Q&A session with Norhayati Kaprawi

Q: Women's rights in Malaysia - is the situation improving?

A: It’s improving in some areas such as women’s participation in the public sphere, in education, and also in the health sector. However, there are still some areas that have not improved much such as women’s representation in decision-making bodies such as Parliament, and State Assemblies.  

About 65% of our university students are female, but why do we still have a low percentage of women in top positions? At the moment, the women Parliamentarians are only about 10% of the 222 MPs and women CEOs less than 9% of the workforce. The government should also forge ahead with its gender mainstreaming programme - in schools, in government departments, and especially in all the Islamic institutions. 

It is important that our society, officials, leaders and the religious authorities understand why gender equality is important. If a woman is unhappy and in a bad situation, it will affect her family, her community, her workplace, and the country. Therefore, people need to understand why it’s a disservice to our own family, society and nation if women are discriminated against, suppressed and oppressed.  

Q: What's your take on the conversion clause issue?

Ai: I’m really glad that the Administration of Islamic Law (Federal Territories) Amendment Bill 2013 has been withdrawn. It should have never been tabled without prior consultation with various parties. 

The Islamic authorities including the Attorney General should remember that any Islamic laws in Malaysia must also comply with the Federal Constitution, especially the issue of conversion. Non-Muslims should definitely be consulted because they will be greatly impacted by it. Islam does not promise only justice for the Muslims, but to everyone in this world, including the non-Muslims. 

On the issue of conversion of children, the Syariah authorities should be mindful of the rights of the non-Muslim parent.  There is debate over the interpretation of the word ‘parent’ as stated in the Federal Constitution - whether it means both parents or just one parent.  

I support the interpretation that says both parents, because surely the right and moral thing to do is allow both parents to consent to conversion. Even if they say it means one parent, in the case of determining the religion of the child an important question still needs to be addressed -  which parent?  

As in various cases that occur in Malaysia where a non-Muslim husband converts to Islam and the mother wishes the child remain in their original religion while the father wants the child to convert, the question is 'which parent's wishes should be acknowledged by the state'?  

The non-Muslim mother is not required by law to go to court to establish the religion of her children since their birth certificates already state their religion. As for the father, if he wishes to change the status of the existing religion of their children, he is required by law to proactively take it to court and go through the legal system. 

However, the mother's inaction should not be taken by the state to mean that she has no opinion or decision in determining the religion of the children. Legally she is not required to go to court to affirm the current religion of her children.  

An important point mentioned in our Federal Constitution is that the Syariah Court only has jurisdiction over Muslims only. When a case involves a non-Muslim, it should be heard in civil court. So on the issue of conversion of children involving a Muslim parent and a non-Muslim parent, the case should be heard in civil court.

But in principle, I am of the opinion that there should be no conversion of minors if either parent does not consent to it. Apart from the issue of conversion, the Islamic laws should also not discriminate against women. Any laws that discriminates against and disadvantages women should be repealed or amended.  

Q: Recently Datuk Bung Mokhtar urged Air Asia X CEO Azran Osman Rani to get out of the country for his reaction to a controversial newspaper headline ... what's your view on that?

A: Who is Bung Mokhtar to ask a Malaysian citizen to emigrate? He doesn’t own Malaysia. Just because a Malaysian citizen criticizes the government doesn’t mean s/he is anti-Malaysia. The media is also open to public scrutiny and criticisms. If it doesn't like the criticism that has been made against it, then it should explain or defend its position in a civil and intellectual manner, which is how good journalism should be.

Q: Why do you think marital rape cases have been on the rise in many countries including Malaysia? 

A: Marital rape happens when a man or a husband does not respect his wife as he thinks that he is entitled to do whatever he wants.  This is why gender advocacy is very important. 

Every man needs to understand and remember that his wife is his partner – an equal partner.  A wife is not a slave or an object that he can just boss around and expect to fulfill his whims and fancies. 

Husband and wife should be kind to each other and be sensitive to each other’s feelings, desires, likes and dislikes. In Islam, the prophet Muhammad has shown a great example. The prophet has always been gentle to his wives and treated them with full respect.

As for Malaysian law, we have the Domestic Violence Act that is applicable to all Malaysians - Muslims and non-Muslims. If a husband forces his wife to have sex with him, then he can be charged and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

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