Southeast Asia's Islamic women seek reforms... [Asia Times]
- Asia Times: Southeast Asia's Islamic women se...
Wednesday, August 01, 2001
Southeast Asia's Islamic women seek reforms
KUALA LUMPUR - Calls for reforms in Islamic laws in Southeast Asian
societies are growing louder, but reformists say accusations of being
un-Islamic mean that they are not always heard.
They want to reform Islamic or Shariah law, check biases against women
regarding family and marriage, and update laws to keep pace with the times.
They say reforms should come with widening avenues within the Islamic
framework for women to assert their rights.
Calls for change are increasing in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines,
but this is difficult to bring about because activists and women's groups
are accused of undermining Islam. "To raise these issues, to question
Shariah law and the implementation of the law does not mean that we are
anti-Islam, that we are questioning the word of God," said Zainah Anwar,
executive director of the Malaysia-based non-government organization Sisters
in Islam. What Muslim women in Southeast Asian countries are questioning is
the interpretation of the Koranic message, which Zainah said is "limited by
Objections to changes in Islam-based laws stem from a fear of instability
after centuries of having essentially similar rules in many countries, adds
Cynthia Abubakar of the Islamic Studies Institute at the University of the
Philippines. "There is a fear of change that will create trouble in
society," Abubakar said. "They say the laws are based on the Koran, so if
you question the law, they think you're questioning the Koran and are not a
But campaigners and scholars said that Islamic laws need to become fairer
and more women-friendly, especially those on marriage, divorce and family,
and that the premises behind these laws need to be re-examined.
Issues such as the mahr or dowry, which some translate as "bride price", are
rich grounds for debate. Some Muslim women call it degrading and an
ill-suited context for marriage, while others say it has proven to be a form
of financial protection in troubled times. Siti Ruhaini Dzuhayatin of the
Indonesia-based Center for Women Studies, says many activists and women want
the mahr to be smaller so it is a "symbol" and not a sign of ownership of
brides. "If it's a big amount, it seems like ownership. We'd like to reduce
the sense of men's ownership of us," she explains.
But the mahr, pledged verbally in some Muslim communities and written in
marriage contracts in others, can give women in Iran protection in marital
disputes as they can demand payment and have a means of financial support.
"Often, the only element that gives women some negotiating power is mahr,"
points out Ziba Mir Hosseini, a Iranian researcher on gender relations in
Islam at Cambridge University.
Many activists question the patriarchal assumptions behind Islamic marriage
laws in many countries. These include laws that allow the marriage of girls
as young as 12 under certain circumstances, or give less weight to a woman's
consent in marriage than to the authority of the male wali, or guardian,
whose role is required in such matters.
Many activists criticize loopholes in laws on polygamy that allow men to
have up to four wives under certain circumstances. "Disadvantageous and
discriminatory" provisions toward women in Islamic laws should be removed,
said Norma Maruhom of the Philippines-based National Network of Muslim
Women's Rights. Some activists are willing to discuss changes to the law on
polygamy, while others want it scrapped, as it has been in two Islamic
countries, Turkey and Tunisia. "The failure of legal mechanisms to prevent
the abuse of polygamy" is a key question, adds Nik Noriani Nik Badli Shah of
Sisters in Islam. She said "polygamy is practiced elsewhere and to say it is
special to Islam is wrong".
Modern-day trends have also created holes in the law and in the reach of
Shariah courts. Malaysian and Singaporean lawyers say men who take second
wives without seeking permission from the first one or registering them as
required often do so by crossing the border to Thailand or Indonesia.
Issues like polygamy interact not only with religion, but with social
customs. "Actually it is not acceptable for us," said Maruhom about the
culture of Filipino Muslims. Abubakar said polygamy has to do more with
macho culture than religion: "Some men, political leaders, businessmen who
travel, they sometimes see [a second] marriage as a status symbol that
contributes to their macho image." Hosseini said she has "never met a woman
who happily accepts polygamy", adding that even if it is an exception,
polygamy makes gender relations uneven. "The very fact that a man has the
right to this changes the balance of the relationship in marriage," she
said. "Most men do not do it, but it puts them in a power position."
Dzuhayatin said that it is time the concept of marriage within Islamic laws
is changed from one of "sexual providence and obedience to partnership".
Egyptian professor of Islamic history Amira el-Azhary Sonbol said that
countries may have different Islamic laws, but their roots can be traced to
a patriarchal society, from the traditionally big role of the male relatives
in a woman's marriage to the need for the husband's "permission" for women
to work outside the home. Shariah law provisions in the Philippines, which
apply to the Muslim minority in the mainly Catholic nation, say that a wife
needs to gain her husbands' consent to practice a profession.
Nasaruddin Umar of the Intensive Course and Networking of Islamic Science in
Jakarta said that reforms need to start from accurate re-translations of the
Koran. Umar argued that a re-translation of the Koran in Indonesian and
Malaysian would correct flaws and tip the gender balance away from men.
Muslim women activists and experts also say reforming religious laws means
having more women learning the Koran and its fiqh (jurisprudence) and
history, in order to make it relevant to today's generation. Sonbol urges
Muslim women to "involve" themselves in the study of law. Hossaini adds that
the last 40 years have produced a generation of educated Muslim women with
the knowledge to push reforms. Malaysia's Shuib calls for more women Shariah
judges, not seen in too many Muslim societies, but found in Indonesia and
the Sudan, especially since Shariah codes deal with family and personal
In seeking change. however, activists said that reforms must be done from
within Islam's concepts of justice and fairness. They say the mass media
often paints a one-dimensional picture of Islam, without understanding that
some of its legal provisions passed on from an earlier era and which give
more to men come also with more responsibilities, such as that of looking
after female relatives.
Malaysia's Shah cautions against perceptions that bad things for women come
from the East and "what is good for women must be Western".
(Inter Press Service)
©2001 Asia Times Online Co., Ltd.
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