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portraits of ordinary muslims: malaysia
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Aida Melly Tan MutalibZainah Anwar
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Inside an Islamic Court and the Struggle to Get a Divorce
Aida Melly Tan Mutalib has been trying for seven years to get a divorce from her abusive husband who already has married a second woman. (Islamic law in Malaysia allows Muslim men to marry up to four women.) Islamic law also grants men an automatic right to divorce; women like Aida must first prove their case before a judge if they want a divorce.

After a long struggle, Aida finally convinced the judge. But her husband appealed and the case goes on. In this clip, Aida describes her struggle, and the public's response.

Note: Video no longer available.

Zainah Anwar Has Made Malaysia Notice Cases like Aida's
Stories like Aida's led Zainah Anwar to challenge interpretations of Islamic law. She heads "Sisters in Islam," an advocacy group challenging traditional understandings of Islam. It makes them a controversial organization. In this clip, Zainah talks about the gender bias in Islamic law, and explains how it comes from an understanding of Islam that discriminates against women: "These verses have been interpreted by men, living in patriarchal societies who wish to maintain their superiority and control over women."

Note: Video no longer available.

More about Aida Melly Tan Mutalib
More about Zainah Anwar
Malaysian scholar Chandra Muzaffar talks about the changing role of Islam in his country.
More on Islam in Malaysia
Related links and readings

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 verse?"

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.


· 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, PAS.

· 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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