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Letter from Malaysia: Malaysia's big sister shakes up Islam rule

By Jane Perlez, IHT (From International Herald Tribune of February 16, 2006)

KUALA LUMPUR Sometimes it seems that Zainah Anwar - articulate, a little brassy, a presence wherever she goes - singlehandedly keeps the flame for women's rights alive in Malaysia, a country that sells itself as the model of a progressive Muslim society.
With the acid touch that has made her an accomplished campaigner, Anwar calls the officials in the government religious departments "those Taliban-minded bureaucrats." Then, skittering back from the precipice, she notes that nearly 50 percent of Malaysian women work, some in top jobs, including the governor of the Central Bank.
Anwar, Malaysian- and American-educated and one of her nation's best known figures, is the founder of Sisters in Islam - sassily known as SIS - a feminist group that lobbies for justice for women, always within the framework of Islam and the words of the Koran.
In doing so, she confronts the conundrum that is Malaysia, a relatively prosperous, politically stable nation of 24 million, yet where powerful Islamic Affairs Departments in the 13 states administer Shariah courts that control matters of marriage, divorce and death.
In her latest victory, Anwar forced the government to step back from new amendments to the family law that would have allowed easier polygamy and divorce for men.
Anwar was outraged by the amendments, not only for the backward step they represented, but also because the governing party of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi insisted that women senators who personally opposed the new amendments vote in favor of them.
"Senators were told to vote against their conscience," Anwar said. "Can you imagine, in the debate, one minister apologized to her daughter for having to vote with the party whips. She was in tears."
In mid-January, several weeks after Parliament passed the amendments and after Anwar led a media campaign, the government announced that the cabinet would review the measures. Anwar, and members of other women's groups and the bar association, were invited to join a broad commission to find a compromise.
"The cabinet ordered the attorney general - and not the religious department - to find solutions," she said triumphantly. "They recognized that the religious department and its obscurantist apparatchiks are the source of the problem." It was the first time, she said, that the forces of progress were sitting in the same room "on equal terms" as the ulama, or collective of religious scholars.
As satisfying as the victory might be, it illustrated the struggle Anwar and her supporters face nearly 20 years after they formed Sisters in Islam.
The politics of Islam in Malaysia were defined by the former prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, who ruled for 22 years before stepping aside in 2004. He left a country that, in contrast to many others in Southeast Asia, gives the impression of actually working - big roads, new factories - and that recovered smartly from the regional economic debacle of the late 1990s.
In order to keep the leading Islamic party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, at bay, Mahathir poured resources into the religious bureaucracy, giving it powers in the states and at the federal level on all matters to do with personal law. Malaysia, unlike neighboring Indonesia - which at independence from the Dutch, rejected Islam as part of its Constitution - is an Islamic state.
When Abdullah succeeded Mahathir in 2004, he was seen as a reformer who would soften the increasingly rigid Islam of the religious courts. So far, Abdullah - who is currently chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference - has taken few steps on his own to curb the powers of the religious leaders.
In a sign of deference, the government immediately closed a provincial newspaper, the Sarawak Tribune, after it published the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad last week, and made it an offense to own or copy the cartoons.
But Anwar said she believed Abdullah was being forced to moderate the policies of the religious leaders to save Malaysia's reputation.
In an embarrassing incident last month, the Islamic religious authorities insisted on giving a Malaysian celebrity, known simply as Moorthy, the first Malaysian to scale Mount Everest, an Islamic burial, even though his Hindu family testified that the climber remained a Hindu until his death. His wife appealed to a civil court to reverse the decision of the Muslim authorities who took the man's body for burial. But the court refused her plea.
Soon afterward, the prime minister defused the situation by saying the attorney general would consult with a cross-section of society to establish a new policy on family law.
"A model progressive Muslim country cannot show the world that it makes laws that discriminate against women and that allows its religious authorities to snatch away the body of a dead man from his grieving Hindu family," Anwar said.
As Anwar, 51, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, goes into battle, she holds some formidable cards. Chief among them are candor and an attitude that she doesn't care what others think. She has not married, saying to people: "I don't want to be a slave to man."
Another trump card: Anwar is close to two progressive women with powerful connections, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of the former prime minister, and Nori Abdullah, the daughter of the leader. "He gets an earful from her," Anwar said of Nori Abdullah and her father.
At the end of a conference in Kuala Lumpur on Islam and the West held by New York University and the Malaysian government last week, the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, asked to see Anwar and her colleagues.
What did she think of Khatami? "He failed to deliver," she said. "When you govern in the name of Islam and fail to deliver on the aspirations of the people, Islam has failed. You bring disrepute to the religion. They found out Islam does not have the answers."

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