THE brilliant speech by Zainah Anwar at the 4th Raja Aziz Addrus Memorial Lecture is a very inspiring reminder of the hard struggle facing women in Malaysia and other Muslim countries in their desire for justice in Islam.
Despite decades of advocacy, Muslim women are still facing strong resistance from the religious authority for the changes that will give them the same
rights and freedom that their counterparts from other races enjoy in society and under the
I entirely agree with Zainah Anwar that if there is strong political will, we can have the same reforms to protect women and girls from abuse under outdated shariah laws which other countries have amended to bring Islamic justice for women to world standards.
In western countries, even as recently as a hundred years ago , women were not free in many ways. They fought hard in civil society and on the streets to gain recognition for their political, social and economic rights.
I recall reading how church priests and Christian leaders in Britain used to demonise the women’s rights movements as the reincarnation of the devil on earth.
These self-appointed spokesmen for God failed to recognise that they were fighting a losing battle against the dramatic changes taking place in the economy which was drawing women into the workforce to feed the ever growing demand for labour in the fast moving industrialisation and urbanisation of the country.
In the two world wars, women power was mobilised for civilian duties on the home front and on the battlefield to help maintain the fighting spirit. With so much participation by women in peace time and in war, it was impossible for the political parties to ignore the women activists.
The policy makers had no choice for their own political survival but to go along with the demands for women’s rights, ignoring the views of the religious hawks.
In the end, the religious authorities had to find ways to make themselves relevant to society in the New World.
In Malaysia, the same economic forces are transforming the social landscape, with women moving out of the rural areas in huge numbers into cities and towns to fill the jobs in the factories and service industries.
In fact, women dominate in most government departments and in the universities.
Our religious authorities must accept the inevitable, which is that as Muslim women become more economically engaged and are earning for the family, they will naturally expect to be treated as equal not only in society and in the work place but also in the syariah courts.
Muslim women react with horror at the stories about marital abuse and how the women victims are not getting fair treatment under syariah laws.
The reason they are not speaking out openly about the weaknesses in the syariah legal system is because they have been brainwashed into believing that any criticism is unIslamic and that the ulama is always right.
The rise of Sisters in Islam and Musawah which Zainah Anwar helped to initiate and lead, is now making Muslim women more aware of the need for reforms.
And the demands for reforms are getting louder as women have now stopped believing that only the ulama can decide what is right for them.
They are acting more and more like the western women a hundred years ago to demand what they believe to be their human rights, in line with their modern attitudes on freedom of choice.
Our religious community should transform itself from being a control machine to becoming socially friendly to help those girls and women who suffer from all kinds of abuse.
Above all, the religious officials should accept the aspirations for change as a natural phenomenon of human progress. Failure to move with the times will see the religious establishment blown to the sidelines by the winds of change across the Muslim world.