Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Tuesday, March 14, 2006
"As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women here are only going backwards," Marina Mahathir wrote in a newspaper column.
Mahathir, a women's rights and HIV/AIDS campaigner, was referring to new family laws that will make it easier for Muslim men in Malaysia to take multiple wives and claim property after divorce.
Under Islamic law (shari'a), Malaysian Muslim men already are allowed up to four wives. But the new legislation will give them more rights to claim assets after divorcing a wife, to seize property belonging to existing wives, and lessen their obligation to pay maintenance.
Organizations that came out against the proposals were attacked for promoting "western"-style gender equality, and parliament passed the legislation at the end of last year.
In multi-ethnic Malaysia, where Muslims comprise about 60 percent of the population, the proposed new laws will only apply to Muslims.
Mahathir wrote that, more than a decade after apartheid had ended in South Africa, an "insidious" form of discrimination was developing in Malaysia, between Muslim and non-Muslim women.
"Non-Muslim Malaysian women have benefited from more progressive laws over the years while the opposite has happened for Muslim women," she said.
The article was due for publication last Wednesday, International Women's Day, but The Star newspaper - for which she has long been a regular columnist - held it because of the controversial content.
Mahathir then published it on the Internet, with a note saying: "For the first time in some 17 years, The Star is refusing to publish my column ... they said that the powers-that-be there think it's too tough on the government and it's not the right platform etc."
The column eventually was published on Friday.
Mahathir's "apartheid" accusation stung in a country which as a leader in the developing world saw itself at the forefront of the international campaign against racial segregation in South Africa.
The Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF) accused her of doing "a great disservice to a country praised by many as a model Muslim nation."
"Her prejudiced views and assumptions smack of ignorance of the objectives and methodology of the shari'a, and a slavish capitulation to western feminism's notions of women's rights, gender equality and sexuality," two female founding members of the forum, Farah Pang Abdullah and Siti Jamilah Sheikh Abdullah, said in a response.
The MPF statement itself sparked further discussion on Internet websites.
"Nowhere in the Koran does it say that we must suspend our intellect or reason in matters religious," wrote one contributor to the debate. "On the contrary, we are told to exert ourselves fully (meaning use our brain) to fully understand our Holy Book."
Some of Mahathir's critics noted that in Malaysia, women play a relatively prominent role in the public and business sectors.
In an earlier column, Mahathir challenged that perception, saying that although 60 percent of undergraduates are female, only 23 percent of administrators and managers in the Malaysian workplace are women, and women are paid 47 percent of what men earn for the same job.
"Despite what looks like progress for women in our country, the participation of women in the workplace has not changed in 30 years."
Her column also drew attention further afield. An editorial in the Khaleej Times, a daily newspaper in the United Arab Emirates argued that any discrimination faced by women in Muslim countries has nothing to do with Islam but with "pre-Islamic customs and traditions."
"At a time when there are already enough misconceptions about Islam and Muslims, such an irresponsible remark by a Muslim woman can send a wrong message to the world," it said.
"It's unfortunate that a great faith that actually granted and recognized the just status of woman recognizing her rights and which transformed her status in Arabian society should be blamed for something that has nothing to do with it."
Some critics of Mahathir said it was ironic that she was speaking against discrimination when her father, veteran former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, oversaw racial policies aimed at benefiting Malays, the majority Muslim ethnic group.
The "bumiputra" policies were introduced in the early 1970s following race riots, and were designed to give the ethnic majority a greater share of the country's wealth, disproportionately controlled by ethnic Chinese.
The affirmative action policies include quotas for government jobs, admission to educational institutions and ownership in business. Stock exchange listing requirements also benefit Malays.
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