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.”
Malaysia now has a domestic violence act that supersedes sharia law and applies to all Malaysians.
Pressure from the women and numerous NGOs and rights groups led to a constitutional amendment banning gender discrimination. Their current battlegrounds include gender bias, sexual harassment and marital rape.
Malaysia’s prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, seems to have got the message, announcing a “comprehensive gender sensitisation programme”.
“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.
Their other main concern was to ensure women’s access to the rights so painstakingly attained. As elsewhere, enforcing maintenance, compensation, and protection orders was problematic and community pressures, especially in rape cases, meant women were often reluctant to come forward, she said.
“We are claiming a right for ordinary Muslims like us to speak and engage publicly on Islam, to say that Islam is not the monopoly of the mullahs or the Islamic activists,” Ms Anwar said. “We as citizens of a democratic country and we as believers have a right to speak on Islamic matters.”
Hostility to the Sisters in Islam remained strong in conservative religious and government circles, she said. She was called an infidel, disrespectful and un-Islamic. Some of the faithful had sent her pornography by email.
But their reputation is spreading. They are involved in training and educational projects throughout south Asia, including Afghanistan – a region where Amnesty International’s latest annual report says violence against women is “all-pervasive”.
The advent of a regressive Islamic state in Malaysia was unlikely, said Ms Anwar, although it remained a worry. To conservatives still seeking to force their values on others, Ms Anwar offered the robust riposte of a good Muslim: “Faith that does not come from the heart is not faith. It’s merely fear of punishment.”