29 January 2003

Malaysiaís PAS to field women in election

KUALA LUMPUR, 29 January 2003 ó For the first time in decades Malaysiaís Islamic opposition will field women candidates at the next general election, party officials told Reuters yesterday.
Parti se-Malaysia (PAS) is set to pose the biggest challenge to the ruling United Malays National Organization at elections expected later this year or early in 2004.
The present UMNO leader, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who leaves office in October, actively courted the womenís vote.
PAS is belatedly playing catch-up.
"Itís better late than never," Dr. Mariah Mahmud, a PAS central committee member, told Reuters. Mariah said PAS, founded in 1951, had never made it official party policy to bar women from contesting elections but the party had had only a handful of female parliamentarians over the years.
In the 1970s and 1980s, party elders decided to keep women off the campaign trail. At PAS gatherings largely passive female supporters clad in the traditional tudung, or headscarf, sat apart from the men.
Now, party leaders had relented on the question of female candidates and it was just a question of who would stand and where, said Mariah, who at 45, with six children and shortly to be a grandmother, can expect to be one of the chosen candidates.
Muslims needed moral and spiritual development to go with the material advances Mahathirís industrialization policies had brought to traditional agrarian communities, she said.
Led by religious scholars who want to turn multicultural Malaysia into an Islamic state, PASís appeal is limited in a country where 44 percent of the 24 million people are non-Muslims, and many Malays prefer Mahathirís more progressive ideas on religion. Just over three years ago, PAS won two of Malaysiaís 14 states and 27 parliamentary seats, as the Malay vote split over the humiliation of Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathirís popular former deputy, who was sacked and subsequently jailed.
Since then PAS has lost some momentum, feeling the backlash from a militancy scare that flared after the Sept. 11 attacks. (R)