Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Muslim women's rights in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore.

This article was originally published in Dutch in "Moslemvrouwenrechten" (Muslim Women's Rights) Al-Nisa, Islamitisch maandblad voor vrouwen (Islamic monthly for women), 31st year, Volume 2, Mar 2012.


The Muslim woman with kohl-lined eyes who peers out from a slit of dark chador, or who wears a colourful silk scarf and sunglasses, laughing while driving with her friends. The Muslim woman who is a silent blue burqa, or who runs a 100-metre dash fully-clothed. The Muslim woman who suffers in her abusive marriage with no recourse to divorce, or who sits next to her husband during a wedding and writes in her own terms in the marriage contract. The Muslim woman who always stays at home, or who demonstrating on the streets for dignity and free elections.

By divine decree, Muslim women have rights. The Qur’an supports the universal values of equality, justice and a life of dignity for women by giving Muslim women in general the right to education (6:151), inheritance to property (4:7, 4:11-12, 4:176) and to not be harassed in society (33:59). Wives in particular have the right to bridal gifts (4:4) and keeping them in case of divorce (4:20), maintenance from their male relatives (4:34), and conciliation and amicable resolution if ill-treated by their husbands (4:128).

In contexts where they appear to not have any rights, it is the lack of awareness and willingness to realise them that is to blame. If Muslim women and men were aware of the rights they Muslim women have by divine law, and if these rights were practised in the spirit of equality, justice and dignity, many restrictions faced by Muslim women today would be reduced.

Muslim women, in many geographical contexts, suffer under patriarchal social systems. Their subjugation has been falsely justified by customs, traditional practices, and religious texts. However, these vary from country to country. Mainstream media tends to show the same few stereotypes of Muslim woman, which has been filtered to audiences over decades. These stories repeat themselves in mainstream media: women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, illiterate and impoverished women in Pakistan who are jailed after being accused of zina, or unlawful sexual intercourse,[1] or young women killed for the sake of their families’ namus, or honour, amongst Turks in the Netherlands.[2]
All the Muslim women and all the Muslim men
Chandra Mohanty warns us of the portrayal of Third World women as a ‘monolithic’ and ‘oppressed’ group in need of salvation.[3] Mohanty also reminds us that not all women, especially Muslim women, are oppressed in the same way. Similarly, when talking about the rights of Muslim women, not all Muslim women enjoy the same freedoms and face the same restrictions.

For a fuller understanding of the different contexts that Muslim women live in, we need to look at the socio-cultural, economic, and political situations of Muslim women in countries that codify shari’a law. Southeast Asia has typically received less coverage than the Middle East with respect to issues of Islam and Muslim women. It is worth looking at countries such as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia because of the large Muslim population, the varying contexts, and the varying use of religious laws in tandem with secular laws.
As a measure of freedom and restrictions, I will look at four aspects of personal life – dress, education/work, marriage, and divorce. The first two aspects belong to the socio-cultural and economic spheres and are usually enforced by a series of social norms, while the last two aspects belong to the economic and politico-legal spheres.

Who can talk about Muslim women without mentioning hijab? In Singapore, the secular state respects one’s freedom to practise any religion. Although female students of government schools must wear a uniform that consists of a blouse and knee-length skirt of various school colours, female students that go to Islamic schools must wear a uniform that consists of a Malay traditional dress (baju kurung) and a waist-length hijab. In any case, uniform requirements last only up to the age of 18, so young Muslim women who pursue tertiary education in polytechnics or university are allowed to dress in any way they please.

Institutions can also enforce an ‘Islamic’ dress. For example, government offices in Malaysia require Muslim women to wear a headscarf and a baju kurung, and recently in the district of West Aceh in Indonesia issued a new regulation that forbids Muslim women in particular from wearing ‘tight clothing’.[4]

Students from a full-time Islamic primary school in Singapore.

In this case, social customs can play a large role in determining the way Muslim women dress in Singapore, Malaysia or Indonesia. Whether in school or at work, the Muslim community (the majority of which is made of up a single ethnic group in the case of Singapore or Malaysia) enacts socio-psychological supervision. Students who actively participate in clubs where there are mostly Muslims may feel pressured to wear hijab in order to fit in, display more authority when speaking on Islamic issues, or assure others of their propriety and morality. When visiting a small, conservative town in Padang, Indonesia, I remarked that a handful of observant young women who did not wear a headscarf, but had many hijabi friends, eventually did so within the next year or so.

Education and work
Fortunately, Muslim women in all three countries enjoy a high level of education today, despite traditional customs that restricted the duration and type of education that Muslim women could or should receive, in the past. For example, in the early 1900s, it was common for Singaporean Muslim families to send their daughters to Islamic schools while their sons were encouraged to receive a secular education. This was related to the belief of men as breadwinners and of women as caregivers of children and household managers; men participate in the (secular) public sphere to earn money while women participate in the (religious) private sphere as nurturers and teachers of children.

