Friday, March 10, 2006

International Womens Day: a Malaysian Story

Kuala Lumpur: Ms Marina Mahathir, a news paper columnist and ex-president of the Malaysian AIDS Council, is a daughter of Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Being a proactive woman who believes more in action than rhetoric she frequently says “knowing about the risks associated with AIDS was not sufficient to change behaviour in women”.

Women being the main focus of her work, was the topic of her out spoken article written during the last International Women’s day (March 8th, 2006). However, the newspaper that she wrote this article for refused to publish it, citing various reasons. The article is below and it was confirmed by a reliable source as being authentic.
Picture from

Marina Mahathir for The Star

In 1948, one of humankind’s most despicable ideas, apartheid, was made into law in South Africa where racial discrimination was institutionalized. Race laws touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. Although there were 19 million blacks and only 4.5 million whites in South Africa, the majority population were forced to be second-class citizens in their homeland, banished to reserves and needing passports to travel outside them, even within their own country. It was only in 1990 that apartheid began to crumble and South Africans of all colours were finally free to live as equals in every way.

With the end of that racist system, people may be forgiven for thinking that apartheid does not exist anymore. While few countries practice any formal systems of discrimination, nevertheless you can find many forms of discrimination everywhere. In many cases, it is women who are discriminated against. In our country, there is an insidious growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, that between Muslim and non-Muslim women.

We are unique in that we actively legally discriminate against women who are arguably the majority in this country, Muslim women. Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened for Muslim women.

For instance, since the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, polygamy among non-Muslims was banned. Previously men could have as many wives as they wanted under customary laws. Men’s ability to unilaterally pronounce divorce on their wives was abolished and in its place, divorce happens by mutual consent or upon petition by either spouse in an equal process where the grounds are intolerable adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion of not less than two years, and living separately for not less than two years. Compare that to the lot of Muslim women abandoned but not divorced by their husbands.

Other progressive reforms in the civil family law in the late 1990s were amendments to the Guardianship Act and the Distribution Act. The Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 was amended to provide for equal guardianship for both father and mother, rather than the previous provision where only the father was the primary guardian of the children. In contrast, the Islamic Family Law still provides for the father as the sole primary guardian of his children although the mother is now allowed to sign certain forms for her children under an administrative directive.

The Distribution Act 1958 was also amended to provide for equal inheritance for widows and widowers, and also granted children the right to inherit from their mothers as well as from their fathers. Under the newly proposed amendments to the Islamic Family Law, the use of gender neutral language on the issue of matrimonial property is discriminatory on Muslim women when other provisions in the IFL are not gender-neutral. Muslim men may still contract polygamous marriages, may unilaterally divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons (including by SMS, unique in the Muslim world) and are entitled to double shares of inheritance.

These differences between the lot of Muslim women and non-Muslim women beg the question: do we have two categories of citizenship in Malaysia, whereby most female citizens have less rights than others? As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women here are only going backwards. We should also note that only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing; in every other Muslim country in the world, women have been gaining rights, not losing them.

In this country, our leaders claim to stand for all citizens. Our Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of all Malaysians, our Ministers work for all Malaysians in their respective fields. There are two exceptions to this. The Minister for Islamic Affairs is obviously only for Muslims; even though some of the things he does affect others. While the Minister for Women purports to work for all Malaysian women, even though not all Malaysian women benefit from that work. Perhaps we should consolidate the apartheid of women in this country by having a Ministry for Non-Muslim Women which works to ensure that Non-Muslim women enjoy the benefits of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a UN document which Malaysia signed and is legally bound to implement, and a Ministry for Muslim Women which works to gag and bind Muslim women more and more each day for the sake of political expediency under the guise of religion.

Today is International Women’s Day. Unfortunately only about 40% of the women in this country can celebrate. The rest can only look at their Non-Muslim sisters in despair and envy.
Denying the printing of this article is a sad (but true) representation of Womens rights in Malaysia. Perhaps sometimes it is a reflection of a reality that Malaysian face in, more ways than one. The newspaper has managed to silence a voice, and in doing so may have opened up a can of worms in the institutions ways of thinking.

As Irene Fernandez (Human rights worker in Malaysia), in response to this puts it “the struggle is uphill”. I am encouraged to see however, that people are in fact ‘struggling’ to for the cause.


Dr. Deborah Serani said...

There has been an a lot of press here about International Womens Day here in the states. I am so glad it's been highlighted.

mythsn_legends said...

I feel for the Muslim women in Malaysia. I hope that one day they will be able to join other Muslim women around the world in progressing toward equality, not regressing from it....

Steph said...

I feel that sense of HOPE when the world acknowledges women.

But what do they acknowledge? What do they mean by International Women's Day when thousands of women have no say for their rights and freedom.

Even so, it is something that we, women and men MUST continue to stand up for.

astrorat said...

Dear Deb,

Certain parts of Asia is just waking up to the idea of true equality towards respect to all genders. I am glad that these issues are being addressed in Malaysia (even though its by a handful)

Dear mythsn_legends,

Lets not forget Women from all other religious backgrounds. Though this article does focus on the issues of a select group, i am pretty certain non-Muslim women face similar situations.

Dear steph,

You are right to say that both women AND MEN need to stand up for EACH OTHER. We cant emphasize this enough!

:) Astrorat