Malaysian women face critical challenges to equality

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Sisters In Islam (SIS) launched their comprehensive survey on The Public & Personal Rights of Muslim Women in Malaysia on 15 October at the “Islam Unsurrendered: Women Rising Against Extremism” conference.

Six hundred and seventy-five Muslim women aged 18-55 from around the country provided qualitative feedback for the survey, on the depth and breadth of the alarming impact of patriarchal inequality on Muslim women’s public and private lives.

Wan Nuradiah Wan Mohd Rani, public affairs service line head with research partner IPSOS, highlighted key findings in relation to women and equality including the pressure to conform to a projected image of a Muslim woman in Malaysia, sources of religious knowledge, obedience as central to Muslim females’ duty, views on polygamy, challenges to working women and tolerance amongst religions and races.

Focusing on women’s multiple roles as individuals, daughters, wives and working women proved critical in uncovering the gulf between Muslim women’s expectations and lived realities.

Inequality was found to be starkest and most troubling in the family environment, with 83% stating husbands leave all household chores to wives, while 82% said some women or wives are physically or emotionally abused.

Of those surveyed, 78% also acknowledged wives are breadwinners, though 82% stated women’s emotions are never given attention. Lack of awareness and education around power dynamics resulted in women identifying the abusive behaviours of husbands as personal experience rather than the outcome of entrenched gender discrimination.

Shareena Sheriff, SIS advocacy, legal services and research manager, noted that “laws change norms for protection of women” and reaffirmed SIS’ commitment to push for reforms: granting mother’s right of guardianship over their children upon divorce, criminalising marital rape, legal reforms in polygamous marriages, child marriage and female genital mutilation to build a truly just Islamic society.

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With such grave issues to act upon, the petty nature of patriarchal norms was further underscored by 80% of women polled saying they faced challenges relating to social conformity and 56% experienced moral policing and public shaming.

Shareena further mentioned the need to educate daughters and also sons and men on the roles and equal rights in Islamic marriage as currently, discrimination is normalised.

Senior lecturer Sharifah Shakirah Syed Sheikh offered clear links between universal struggles of women against patriarchy, relating to SIS’ survey results. She shared her research findings on nusyuz, essentially being a concept that is applicable to both husbands and wives. Unlike 97% of women polled who believed married women alone must be obedient to their husbands.

She commended SIS’ tireless dedication to democratising the interpretation of Islam and aiding Muslim women in accessing their rights within the framework of a compassionate Islam.

Panel moderator and senior lecturer Rusaslina Idrus rounded up the lively participation from the floor by emphasising the need to continue educating and spreading awareness to overcome the considerable challenges to equality for Muslim women in Malaysia.

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