Malaysia's first woman Syariah judge on women's rights and the law

Nenney is the first of two women to be appointed as a Syariah High Court judge.

Nenney Shushaidah Shamsuddin's appointment as a Syariah high court judge in 2016 marked a milestone in Malaysia's judicial history. Nenney, 42, was the first of only two women to be appointed as Syariah high court judge (the other is Nurul Huda Roslan).

Previously, women were only appointed to the lower courts. So, this was a big deal and women rejoiced because many felt that a female judge would be more sympathetic to their cases and grant them better access to justice.

Nenney, who hails from Banting in Selangor, is grateful for the overwhelming support and encouragement she has received, but she reiterates that her priority is upholding the law.

"When I am on the bench, I am not a woman. I am a judge. And as a judge, I need to listen to the facts of a case and hear all the parties involved in the court proceedings before making a judgement that is fair and unbiased," says the judge, who took up law because she wanted to help Muslim women exercise their legal rights.

"Just because I am a woman doesn't mean that I will always favour women. My ruling will always depend on the facts and the law."

Although it is sometimes hard not to be emotional when listening to family cases, Nenney says that as a judge, she must go by the facts of each case and remain fair and unbiased.

She cites ruling on polygamy cases as an example. "As a woman, polygamy is never an easy subject to face. But Islam allows men to practice polygamy, and as a judge I have to put my personal feelings aside and assess cases and determine if a man should be granted permission to marry another woman.

"Many say that the very fact that polygamy is allowed shows that Syariah law favours men. But the law has many stipulations for entering into a polygamous marriage and these conditions are not easy to fulfil.

"For example, the man must prove that he will be able to support and treat each wife equally. Some men can barely make ends meet but they still want the added responsibility. I send them away. Also, there must be a valid reason for him to want to marry another.

"A man cannot apply for permission just because he has fallen in love with another woman or because he is afraid he might commit zina (extra-marital intercourse). These, to me, are not valid reasons.

"The stipulations in the law exist to protect the welfare and rights of women and hold men accountable, and it is my job to make sure that the men meet these requirements. If they don't, I deny them permission. It's happened many times before," she says.

As a child, Nenney saw how women were victimised and denied their rights and she was determined to become a lawyer to fight for them.

Nenney adds that before an application for polygamy is approved, she makes sure that the women – wives and perspective wives – are agreeable. For this, she insists that all parties involved be present in court before she makes a decision.

"Sometimes, the women say they are on-board but I can see from their expressions that they aren’t 100% happy or willing. I ask them to be frank with me. The man is present and sometimes you can see him glaring at the women, but I insist on hearing from the women. If they aren’t happy with the proposed arrangement, I deny the application,” she says.

Her stance on polygamy was one reason that Nenney was chosen as one of BBC’s 100 Women, a list of 100 influential and inspirational women around the world. She is the first Malaysian and one of only 13 Asian women to make the list.

A calling

Nenney decided to pursue a career in law as she wanted to defend women.

"As a teenager, I saw families around me breaking up. I saw relationships breaking down. Even on TV, all the Malay dramas focused on domestic issues. I could see how women were often victimised and I wanted to help. I wanted to defend their rights and fight for justice. That's why I decided to read law," she says.

After graduating with a BA in Islamic Studies, and a diploma in the Administration of Islamic Judiciary and Syariah from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Nenney worked for four years at the Legal Aid Bureau.

“In the early years, I would get really emotional. I handled cases of women seeking divorce, fighting for custody or trying to get maintenance payments while struggling to make ends meet. But I loved my job. I still love my job. I never dreamt of becoming a judge, so I am honoured to be chosen,” she says.

Typically, Nenney hears between 15 to 25 cases a day.

Her appointment will pave the way for more women, she hopes. High court judges are appointed based on their knowledge, qualifications, performance and knowledge, so Nenney urges women to work hard and prove that they are worthy of the position.

With the increasing number of women Syariah lawyers and judges in the lower courts, she believes it is just a matter of time before Malaysia sees more women appointed to the high court.

“In Selangor, women make up 30% of judges. In the high court, out of the five positions, two are women so that’s not too bad. There are also more and more women judges in the lower court and so I am positive that in years to come, we will see more women on the high court bench,” she says.

Hearing family cases

The toughest cases Nenney has to adjudicate are custody disputes.

“You must understand that the Syariah court is not a criminal court. These aren’t criminal cases. Most of the cases I hear are family cases and the people that appear before me are often emotional. To be able to get the facts of a case, I have to not just listen to them but also read their faces. Sometimes, it takes some time before I can get the actual facts.

“When a couple gets married and starts a family, they are filled with love. But by the time they come to my court, things aren’t going well. They are unhappy, angry, and they often take it out on each other by fighting for custody. The children end up in the middle,” says Nenney, adding that her Masters in psychology has helped her.

Typically, she hears between 15 to 25 cases a day.

“No parent wants their child to suffer. Emotions really run high and I try and advise them and find a solution that is fair to everyone. My aim is not to punish either party. Even though one party may not get custody, they should be able to have access to their child and this can be worked out in court,” she says.

As a mother of three, Nenney says that she uses her courtroom to advise and educate those that come to her for judgement on the law and their rights.

“Many women don’t know their rights and how the law actually protects their rights, whether it is to do with marital assets, custody or polygamy. We need to raise awareness among women about their rights. As a judge, the only way I can reach the public is through my courtroom and so I use the time I have to advise and educate,” she says.

The court process can be arduous and time-consuming, she admits, but Nenney urges women to persevere in order to seek the justice they deserve.

“Some women aren’t willing to go through the process. Yes, it is not easy but that’s the system that we have at the moment and I advise them to persevere. Come to court, claim your rights. It may take a while, it may be difficult but it is not a waste of time. I urge women to be strong and fight for themselves and their children,” she says.

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