Backing for open debate, discourse on Islamic law

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Earlier this week, a group of Malaysians wrote a letter urging “open debate and discourse on Islamic law”.

It was penned by 25 distinguished Malaysians - retired civil servants, judges, ambassadors, among others, including Noor Farida Ariffin, founding member and trustee of Women’s Aid Organisation. Their message was clear, and the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) fully supports it.

Amongst the many issues raised, the letter criticised Minister Jamil Khir Baharom for his “inflammatory statement” against actions he had unfairly called a “new wave of assault on Islam”. This includes the action taken by Sisters in Islam to seek legal redress against a fatwa issued against them.

JAG stands with Sisters in Islam in full support of their rights to seek legal redress, and their right to freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by the federal constitution. We further echo the call for moderation with regard to respecting the rights of the transgender community to seek legal redress against the discrimination they faced based by religious officials because of their gender identity.

The letter laments that “religious bodies seem to be asserting authority beyond their jurisdiction”. We’ve seen how such overreach can cause unnecessary pain and suffering to families, including non-converting spouses and their children, such as in the cases of M Indira Gandhi and S Deepa.

The letter’s message echoes Malaysia’s international obligations. When the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw Committee) reviewed Malaysia in 2006, it urged the Malaysian government to “undertake a process of law reform to remove inconsistencies between civil law and Syariah law, including by ensuring that any conflict of law with regard to women’s rights to equality and non-discrimination is resolved in full compliance with the constitution.”

The letter condemns “the use of the Sedition Act... as a constant threat to silence anyone with a contrary opinion.” As endorsing organisations of Gerakan Hapuskan Akta Hasutan (GHAH), we fully agree.

Perhaps most importantly, the letter asks the prime minister to take “personal leadership [to] champion open and coherent debate and discourse on the administration of Islamic laws in this country.” We hope the prime minister and other government leaders heed this urging, and stop appeasing extremist and supremacist voices.

We laud these 25 brave and civic-minded Malaysians for voicing their concern about the direction this country seems to be heading. And we urge all Malaysians who value democracy, the rule of law, and human rights to do the same.


The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) comprises:

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)

Women’s Centre for Change Penang (WCC)

All Women’s Action Society (Awam)

Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)

Perak Women for Women Society (PWW)

Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower)

Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)

Sabah Women’s Action Resource Group (Sawo)

Sisters in Islam (SIS)

Tenaganita

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