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Saturday, August 31, 2019

SIS shows the positivity of Islam in multiracial Malaysia

Without Sisters in Islam, Muslim women in Malaysia would not be protected from domestic abuse. Without Sisters in Islam, Muslim mothers would not be able to independently apply for passports for their children, arrange for school transfers or give permission for a medical procedure. Without Sisters in Islam, over 500 Muslim women every year would not know where to go for help when their husband divorces them unilaterally, experience domestic violence or are abandoned by a polygamous husband.
Our women’s movement in Malaysia is dynamic, diverse and hopeful because Sisters in Islam (SIS) contributes to shaping, and oftentimes, leading it.
I have worked with SIS since the mid-1980s when they were operating from a friend’s house with no office and no administrative facilities — all they had was a donated photocopier in the bedroom. SIS had scarce resources, but was driven by a passion to achieve equality and justice for women.
SIS, with the Joint Action Group Against Violence Against Women (JAG) [now renamed Joint Action Group for Gender Equality], advocated from 1985 for a domestic violence act. In 1982, the Women’s Aid Organisation opened a shelter for women surviving domestic violence.
We soon realised we needed a law to protect women and hold perpetrators accountable. Finally, in 1994, the Domestic Violence Bill was passed in Parliament. It took nine long years because there was resistance from some quarters to make domestic violence a crime.
We were told that the law should only apply to non-Muslims because there are provisions in the state shariah laws to protect Muslim women. JAG, propelled by SIS, refused to leave any Muslim woman behind.
SIS did their research and found out that each of these state’s shariah provisions were inconsistent, and did not offer adequate protection. JAG believed that all women in Malaysia, including Muslim women, had to be protected under the act. Additionally, domestic violence is a crime, which is a federal, not a state, matter.
We were even told that Muslim men were allowed to beat their wives. SIS went on a mission to find out for themselves if a just God could discriminate against women. These women of faith studied and poured into the verses of the Quran. They found that Islam “does not sanction injustice, oppression, and violence towards women, it is not Islam that oppresses women, but human beings with all their weaknesses who have failed to understand Allah’s intentions”.
Their first publication “Are Muslim men allowed to beat their wives?” touched the hearts of women and men, convincing activists and policymakers that Islam does not condone cruelty to wives. We could thus defend our demand for all women in Malaysia to be protected from domestic violence.
Thus, it is incredulous that this NGO which has only done good, furthered the rights of women and is still working tirelessly for women’s rights is now deemed deviant by a fatwa.
The recent court dismissal of SIS’ challenge against a five-year fatwa labelling it an Islamic “deviant” organisation is problematic at so many levels. With all due respect, this is a disappointing decision.
The work of SIS is key to our nation-building. Their message of inclusion, compassion and justice is a balm to the wounds made by extremism, exclusion and hate. SIS plays a crucial role enlightening Malaysians and the world on the positivity of Islam. If we are to use religious values in shaping law and policy, then let us build on the shared values of peace and justice embedded in Islam and all of our religions.
Ivy Josiah is a former executive director of Women’s Aid Organisation. - FMT

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