Stop defaming women human rights defenders

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The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) condemns the statements made against Sisters in Islam (SIS) by Pas MP Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff in relation to SIS’ receipt of financial support from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

It would be appropriate for Siti Zailah, as a member of the parliamentary Select Committee on Rights and Gender Equality, to educate herself on the long history of SIS’ work fighting to uphold the human rights of women and address the root causes of gender inequality in our society since 1987.

It is also timely for Siti Zailah to speak with the thousands of Muslim women on the ground in Malaysia, whose rights to gender equality and non-discrimination SIS has stridently fought for, and whose suffering in the face of dire socio-economic situations, religious bias, and stereotyped attitudes towards women SIS has alleviated.

Siti’s assertion that the government should take action against SIS and other organisations that “abuse the name of Islam” is highly irresponsible in dismissing the freedom of individuals and organisations in Malaysia to express their religious beliefs in diverse ways and in dismissing the substantial contributions of SIS to helping Muslim women.

Over the last 32 years, SIS has worked to achieve gender equality through a more just interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence – that is, an egalitarian vision of women’s rights in conformity with the requirements of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

SIS has spoken out against the lack of access to justice faced by women and girls for a range of human rights violations, from the practice of polygamy, to domestic violence, to the superior rights of the man to terminate a marriage, to the unequal rights of the mother in issues of child custody and guardianship, to child marriage.

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JAG commends the handling of Siti’s comments by Parliament Speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof which curtailed a destructive and unscrupulous debate from ensuing.

JAG also commends the MPs—including Hannah Yeoh, Maria Chin Abdullah, Kasthuri Patto, Nur Azrina Surip and Charles Santiago (the latter three who are also members of the parliamentary Committee on Rights and Gender Equality)—who have spoken out consistently in support of women’s human rights.

JAG also commends the Ministry of Women for its support of SIS. The ministry chose to support SIS’s work to gather data and statistics on Muslim women—data which has been sorely lacking and is critical to assessing the status of human rights of Muslim women in the country—because it recognises the tremendous contributions of SIS in helping women in need, including through providing free legal services through its telephone hotline and legal aid clinic, which has served 8,400 women.

The work of SIS and other human rights organisations is critical to filling the void in available services for women surviving violence and discrimination in Malaysia. These organisations should be lauded and supported, not maligned, by government representatives—especially those claiming to have an interest in upholding women’s rights and ensuring gender equality.

JAG would like to urge Siti Zailah and all select committee members to engage with civil society to be a part of the solution for the rakyat. Let’s practise a mature democracy and, together, roll our sleeves up to address the lived realities of communities on the ground and abandon political posturing.

Endorsed by the following JAG member organisations:

  • Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
  • All Women’s Action Society (Awam)
  • Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
  • Foreign Spouses Support Group (FSSG)
  • Perak Women for Women (PWW)
  • Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)
  • Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (Sawo)
  • Sarawak Women for Women Society (SWWS)
  • Tenaganita
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