Rights of Muslim women suffer under Malaysia’s ambition to become Islamic state
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Rights of Muslim women suffer under Malaysia’s ambition to become Islamic state

A REVIEW of women’s rights in Malaysia at the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) determined that women’s and children’s rights have suffered under the country’s increasing Islamisation. Muslim women were also found to enjoy fewer rights than their non-Muslim counterparts under the country’s dual legal system.

The coalition of 37 civil societies and global movement Musawah also expressed concern at the government’s lack of commitment to tackling gender inequality. The review took place Monday in Geneva, Switzerland, at the committee’s 69th annual session.

Local women’s groups, including the Sisters of Islam, were at the UN gathering to shine a light on the lived realities of women’s lives in Malaysia.

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A statement released following the review urged the government to see gender mainstreaming as a national issue as opposed to being the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

It also noted that the increasing collaboration between State and non-State actors to push for Syariah-compliant policies has had an adverse effect on women and children who have “borne the brunt of these aspirations to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state.”

Within the plural legal system – both Civil and Syariah systems – the rights of non-Muslim women have advanced while two rounds of reform to the Islamic family law has led to increased discrimination against Muslim women.

“Muslim women now enjoy far less rights in marriage, divorce, guardianship of their children and inheritance than their non-Muslim counterparts,” the statement said.

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Other areas highlighted as “areas of gross discrimination” include divorce, polygamy and child marriage, for which the law has not yet been changed to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both boys and girls, regardless of religious background.

The coalition pointed the finger at Malaysia’s lack of comprehensive laws on sexual harassment and marital violence as the root of many challenges in regard to gender-based violence.

“Malaysia still does not recognise marital rape as a crime,” the statement said. “There is non-recognition of intimate partner violence, and there is no comprehensive law of sexual harassment in the country.”

The groups also accused the government of “State reprisals and intimidation” against human rights defenders. Citing the use of restrictive laws, such as the Film Censorship Act and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA), the coalition said the government was using these to carry out “arbitrary arrests, detention without trial…raids on office premises, declaration of fatwa, and surveillance and monitoring.”

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Addressing the experience of LGBTQ persons in the country, the statement said there was a “lack of political will” to investigate cases of violence and murder of trans-women and gender-diverse people. The anti-LGBTQ message pushed by the State, along with a refusal to recognise the community, is blamed as the root cause of increased marginalisation and mounting violence towards LGBTQ persons.

To tackle these issues of equality, the coalition of NGOs urged the government to enact a Gender Equality Act that is CEDAW compliant, stop funding anti-LGBTQ activities, and reform Islamic family laws.

The State must “reform Islamic Family Laws grounded on a framework that recognises marriage as a partnership of equals, and guarantees equality and justice for Muslim women.”