Speaking Her Mind In Malaysia
Fletcher School graduate Zainah Anwar is a force to be reckoned with in her native Malaysia where she fights tirelessly for women’s rights within the context of Islam.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [02.27.06] In Malaysia, hers is a voice that is heard. Dubbed “articulate” and “a little brassy” by The New York Times, Zainah Anwar makes things happen in her native country, where the 1986 Fletcher graduate has fought to carve out a place for women’s personal freedoms within Islam.
“Sometimes it seems that [she] … 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,” the Times reported.
Malaysia has come a long way in some aspects, Anwar explained to the Times, pointing out that nearly half of all Malaysian women now work outside the home, with some holding powerful positions, such as the governor of the Central Bank. But, according to the newspaper, challenges for women remain because the country’s influential Islamic Affairs Departments run the courts that control matters pertaining to Islam, including marriage, divorce and death.
Anwar, the founder of Sisters In Islam, a group that advocates for a new interpretation of Islam that includes more modern ideas about women’s roles in Muslim society, has successfully lobbied for expanded rights for women within the framework of Islam for more than a decade, according to the Times. What is the secret to her success? The 51-year-old “holds some formidable cards,” according to the newspaper. “Chief among them are candor, not caring what others think and a refusal to be intimidated.”
All three traits have proven valuable as Anwar tenaciously pursues her vision.
“I want an Islam that upholds the principles of justice, equality, freedom and dignity,” she told the Times. “There is nothing contradictory between wanting these principles to guide and govern your life and being a good Muslim.”
In her latest success story, Anwar forced the government to rethink amendments to existing family law that had made it easier for men to divorce their wives or practice polygamy. The passage of the amendments, she explained to the Times, was more than just a step in the wrong direction; it was an exercise in political corruption.
"Senators were told to vote against their conscience," she told the newspaper. "Can you imagine, in the debate, one minister apologized to her daughter for having to vote with the party whips. She was in tears."
Anwar joined forces with other women’s groups to fight the amendments, which the government agreed to review last month.
"The cabinet ordered the attorney general — and not the religious department — to find solutions," she told the Times. "They recognized that the religious department and its obscurantist apparatchiks are the source of the problem."
This was an important victory for women living in Malaysia and a necessary one for a country trying to move forward.
"A model progressive Muslim country cannot show the world that it makes laws that discriminate against women,” Anwar told the Times.