The Tug-of-War Over Women’s Rights in Malaysia
The issue of women’s rights in Malaysia is one that has people divided throughout the peninsula. Women in Malaysia are increasingly engaging in the workforce as well as in the government. This does not, however, diminish the gender inequality that still exists. Women in this country have further struggles that inhibit them from gaining equality.
Gender Inequality in Malaysia
As 61.3% of the population are Muslims, there are groups that hold either traditional or progressive views regarding a woman’s place in society. Despite the various views exhibited toward this issue, women are continually moving forward to gain their rightful equality. Although women are taking up increased positions of leadership within the workforce, gender inequality is still prevalent.
In terms of global figures, according to the UNDP, women, in general, earn $0.23 less for each dollar that men make. In addition, one in three women has endured physical or sexual abuse and close to 750 million women have been involved in child marriages while only 13% of females are agricultural landholders. Furthermore, women only constitute 24% of the national parliamentarians as of November 2018.
Sisters In Islam (SIS)
As a majority of Malaysians are Muslims, there is an NGO that focuses on protecting the rights of Muslim women. Sisters in Islam (SIS) is an NGO that works toward fighting for Muslim women’s rights in Malaysia. In 1988, a group of Muslim women created SIS to tackle the issue of unjust treatment of women under Islamic law. SIS believes that because men had the major control of interpreting the Qur’an in history, they have misinterpreted some aspects in order to justify their cultural actions. As a result, women are placed in a lower position than men. Thus, SIS focuses on researching hermeneutical interpretations of the Qur’an that encourage the equal treatment of women within the Islamic framework.
The main focus of SIS is to reform the laws and policies that oppress women’s rights. It also raises awareness of issues such as child marriages, female genital mutilation and polygamy. Additionally, the NGO advocates for women to gain equal rights to their children as well as freedom of expression and religion. The organization also operates a free helpline called Telenisa, providing Muslim families with free legal advice on basic rights and Shariah law.
Pushback on Progressive Women’s Rights
Although NGOs like SIS promote more progressive views on advocating for women’s rights, there are groups that push back against ideals. SIS has been under scrutiny for its attempts to reinterpret the Qur’an. The established principles of Islam state that only those who have had traditional religious education can have the authority to interpret and discuss this doctrine. Thus, the women at SIS do not have any right to interpret the Qur’an as they are doing in the traditional sense, according to critics.
The Selangor Fatwa Committee and the Selangor Islamic Religious Council issued a fatwa on the SIS in 2014. The fatwa stated that the group was deviant as it promoted liberalism. In addition, the religious pluralism that SIS promoted did not follow Islamic teachings. Moreover, in 2019, a court dismissed an attempt to challenge the fatwa. The civil court decided that the fatwa is linked to Shariah state law and not the federal court. Fortunately, the High Court has temporarily suspended the fatwa in 2020 as the SIS continues to appeal its case.
With groups such as SIS fighting for women’s rights in Malaysia, the country is moving toward achieving gender equality. Furthermore, if more women come into leadership, then a greater possibility of reform exists. Humanitarian organizations and Malaysia’s government needs to address the gender inequality in Malaysia in order to open the country to new economic opportunities, progressive growth and equality. By furthering Malaysia’s approach to gender equality, the global community will take one more step toward global justice and equity.
– Hakyung Kim