More About Aida's Story
Aida Melly Tan Mutalib was once a shy housewife. Today, while holding down a
full time job as publications officer at an Islamic think tank in Kuala Lumpur,
she is also at the forefront of a movement challenging the patriarchal
interpretation of Islamic law within the Malaysian Sharia court system.
Aida has been trying to get a divorce since 1996, when she learned that her
husband of seven and a half years had married another woman without her
knowledge. (Men are allowed to marry up to four women under Sharia law in
Malaysia.) When she confronted him about the secret marriage, he became
abusive, eventually punching her, she says, when she asked for money for the
nursery for their child.
Aida hired a lawyer and took her case to one of Kuala Lumpur's Sharia Courts.
Under Sharia law here, men have the automatic right to divorce, but women must
prove their case before a judge. Her husband has refused to divorce her, even
though he has two children with his second wife.
After her lawyer failed to obtain her a divorce, Aida, with the help of her
friend Zainah Anwar, began reading up on Islamic family law and decided to
represent herself. She believed that her lawyer had not given her the best
advice, and that there were legal arguments in her favor that had not been
made. After a six month battle, the court upheld her claims against her husband
and granted her a divorce. Her husband appealed the decision, and Aida is still
fighting the appeal.
Despite her legal struggles, Aida has not lost her faith in Islam. She still
believes it is a just and fair religion and blames her predicament on a
misinterpretation of Islamic law in Malaysian courts. Now in her early
30s, Aida is raising her 9-year old daughter as a single mother.
More about Zainah Anwar
Zainah Anwar is a feminist Muslim activist in her mid-40s. Born in the
state of Johur, she currently resides in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, she lived in
the United States for five years, earning Master's degrees in journalism and
international affairs at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Zainah cannot accept the idea of a God who is unjust to half the
human race "simply because they are women."
In the late 1980s, Zainah helped establish Sisters in Islam, a feminist research
and advocacy group that seeks to challenge the hold that conservatives and
traditionalists have on interpretations of Islam in Malaysia. She is now the
group's executive director. Through letters to newspapers and memorandums to
government officials, the controversial organization aims to challenge
traditional understandings of Islam.
Armed with Quranic texts that emphasize equality, justice and compassion,
Sisters in Islam also assists women like Aida in their individual
struggles against the oppressive courts in Malaysia. They advocate new
interpretations of the Quran which are more supportive of women's rights. For
example, Zainah argues that a Quranic verse commonly cited to justify polygamy
has an important caveat that is often ignored. The verse says that a man may
marry up to four women, but if he feels that he cannot be fair to all his
wives, he should marry only one. Zainah objects to the application of this
verse in the courts: "The question that we raise, is how come one part of the
verse that says marry up to four is universally known, has been codified into
law, and is practiced in much of the Muslim world, while the other part of the
verse, that says 'if you feel you cannot do justice marry only one' is
forgotten, ... pushed aside, and most Muslims do not know that part of the
In 1999, shortly after being interviewed for this "Muslims" program, Zainah was
appointed to the Malaysian government's Human Rights Commission.
More on Islam in Malaysia
Since it attained independence from Britain in 1957, Malaysia has been run by a
coalition government dominated by the United Malays National Organization
(UNMO), a secular party. However, the 1990s saw growing support for the chief
opposition party, the conservative Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), or
Islamic Party. The Islamic Party currently controls 15 percent of the
national vote, and is calling for implementation of full Sharia law in the
country, which would amount to Malaysia becoming a full Islamic state.
The sitting UNMO government has responded to the popularity of the conservative
Islamic Party by becoming more Islamic themselves. They have introduced
interest-free Islamic banking, created a new Islamic university, and given
Sharia courts greater autonomy. While criminal cases are tried in secular
courts, family law is administered by Islamic judges.
LINKS AND READINGS
· Interview: Chandra Muffazar
Malaysian academic and social activist Chandra Muffazar talks about the role of Islam
in Malaysia, and the tension between progressive and reactionary political
movements within Islam all over the world.
· Modern, and Moderate, Islam
An excerpted article by Zainah Anwar first published in Asia Week on the
movement for Islamic reform in Malaysia.
· Malaysia and Terrorism
In this essay, social activist Chandra Muffazar claims that despite recent
reports in the Western press implying that some of the Muslim terrorists
involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001 may have had links to Malaysia,
"Malaysia has impeccable credentials in the fight against terrorism."
· Human Rights Watch: Post-Election Repression in Malaysia
This section of the Human Rights Watch Web site chronicles what the
organization views as repressive tactics of the secular Malaysian government
aimed at suppressing the rising popularity of the fundamentalist Islamic party,
· Trouble in Purdah
This 1996 article from Time International tracks the growth of feminist resistance
to the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Malaysia and profiles Zainah Anwar's
group, Sisters in Islam.
· CIA -- The World Fact Book -- Malaysia
Maps and statistics on political parties, elections, and more.
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