Zainah Anwar on Women's Rights in Muslim Countries: Changing Asia | Asian Development Bank

Zainah Anwar on Women's Rights in Muslim Countries: Changing Asia

Video | 30 March 2015

Malaysia's Zainah Anwar, founding member of Sisters in Islam and Director of non-governmental organization Musawah, explains the importance of cultural debate in the promotion of equality and justice for women in the Muslim world.


Title: Campaigning for Women’s Rights in the Muslim World

Description: Malaysia's Zainah Anwar, founding member of Sisters in Islam and Director of non-governmental organization Musawah, explains the importance of cultural debate in the promotion of equality and justice for women in the Muslim world.

Zainah Anwa
Founding member of Sisters in Islam
Director of non-governmental organization Musawah

Q: How important is an impartial, enforced, accessible justice system that has equality at its core for the promotion of women’s rights?
A: That’s fundamental of course. It’s one thing for women to have rights in law but as we all know what you have in law is not necessarily what you have in reality. And so having a justice system that delivers on women’s rights is extremely important that enables women to access their rights under the law. Making sure the judges are trained gender sensitive court officials. You know all these are very important developments to take place to make sure that the justice system is actually enabled to deliver justice for women.

Q: What progress have you and your organization made in the promotion of gender equality before the law in Malaysia?
A: Well, it remains a huge challenge. Probably the biggest advanced that we have made is to really create a public voice and a public culture of debate on Muslim family laws and women’s rights in Islam in particular. You know changing discriminatory laws once they’re in place is really very very difficult because very few goverments are willing to reform the laws because they will be accused of going against Islam if they change these so called Islamic laws. So we have been more successful in preventing new laws from being enforced. But working towards the amendments of the discriminatory Islamic family laws is something that we have been working on from the start of our existence until now. It remains a huge challenge but certainly the debate is beginning to change. Women are standing up, demanding their right to equality, their right to justice. The younger judges who are more fair, more gender sensitive, better trained.

So you see change at that level procedurally we have managed to bring about change sometimes it’s easier to change procedure  than amend the law. For example, the issue of guardianship – cause under the Islamic family law, women do have the equal right to guardianship of their children so in cases of divorce the women could have custody of the children but now guardianship rights so when the children want to apply for passports, for surgery, for registration of school, transfer of school, they all need the signature of the guardian and the law define the guardian as the father but the father is absent in the children’s lives and yet the law demands for the father’s signature. So the civil law on the issue of guardianship of children was changed to recognize women as having equal rights to the guardianship of the children but the Islamic law was not amended. So what we campaigned for was to campaign for procedural change, we lobbied the cabinet in Malaysia to basically issue a policy directive that all the forms that requires the signature of the guardian includes signature of father, mother, or the guardian, which means that Muslim mothers can also apply for the passport of their children, can sign for surgery, sign for registration of school and transfer of school so sometimes pushing for law reform is harder so the strategy is to push for procedural reform where reform can take place through a policy change through a policy directive.

Q: Has the work of your organization inspired similar movements in other Muslim countries?
A: Certainly, the reason why Sisters in Islam actually launched Musawah the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim families because of the impact of our work at the global level because we are really regarded as one of the pioneers in working on Islam from a rights perpective, a women’s group that engages directly with the religiion, with the tradition in order to push for equality, for justice, to demand for reform and that this is really important. The work has inspired so many other groups to try and adopt the kind of strategies that we have adopted specially in creating a culture of public debate on matters of religion that it does not belong solely to the Ulama the religious authority, it does not belong solely to the government, it would really break the hegemony that the patriarchs have over matters of religion. And that we as women are affected by Islamic laws, we have the right to enagage on how Islam should be interpreted, how Islam should be used and how it is qualified into laws and policies that really affect our rights on a daily basis in the private life and in the public life. So, the importance of culture of a public debate to offer an alternative vision of Islam that upholds the equality and justice and argues for the possibility of change of reform is extremely important to bring about the long term change, the sustainable change we want.

Q: What should Muslims, women and men, be doing to promote equality between the sexes within Islam?
A: That’s the big challenge and this is where again knowledge is important. Muslims must know their religion, must understand their religion; that there’s the possibility of equality, of justice, of reform so the public education work is absolutely necessary and democratizing the production of knowledge in Islam is also extremely important. In Islam, there’s a rich tradition of scholarship, of the possibility of change, of equality and justice or juristic legal principles like public interests, Maslaha, differences of opinions, choosing the best opinion to serve the public interest. These are all juristic principles that exists within the rich tradition of Islam that can be used in the modern period to bring about change to ensure that Islamic laws serve the best interest. And in the end I really believe that change has to come from the bottom, I don’t expect the power elite who have benefited from the patriarchal system to lead change. Change has to come from the public, civil society, group activists, human rights and women rights activists, public intellectuals to really change the terms of the debate on what Islam is and its place and role in our modernizing democratic society and to really create the public will and public outreach to demand for change and to make it politically costly for the political leaders to continue to deny the kind of reform that Muslim women are demanding. So that public voice demanding change, demanding equality and reform is really crucial to create the political will that will enable change to take place.

Q: How can groups like yours help promote the peaceful nature of Islam?
A: Obviously, all the more in this current period the work of Sisters in Islam, the work of Musawah really represents hope and the future of Islam and what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century. It’s a no brainer to choose between us and what we represent in Islam of justice, Islam of equality, Islam of compassion and kindness over groups that believe in violence, in extremism, in barbarism, are to push for I can’t recognize that Islam. They claim to do barbaric activities in the name of my God and my religion, that’s not the religion I grew up with. You know that’s why it’s extremely important that alternative voices emerge to  challenge that definition of doing this in the name of Islam and anyone who has a different opinion must be killed. And they’re killing not just Christians and non-Muslims, they’re killing fellow Muslim having a different opinion. So that’s why for me, our work in Sisters in Islam and Musawah is extremely important to create this culture of public debate, of justice, of equality, of the possibility of reform that must exist in the Muslim world and that exist in our tradition because without this democratization of knowledge and the production of new knowledge that recognizes equality, that recognizes justice, human rights, democracy, women rights that’s the only way for change to take place in the Muslim world to defeat extremists voices that have emerged.