Okay with polygamy, but not in their own marriage

KUALA LUMPUR: Although as many as 70% of Muslim women agree with men practising polygamy, only 32% of these women are actually agreeable to allowing it in their own marriage, a survey by Sisters in Islam (SIS) found.

It also discovered that 97% of Muslim women agreed that they must obey their husbands and take care of their children, and that a woman’s obedience defined her as a “good wife”.

The European Union-funded survey, which polled 675 women aged between 18 and 55 nationwide, also found that 21% of women believed that a husband had the right to beat his wife, citing nusyuz (disobedience) as justification.

“A majority of respondents agreed that it would be nusyuz if a wife was to leave the house without her husband’s consent, refuse to move with the husband (54%), refuse to have sexual intercourse (52%), refuse to open the door for the husband (50%), or refuse to answer the husband’s calling (46%).

“Under these circumstances, they believe a husband may beat his wife.

“As a wife, a Muslim woman encounters far greater levels of discrimination than in other roles,” said SIS in its survey titled “Perceptions and Realities: The Public and Personal Rights of Muslim Women in Malaysia” launched yesterday.

Prominent social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir invited policymakers to read the full survey and engage with SIS on some of the issues highlighted in order to achieve policy shifts towards gender equality.

“My only hope is for them to read the report rather than respond to headlines.

“The survey showed the disconnect between what Muslim women expected and what is happening to them in real life as well as their inability to challenge the reality of life to align it with their expectations,” Marina told reporters at the “Islam Unsurrendered: Women Rising Against Extremism” conference at a hotel here yesterday.

She said in a society like Malaysia where obedience to any authority, be it husband or the government, was considered a norm, it took a lot for women to go against the authority, especially when the figure was someone close to them.

“What we have to do is unpack that and show that religion does support a woman’s personal happiness.

“In fact, Islam came at the time when women were extremely oppressed and it lifted that oppression. We seem to have forgotten that,” said Marina.

The survey also found that the pressure for Muslim women to conform started from childhood and that they felt a pervasive need to project an image of a “proper Muslim woman” in their behaviour and dress codes to avoid other people’s negative perceptions.

“A total of 80% of respondents agreed that they faced challenges relating to social conformity and 59% experienced moral policing and body shaming,” said the survey.

Marina said many things that used to be considered as radical or extreme back then in Malaysia had now become the norm in society such as polygamous marriages, wearing the hijab (headscarf) and donning the niqab (face veil) for Muslim women.

“Polygamy used to be hush-hush, something you don’t tout openly but now men do that because they think that this is a sign of their power,” she said.

SIS programme manager Shareena Sheriff said the group was recommending policymakers to require equality in the family to be a recognised concept within the Islamic family law, and that they were ready to engage with any willing lawmakers.

“What we recommend is a relationship that is equal and for egalitarian rights of men and women within the family, something that other Muslim countries have moved to,” she said, citing Morocco and Tunisia as examples.

EU Delegation to Malaysia head Maria Castillo Fernandez said gender equality was at the core of European values and that it was important for women to have agency over their decisions.

“We will continue working to create a space to ensure that all over the world, men and women can achieve equality,” she said in her speech.
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