KUALA LUMPUR: It’s not rocket science! said Zainah Anwar (pic), co-founder of Sisters in Islam.
Or is it, since the idea that women do have a voice and a say in how religion is interpreted and practiced in a country that uses Islam as a source of law and public policy, remains a radical notion, lamented the women’s activist and former Suhakam commissioner?
“The issue is not that there cannot be reform and there cannot be equality and justice for women in Islam; the issue is whether governments and those in religious authority have the political will to end discrimination against women.
“The arguments for reform are there – within Islam, within our Constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of gender, within the human rights principles we subscribe to when we agree to be part of the international system, and not least in the realities of women’s lives today and what it means to build and sustain the well-being of the family, all members of the family, not just one.”
She said this in her lecture titled “In Search Of Common Ground: Reconciling Islam And Human Rights” at the 4th Raja Aziz Addruse Memorial Lecture here on the first day of the Malaysian Bar’s International Malaysia Law Conference.
Chuffed to have been invited, Zainah said she had always admired the late Raja Aziz who was “a man of integrity and honour, who upheld the rule of law, was passionate about human rights, had the courage of his convictions” and never gave up no matter how tough the battle was.
She said when she first spoke publicly of finding equality and justice in Islam 25 years ago, a common response was, “Why bother?”
“Muslim feminists told me it was a waste of time, a losing battle, because Islam, in fact, all religions are inherently unjust and patriarchal.
“The secularists said it was a dangerous enterprise, as I was giving legitimacy to the position of religion in the public square,” she said, adding that human rights activists also felt it was wrong to engage with religion saying the fight for justice and equality could only and should only be fought through a human rights framework, through United Nations conventions and universal principles.
“But we do not live in a country where there is a separation of religion and state, let alone religion and politics. We live in Malaysia, where religion, and in this particular context, Islam, is a source of law and public policy.”
And for too long, the fields of religion and public policy have been wide open for the conservative and authoritarian forces within Islam to define, dominate and decide what Islam is and is not, said Zainah.
When we protest, they shut us up, saying we have no authority to speak on Islam, she added.
“We are supposed to just listen and obey? How can it be relevant to our lives when too many of those who question the orthodoxy are intimidated into silence? How can it be a tenable solution when many are persecuted in the name of religion, and in some countries, even killed, beheaded, stoned to death, hands and feet cut off?” she asked.
Zainah said she could have turned her back on Islam as so many Muslim feminists and human rights activists had done the world over but she felt compelled to search for answers.
“Why must I choose between being a Muslim or a feminist, a Muslim or a human rights activist? Or for that matter, why should you, if you are a lawyer, choose between being a Muslim or a lawyer who believes in justice and equality, a Muslim or a judge upholding the rule of law and the Constitution as the supreme law of the land?
“These choices we are asked to make are false binaries, constructed to divide us for political purposes, for an ideological project. This is not about Islam. It is about politics, power and privilege.”
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