Anwar: Constitutions of Muslim Countries Under Attack

Some Islamic traditionalists in Muslim countries are trying to chip away at basic human rights, despite constitutional protections, a women’s rights activist said at the Law School Friday.

Zainah Anwar, founder and former executive director of Sisters in Islam, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to strengthening the rights of Muslim women within the framework of Islam, said conservative Islamists are “silently rewriting” the federal constitution of her home country, Malaysia.

“What is of concern in Malaysia today for people like me, for human rights activists, for women activists, is while voters in election after election have been very clear in rejecting any kind of religious extremism and supremacy ideologies, a silent rewriting of the constitution is taking place,” Anwar said.

The country’s federal constitution guarantees all citizens the right of equality under the law and prohibits discrimination based on gender. But this contradicts some of the more conservative interpretations of Islam.

The Malaysian constitution denotes Islam as the religion of the confederation but does not explicitly state that Malaysia is an Islamic state or is based upon the law of the Quran. The constitution doesn’t state that Malaysia is a secular state, but Anwar said its founders meant for it to be secular and made Islam the official religion for ceremonial purposes.

Malaysian case law over the past 20 years has backed up Anwar’s claim. In one case, judges decided that even though Islam is the state religion, Islamic law is not the basic law of the land. In another, the Malaysian Supreme Court ruled that law in the public sphere would be secular law unless the constitution was amended to declare Shariah law, or Islamic law, supreme.

Traditional Islamists argue that each individual state has authority relating to the creation and punishment of offenses of Muslims against what the constitution terms the “precepts” of Islam. Anwar said traditional Islamists believe that precepts of Islam should cover any matter that can be regulated by Islamist teachings, extending the reach of Shariah law.

Shariah courts throughout the country deal with Muslim trespasses against Islam, but the federal constitution places limits on the punishments they can hand out.

Even so, two state legislative assemblies passed laws allowing for more extreme punishments to be doled out, including amputation and up to 100 lashes of a whip. The state governments never tried to enforce these laws, and federal government officials made their displeasure clear, but the laws were not repealed.

“Once a law in the name of Islam is put in place, politicians do not have the stomach to repeal the laws, no matter how unjust or unconstitutional,” Anwar said.

Another issue in Malaysia that Anwar and her fellow women’s rights activists fight against is the difference in legal treatment of Muslim and non-Muslim women. The Malaysian constitution guarantees equal protection under the law to its citizens, but only in the public sphere.

“In practice, this exception to equality and nondiscrimination means that in the name of religion and custom, women can be discriminated against,” Anwar said.

In 1976, marriage laws were updated to promote equality in marriages for non-Muslims. Today, over 30 years later, Anwar said Muslim women still do not have equal rights to marry, divorce, inherit property or obtain the guardianship of their children, even though non-Muslim women do.

“The right to equality before the law, an equal protection of the law and a right to nondiscrimination on the basis of gender are constitutional guarantees for all Malaysians, all citizens to enjoy, be they Muslim or non-Muslim,” she said.

Even though Anwar said the traditional interpretation of Islam is patriarchal, she argued that the religion itself is not the problem behind the discrimination against women.

“The problem is not so much with the religion but with those in power —  those who control the teachings of the religion, who insist on making criminal what they believe to be sinful, in order to command compliance with religious teachings or to use religion to maintain patriarchy,” she said.

Anwar now sits on the planning committee of Musawah, a women’s rights organization that advocates for equality in the family. Through this organization, she helps define more progressive interpretations of the Quran. For example, polygamy is allowed according to the Quran, but it also states that if a man cannot be just to women, he should marry only one woman. Anwar said in her progressive rendering, this implies monogamy is the preferred state over polygamy.

The key objective of Musawah, however, is to create a public voice for women’s rights in Islam.

“As women, we are often told, ‘Why do you want to embarrass the government? Why do you want to be so confrontational? Why don’t you whisper and tiptoe in the right ears and say the right thing to the right people?’” she said. “Women’s groups have been doing that for 30, 40 years, and it has not worked. We found in our experience that it’s only when there’s public outrage, [when] there’s media coverage [and when] our issues are put on the front page of the newspapers…that’s the only time that the government responded.”

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