In Southeast Asia, women have historically worked alongside men for centuries as traders. Even after the spread of Islam to the region in the 16th century onwards, this pattern has not changed. Today you find Muslim women in almost every aspect of economic and political life, including the military. Doubtless, the presence of Muslim women in almost every occupation may be related to per capita wealth and the need for two breadwinners to cope against rising costs of living, but having one’s own source of income can increase women’s bargaining power in a household.[5]

Butcher in Ponorogo, Indonesia
Even though the majority of Muslims in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia follow the Shafi’i school of thought and consequently codify their laws formulated according to this fiqh, or jurisprudence, the process and requirements of marriage differ for Muslim women in these three countries. Each country has two systems of law: a civil one that applies to every citizen, and a set of shari’a laws that apply to only Muslims with respect to marriage, divorce and inheritance. Since an extensive review of the double legal systems of all three countries is an article in itself, I will only look at the right for Muslim women to marry and to divorce.

The legal age for marriage in each country varies, requiring additional special or parental consent. There are also different federal laws across provinces and states in Indonesia and Malaysia respectively. Nevertheless, a common phenomenon across all three countries is that the legal age of marriage of Muslim girls is lower than the requirement for non-Muslims; sometimes the onset of puberty is considered old enough. The requirement for a male guardian for a bride also plays a role in underage marriages, since the consent of the (virgin) bride is not expressly sought. 

Despite arguments that brides are protected under Singapore’s shari’a lalw, I know of a friend whose sister was forcibly married to a man at the age of 19 by her father. Also, polygamous marriages are allowed for Muslims in all three countries – a comprehensive Malaysia-wide study of polygamy[6] estimates as little as 2.5 percent and as much as 5.7 percent of all marriages per annum could be polygamous.[7] In Singapore and Indonesia though, a Muslim woman may prepare a pre-nuptial contract that allows divorce in cases of polygamy. I know of some Muslim men in their fifties and sixties who marry a second or third wife, sometimes in secret and done overseas, and some resulting in the divorce of the first wife.

Interestingly, albeit ironically, one way for Muslim women in Singapore to gain access to the more egalitarian civil marriage and divorce laws available in their country is to declare themselves non-Muslim and register their marriage in a civil court – but this carries heavy social consequences. Muslim women in Malaysia are in a more complicated situation because their constitution conflates ethnicity (Malay) with religion (Islam), legally rendering all Malays as Muslims and vice-versa.

Like marriage laws, divorce laws also vary in these countries, with shari’a courts existing in parallel with secular courts. Unfortunately, the former provide less rights to Muslim women with regards to divorce, division of matrimonial property, alimony and custody of children. For example, in Singapore, a Muslim husband may divorce his wife in a variety of ways, with him having the exclusive right to talaq (divorce by repudiation). 

Both parties may seek a court-approved divorce by ta’liq, or the breach of the pre-nuptial contract.[8] The wife can only seek two kinds of court-approved divorce: fasakh (annulation) based on the husband’s failure to provide financial, psychological, sexual, or physical maintenance, or khulu’ (divorce by redemption) based on complaints of either party finding difficulty in being obedient to God, or the wife to the husband.[9] In this last type of divorce, a wife even has to pay the husband a sum of money.

Under Malaysia’s civil law, a husband who ‘neglects or refuses to maintain’ his wife and  not provide maintenance can be brought to court and be forced to do so. However, under shari’a law, a husband may even seek matrimonial property from a wife he is divorcing, a clear violation of her Islamic right to keep matrimonial property.[10] Again, while Malaysia has provided model statutes of the Islamic Family Law which ‘provides for greater protection of women’s rights’, different states make their own trimming amendments. In practice, crossing state boundaries makes it possible to evade court judgments and maintenance payments.[11]

De jure and de facto
The introduction highlights some of the God-given rights that Muslim women enjoy. In practice however, with the existence of double legal systems and social norms, reality paints a different picture for Muslim women. The diversity of shari’a laws in states and provinces result in a muddled image of ‘Islamic law’ and great difficulty in enforcing the politico-legal sphere.

In the socio-cultural and economic spheres, social norms and traditional customs may interact with institutions to create interesting outcomes – the personal is also political. By educating both Muslim women and men on the rights that are due to Muslim women, Muslims can work together as an ummah towards establishing social justice in our communities.

[1],Definitions of zina can include adultery, premarital sex, and in the case of Pakistan, rape. While the Qur’an places the burden of proof on the accuser (24:4-5), the Pakistani Zina Ordinance requires a rapist’s confession or the female victim to produce ‘four pious male witnesses’ instead. For further information see Shahnaz Khan (2006), ‘Zina,Transnational Feminism and the Moral Regulation of Women’, Vancouver: UBC Press and Marie-Aimée Hélie-Lucas and Harsh Kapoor (Eds.) Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) Dossier 18.
[2] Clementine van Eck (2003) ‘Purified by Blood: Honour Killings amongst Turks in the Netherlands’, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
[3] Chandra Mohanty (1988) ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, Feminist Review, no. 30.
[5] Bina Agarwal (1997) ‘Bargaining''and Gender Relations: Within and Beyond the Household’ Feminist Economics, 3(1):1-51.
[6] Ding Jo-Ann (21 July 2010) ‘TheImpact of Polygamy in Malaysia’, The Nut Graph.
[7] Norani Othman (16 July 2010) ‘Response to Comments in Article on Polygamy’, The Malaysian Insider.
[8] This includes a wife’s breach of a husband’s verbal contract, according to Syariah Court Singapore, ‘Types of Divorce’.
[9] Ibid.
[11] Aminah Ahmad (1998) CountryBriefing Paper: Women in Malaysia, Asian Development Bank.


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