Malaysia: Rediscovering women’s rights in the Koran

Updated On: Feb 23, 2009

Over the weekend, several hundred Muslim women and men from over 47 countries came together for a 5 day conference to launch a global movement to advance equality and justice in the family: Musawah – “Equality” in Arabic.

What makes this movement unique is that its founders are seeking to enshrine Muslim women’s rights in an Islamic framework. The participants and the issues discussed are varied and topical. Malaysian investment bankers feminist activists and Islamic scholars could be found attending seminars titled "Sisters Doing It For Ourselves: Approaching the Holy Texts as Non-Experts," and "Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms."

"We are here because we believe that Islam upholds the principles of equality and justice," said Musawah's project director Zainah Anwar, founder of Sisters in Islam (SIS), in her opening speech at the gala "Feast of Equals". "We are here because we believe that there is hope and possibility to reconcile the teachings of Islam with human rights, with women's rights, with democracy." SIS is the core group behind Musawah.

The key area of struggle is in the legal frameworks governing marriage and divorce, inheritance, and custody. These Family Laws vary by nation, but their message is consistent: the husband is the provider, and the wife submissive. It is Family Laws that mean a Malaysian woman who goes against the 'lawful' wishes of her husband can be judged 'disobedient', and lose her right to maintenance. It is Family Law that an unmarried woman in Jordan is legally under the control of a male guardian until the age of 40. It is under Family Law, as practiced in India, that a Muslim woman can find herself divorced, unilaterally, by text message.

Now, a group of women’s rights advocates are arguing that these Family Laws are not commensurate with the writings of the Koran. Their opponents decry their efforts, casting them as proponents of ‘liberal Islam’, a derogatory term that has tellingly reactionary roots. Some scholars have also said that the effort sounded unrealistic and would have no impact, mainly because it appeared to ignore more than a thousand years of Islamic legal scholarship and practice.

The advocates of Muslim women’s rights are not letting the criticism stop them from making notable achievements: in Morocco, sweeping changes of family law in favor of women went into effect in 2004. To those who would oppose them, the women at Musawah give the same counsel that conservatives have been telling Muslims for centuries: Read the Koran.

BBC News, “Securing rights for Muslim women”, 18 Feb 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7897184.stm

Time World, “Muslim Women Demand an End to Oppressive Family Laws”, 17 Feb 2009, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1879864,00.html

The Malaysian Insider,”Muslim women fight for equal rights”, 19 Feb 2009 

Herald Tribune “Women use Koran to demand equal rights” 16 February 2009, http://www.iht.com/articles/2009/02/16/asia/women.php?page=1