By Zainah Anwar
THE gasps were audible. The cringing moments were painful. The visible displays of shock, disbelief and exasperation were worthy of Academy Awards.
Whether you looked to the front, back, left or right, it was clear that everyone, from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) Committee experts to the civil society activists and national human rights institution commissioners from different countries, was stunned by the Malaysian performance in Geneva.
And #CedawMalaysia was the second highest trending topic on Feb 20.
How could a high middle income country like Malaysia – once seen as a model of modernity, moderation and progress in the developing world – regress this far in upholding the rights of Muslim women? How could a country that sells itself to the world as a model of moderate Islam think it is fine to whip up the Quran in a treaty body session on advancing women’s rights and read a passage to justify discrimination against women?
“Are you a republic or a theocratic state?” boomed the expert from the Philippines, a seasoned diplomat who proclaimed her love and respect for the Malaysia she once knew. She had presided at the first Constructive Dialogue with Malaysia in 2006.
“It’s even worse now,” she said. “You are reporting regress, not progress!”
This is what happens to a country when it waits 12 years before summoning the will to submit its many overdue reports to comply with Cedaw.
There was one stark paragraph in a written response to the Cedaw Committee that explained it all. The Government frankly admitted that its mechanisms to advance women’s rights were “not working well due to the lack of commitment and level of comprehension in all government agencies pertaining to gender mainstreaming and all matters related to gender”.
Aha! The truth. If only they had kept to this truth for their failure to advance women’s rights, instead of justifying every discriminatory law, policy and harmful practice in the name of Islam. This outraged the many Muslim members of the Cedaw Committee, who knew their Islam and were well aware of the advancements made in many Muslim countries where reform of discriminatory family laws and practices have taken place.
This made the Malaysian delegation come across like the proverbial frog living under a coconut shell. So many of these patriarchs in authority have been disdainful of differences of opinion, ignorant of new scholarship on Islam and women’s rights, and wilfully turned their backs on the tools and concepts that exist in Muslim legal theory to justify the need for change given changing times and circumstances.
They have evaded productive engagement with women’s rights groups that have worked on the ground for decades to provide legal advisory services to Muslim women in distress and campaigned for law reform, justifying the possibility and necessity for equality and justice within the Islamic framework.
Thus, when grilled by an international group of experts, they did not have the knowledge to explain nor the political judgement to know when to stop. The official from the Attorney-General’s Chambers provided cringeworthy details on how female genital mutilation (FGM) is performed in Malaysia and how whipping is done the Islamic way.
We all held our heads in our hands in disbelief that this public policy person could think the harm caused to young girls and women is actually merciful when done the Islamic way. We all wanted him to shut up, but he was oblivious to the gasps and head shaking from everyone in the hall.
The expert from Egypt exclaimed that she is a Muslim from a Sunni country where the leading authority on Sunni Islam, the al-Azhar Fatwa Council, has decreed that FGM is forbidden in Islam. It is an African customary practice, not an Islamic practice, she said.
She pointed out that it is not even practised in Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim countries. The experts from Bangladesh and Lebanon concurred.
The questioning went on. Why were many of the Concluding Observations made by the Cedaw Committee in 2006 not implemented? Why was there a growing gap between the rights of Muslim women and non-Muslim women?
“This is a dangerous trend that leads to sectarian polarisation,” said the Lebanese expert, referring to the 15 years of civil war in her own country.
“How come a fatwa becomes law once it is gazetted? Fatwa is a guide, not a law. Malaysia was a model country in the 1990s. What happened? Why isn’t Malaysia moving forward with the times? Which law prevails? Civil or syariah? Why can’t you answer that? Will the Federal Court judgment on Indira Gandhi prevail? Will the case on the rights of a child born within six months of a marriage uphold the Indira Gandhi judgment?
“A dual legal system is not an excuse for regression. A dual legal system should exercise preference for what is positive, not discriminatory. Malaysia needs to build a tolerant and peaceful civic space where all can co-exist, instead of attacking those with different opinions and sexual orientations, referring to the fatwa against Sisters in Islam and persecution of LGBTQI persons. The problem is not syariah, but some people’s interpretations of it. You need to be fair to syariah.
“What is the timeline to introduce a Gender Equality Act? Why is the number of women in Parliament, on private sector boards and in senior positions so low? Why is gender disaggregated data hard to come by?
“You need a Freedom of Information Act to replace the Official Secrets Act. You indicate no commitment to progressive scholarship and law reform. I am not sure this is the way the state party should handle its obligations under international treaties. It took 12 years for you to report and you still have no answers. Even Saudi Arabia is changing.”
By the end of the rigorous five-hour process, the Cedaw committee urged Malaysia to summon the political commitment to make a difference and remedy the dismal situation by setting a timeframe with clear objectives and phases to move forward, dialogues with women’s rights groups and progressive scholarship that reconciles religion and rights.
In the end, what is missing is the political will to do what is good, right and just. There is nothing that can hold back the Government if it believes that all women in Malaysia should be treated as citizens with equal rights and as human beings of equal worth and dignity.
The disconnect between law and reality is getting increasingly untenable, even in Saudi Arabia. Many other Muslim countries have moved forward in their trajectory of law reform. Morocco’s family law is based on a legal framework that recognises marriage as a partnership of equals.
The challenge, as always, is how to muster the political will to translate the embarrassment in Geneva into sustained action for change at home. The secretary-general kept telling the Cedaw Committee that 2018 is the Year of Women’s Empowerment in Malaysia and that change would take place to advance the rights of women.
Let’s at least translate this promise given on the international stage into real accomplishments at home.
Zainah Anwar is a leading feminist activist and scholar in Malaysia, a founder of Sisters in Islam, and the current Director of Musawah. Through Musawah, she seeks to bring women’s voices and concerns into the production of religious knowledge and legal reform in Muslim countries.