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The New York Times
Within Islam's Embrace, a Voice for Malaysia's Women
By JANE PERLEZ
Published: February 19, 2006
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb. 12 — Sometimes it seems that Zainah Anwar — articulate, a little brassy, a presence wherever she goes — single-handedly keeps the flame for women's rights alive in Malaysia, a country that portrays itself as the model of a progressive Muslim society.
Tara Sosrowardoyo for The New York Times
Zainah Anwar, a founder of Sisters in Islam, a women's advocacy group.
Islamic authorities in Malaysia recently ordered that a well-known Malaysian Hindu be buried as a Muslim, against the wishes of his wife.
With the acid touch that has made her an accomplished campaigner, Ms. Zainah calls the officials in the government religious departments "those Taliban-minded bureaucrats." Then skittering back from the precipice of real trouble, she notes that nearly 50 percent of Malaysian women work, some in top jobs, including the governor of the Central Bank.
Ms. Zainah, one of her nation's best known figures, is a founder of Sisters in Islam, sassily known as SIS, which has for nearly 20 years lobbied for justice for women, always within the framework of Islam and the words of the Koran.
In doing so, her group confronts the conundrum that is Malaysia: a relatively prosperous, politically stable nation of 24 million yet one where powerful Islamic Affairs Departments in the 13 states and a federal jurisdiction that includes the capital, Kuala Lumpur, run Shariah courts that administer Islamic affairs, including matters of marriage, divorce and death.
"I want an Islam that upholds the principles of justice, equality, freedom and dignity," she said. "There is nothing contradictory between wanting these principles to guide and govern your life and being a good Muslim."
In her latest victory, Ms. Zainah forced the government to step back from amendments to the family law that made it easier for men to practice polygamy and to divorce.
Her group fought the amendments not only because they represented a backward step, but also because the governing party of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi insisted that the women in the Senate who personally opposed the new amendments vote in their favor.
"Senators were told to vote against their conscience," said Ms. Zainah, 51, who attended graduate school in the United States. "Can you imagine, in the debate, one minister apologized to her daughter for having to vote with the party whips. She was in tears."
The Parliament passed the amendments just before the end of the year, and Ms. Zainah began a strong opposition campaign that was covered in the news media. In mid-January, the government announced that the cabinet would review the measures. Ms. Zainah 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" with Islamic clerics and scholars.
As satisfying as the win might be, it illustrated the extent of the opposition Ms. Zainah and her supporters still face.
The politics of Islam in Malaysia are defined by the hand of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who governed 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 downturn of the late 1990's.
In order to keep at bay the leading Islamic party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, Mr. Mahathir poured resources into the religious bureaucracy, giving it powers in the states and at the federal level on all matters to do with Islam. Malaysia is an Islamic state, unlike neighboring Indonesia, which rejected Islam as part of its Constitution at independence from the Dutch.
When Mr. Abdullah took over as Mr. Mahathir's successor in 2004, he was seen as a reformer who would soften the increasingly rigid Islam of the religious courts. But so far, Mr. Abdullah has taken few steps to curb the powers of the religious leaders.
Instead, the government closed a provincial newspaper, The Sarawak Tribune, on Feb. 9 after it published the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and made it an offense to own or copy the cartoons.
But Ms. Zainah said she believed that Mr. Abdullah would be forced to moderate the policies of the religious leaders to save Malaysia's reputation. She also said the prime minister, who is chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is genuinely progressive.
In an embarrassing incident last month, Islamic religious authorities insisted on giving a Malaysian celebrity an Islamic burial, even though his family testified that he remained a Hindu until his death. The man, known simply as Moorthy, was the first Malaysian to scale Mount Everest. After Muslim authorities took away his body for burial, his wife appealed to a civil court. Her plea was refused.
But soon after, the prime minister announced that the attorney general would consult with a cross section of society to establish a new policy on the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam.
"A model progressive Muslim country," Ms. Zainah observed, "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."
As Ms. Zainah, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, goes into battle, she holds some formidable cards. Chief among them are candor, not caring what others think and a refusal to be intimidated. She has not married, and said, "I don't want to be a slave to a man."
Another advantage: Ms. Zainah 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 current prime minister. "He gets an earful from her," Ms. Zainah said, referring to Mr. Abdullah and his daughter.
At the end of a conference here on Islam and the West organized by New York University and the Malaysian government, the former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, asked to see Ms. Zainah and her colleagues.
What did she think of Mr. Khatami? "He failed to deliver," she said after their encounter. "When you govern in the name of Islam and fail to deliver on the aspirations of the people, Islam is seen to have failed. You bring disrepute to the religion. They found out Islam does not, after all, have the answers."