument, even if chauvinistic practices and prejudices remain deeply entrenched.
The group’s main form of attack – letters printed in Malaysia’s newspapers – began in 1990, causing fascination and outrage in equal measure. But the letters proved difficult for Islamic scholars to dismiss since the arguments were based on careful study of the Qur’an.
Attempts to force Muslim women to adopt certain modes of dress, for example, contravened the Surah-an-Nur, they wrote.
“Some men have forced women to accept forms of veiling and seclusion. Women have been made responsible for limiting men’s lustfulness,” they said.
This broadside has had visible impact. While headscarves are still the norm for Muslim women in Malaysia, they are not obligatory and are often worn with trousers or skirts and high heels.
Turning their sights on a widespread belief that Muslim men can insist on arranged marriages and have a right to beat their wives, the women highlighted a passage in the Qur’an: “You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness … on the contrary, live with them on a footing of kindness and equity.”
Of course, the “right to beat their wives” is in the Qur’an too (4:34).
Malaysia now has a domestic violence act that supersedes sharia law and applies to all Malaysians….
“There’s a lot more awareness, but the mindset about female obedience and submission hasn’t really changed,” said Fuziah Salleh of the opposition People’s Justice Party’s women’s wing. “Women are very poorly represented at the higher levels of government.”
Ms Anwar said the group’s principal aim remained an enlarged “public space” within Islam where women could “challenge, criticise and change” social norms that were dictated not by the divine teachings of the Prophet but by infinitely fallible male mullahs.