Our Own Apartheid
Personal note: To mark International Women’s Day, I have skipped this week’s serialization of my An Education System Worthy of Malaysia to post Marina Mahathir’s essay. This is an important commentary, and I thank her for permission to post it here. MBM
MBM’s note: Wednesday, March 8, 2006 is International Women’s Day. This UN-sponsored event is to mark and celebrate the achievements of women, in particular to monitor the progress towards gender equity. While much has been achieved, considerably more needs to be done.
Achieving equality for women is more than just a do-good gesture. A nation cannot hope to progress if it does not make maximal use of the talent of half of its population. The embarrassing backwardness of many Muslim nations is precisely this; they have chosen to ignore the potential of their women by denying them access to education and other opportunities.
Malaysia is fortunate not to be in this category. We count in our midst women ministers, bankers (including the central banker), professors, executives, and judges. While women have made it to and excel at the appellate levels in our judiciary, our Islamic establishment has still to be convinced that women could be appointed judges in the Sharia courts.
As demonstrated by the recent bumbling attempts at reforming the Islamic Family Law, the gains of women, especially Muslim women, are not guaranteed. They will continually be eroded unless vigilantly protected.
Marina Mahathir’s essay below reminds us that while apartheid may have been discredited in South Africa a long time ago, that mindset is still persistent within our midst.
M. Bakri Musa
Our Own Apartheid
In 1948, one of humankind’s most despicable ideas – apartheid – was made into law in South Africa, and with that racial discrimination was institutionalized in that country. Race laws touched every aspect of South Africa’s social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites, and the sanctioning of “white-only” jobs. Although there were 19 million blacks and only 4.5 million whites in South Africa, the majority of the population was forced to be second-class citizens in their homeland. They were banished to reserves and needed passports to travel outside them, even within their own country. It was only in 1990 that apartheid began to crumble and South Africans of all colors were finally free to live as equals in every way.
With the end of that racist system, people may be forgiven for thinking that apartheid does not exist anymore. While few countries practice any formal system of discrimination, nevertheless you can find many forms of discrimination everywhere. In many cases, it is women who are being discriminated against. In Malaysia, there is an insidious and growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, between Muslims and non-Muslims.
We are unique in that we actively and legally discriminate against women who are arguably the majority in this country: Muslim women. Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened to their Muslim sisters.
For instance, since the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act of 1976, polygamy among non-Muslims was banned. Previously, men could have as many wives as they wanted under the then customary laws. Men’s ability to unilaterally pronounce divorce on their wives was abolished and in its place, divorce could only happen by mutual consent or upon petition by either spouse in an equal process. The grounds for such petitions include intolerable adultery, unreasonable behavior, desertion of not less than two years, and separations for not less than two years. Compare that to the lot of Muslim women who are abandoned but not formally divorced by their husbands.
Other progressive reforms in the civil family law in the late 1990s were amendments to the Guardianship Act and the Distribution Act. The Guardianship of Infants Act of 1961 was amended to provide for equal guardianship of both father and mother, rather than the previous provision where only the father was the primary guardian of the children. In contrast, the Islamic Family Law still provides for the father as the sole primary guardian of his children, although the mother is now allowed to sign certain forms for her children under an administrative directive.
The Distribution Act of 1958 was also amended to provide for equal inheritance for widows and widowers. The amendment also granted children the right to inherit from their mothers as well as from their fathers. Under the newly proposed amendments to the Islamic Family Law, the use of gender-neutral language on the issue of matrimonial property is discriminatory to Muslim women, when other provisions in the IFL are not gender-neutral.
Muslim men may still contract polygamous marriages, unilaterally divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons, and be entitled to double shares of inheritance. And unique in the Muslim world, men may now initiate divorce via Short Text Messaging (SMS)!
The differences between the lot of Muslim and non-Muslim women beg the question: Do we have two categories of citizenship in Malaysia, whereby most female citizens have less rights than others? As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women in Malaysia are going backwards. We should also note that only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing. In every other Muslim country, women have been gaining rights, not losing them.
Malaysian leaders claim to stand for all citizens. Our Prime Minister boasts of being the Prime Minister of all Malaysians. Our Ministers work for all Malaysians in their respective portfolios. There are two exceptions to this. The Minister for Islamic Affairs is obviously only for Muslims; even though some of the things he does affect others. The Minister for Women purports to work for all Malaysian women, even though not all Malaysian women benefit from that work.
We should formally consolidate the apartheid of women in this country by having a Ministry for Non-Muslim Women which works to ensure that Non-Muslim women enjoy the benefits of the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. Malaysia signed this UN document and is thus legally bound to implement it. Meanwhile the Ministry for Muslim Women works to gag and bind Muslim women more and more each day for the sake of political expediency under the guise of religion.
Today, March 8, 2006, is International Women’s Day. Unfortunately only about 40 percent of the women in this country can celebrate. The rest can only look with envy and despair at their non-Muslim sisters.
With thanks to Nik Noriani.