MALAYSIA: Divorce for men is easy under sharia-but women are fighting back
by Elleen Ng in Kuala Lumpur
Aida Melly Tan Abdullah was in marital wilderness for seven years because her abusive husband refused to give her a divorce-despite beating her and secretly taking a second wife.
She lost count of the number of times she was in and out of sharia court, unable to convince judges she was the aggrieved party, the victim.
"I was in a state of limbo . . . It was mentally torturous," recalls Aida, 39, mother of a l year-old daughter.
Aida's case is not unique. Although Malaysia has been hailed as one of the most progressive Muslim nations, women activists say the country has an outdated sharia system that discriminates against Muslim women in family and inheritance matters and violates their constitutional liberties.
Moreover, women say, the situation is growing worse as religious authorities become stricter and political parties increasingly compete for the votes of conservative Muslims.
"Muslim women here are only going backward," Marina Mahathir, an activist and daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, wrote in the Star newspaper.
Aida said even her lawyer, a woman, failed to fight for her rights advising her to return to her husband. In desperation, she studied Islamic laws to represent herself in court. After a high-profile legal battle that attracted nationwide attention, she finally walked out of sharia court a single woman in October 2002.
"Our sharia system needs to be reformed. Malaysia's Islamic family laws are not reflective of principles in the Koran that promise justice for women and children," Aida said.
Religion is part of public life in this Southeast Asian nation, where more than half of its 26 million population are Muslims governed by sharia laws in personal and matrimonial issues. Chinese, Indian and other minorities come under civil laws.
Under Islamic laws, Muslim men can take up to four wives. Men have the automatic right to divorce but women must prove their case before a judge if their husband objects.
An amendment to Islamic family law making it easier for Muslim men to divorce their wives yet take a greater share of the couple's property was put on hold and sent for review after widespread protests. Critics said the amendment promotes polygamy.
Activists say the bill in its present form goes against the vision of progressive Islam espoused by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Already, divorces among Muslims are high: 16,509 in 2004, more than five times the 3291 divorces that year among non-Muslims who make up around 40 per cent of the population.
Sisters in Islam, a women's group
leading the campaign for sharia reforms, said the rights of Muslim women had been gradually chiseled away through various amendments to the Islamic family law since the l990s.
"Malaysia once had the most progressive family law in the Muslim world. Now, countries like Morocco, Turkey and Tunisia are way ahead of us," said its director Zainah Anwar.
"The religious belief of subservience to men is still dominant."
Anwar blamed growing religious conservatism and exploitation of faith for political gains for the worsening legal status of Muslim women.
The latest family law amendment "seems to thumb a nose at the huge strides and contributions women have made in this society by telling them that 'Hey, no matter what you are, you are still under our control'," she said.
The Sisters in Islam group said its legal clinic for Muslim women deals with an average of 700 sharia court cases each year, most of them divorce or child support disputes.
Cases are often lengthy because there is no one single set of laws, experts say. Religious matters come under state jurisdiction, leading to different interpretation and enforcement of sharia in the country.
As such, errant men can circumvent the law because the ruling of sharia court in one state is not applicable in another. For instance, a divorced man can avoid paying child support by moving to another state.
Two states have archaic laws that give Muslim fathers the right to marry off a daughter without her consent.
Malaysia is also one of few Islamic countries which allows Muslim men to make divorce pronouncements outside of a court situation.
A Muslim man can annul a marriage by uttering "I divorce you" three times to his wife.
In Malaysia, men can do so by sending mobile phone text messages, although the divorce needs to be confirmed by the court.
One victim of such loopholes, a 46 year-old woman who would identify herself only as Zainib, wary of using her full identity for fear it would complicate her legal problems.
Despite being divorced for eight years, she says she is still seeking child support for her five children after her ex-husband remarried and moved from the central state of Selangor to eastern Terengganu.
"Why is it so easy for men to run away from their responsibilities while the women and children suffer?"
Last Updated: Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 08:49 GMT 09:49 UK
Malaysia permits text message divorce
The text message must be clear and unambiguous to qualify
Getting a quickie divorce has taken on a whole new meaning in Malaysia after it was decided that a man can divorce his wife with a text message.
The government's adviser on religious affairs, the man who counsels Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said as long as the message was clear and unambiguous it was valid under Islamic Sharia law. "SMS is just another form of writing," Dr Abdul Hamid Othman was quoted by the New Straits Times daily newspaper as saying. The decision follows a Malaysian court's ruling on Thursday in favour of a man who served divorce on his wife via a text message.
Sharia judge Mohamad Fauzi Ismail
declared that the divorce declaration was valid and that as such
the marriage between the plaintiff Azida Fazlina Abdul Latif and
defendant Shamsudin Latif was annulled, the Utusan Malaysia newspaper
Mr Shamsudin was said to have sent Ms Azida a text message saying: "If you do not leave your parents' house, you'll be divorced".Although such a notification of divorce may seem astonishingly brief to some, under Islamic law men are allowed to divorce their wives simply be saying the word 'talaq' - I divorce you - three times.
Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Malaysia considers Islam
By Jonathan Kent BBC News, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia's choice of astronaut will blast off with a Russian team in 2007 A two-day conference on Islam and life in space is under way in Malaysia, in a bid to answer questions faced by would-be Muslim astronauts.
Malaysia is due to send an astronaut into space with the Russians next year. The country's first spaceman is almost certain to be a Muslim, which raises a number of practical issues. For instance, Muslims wash before they pray but not only is water a precious commodity in space, but it is also impractical in weightlessness. Likewise, the faithful face Mecca. However, that will mean pin-pointing a moving location while in zero gravity. And Muslim prayer times are linked to those of the sunrise and sunset, but in orbit the sun appears to rise and set more than a dozen times a day.
Malaysia's science ministry has called together a group of experts to thrash out these and other questions.
It is being billed as the first-ever serious discussion of the issues. It is in keeping with the Malaysian government's mission to promote what it calls Islam Hadhari, or civilisational Islam, which encourages Muslims to embrace education, science and technology. It will doubtless be hoping that a conference of Muslim scientists and scholars debating such cutting edge issues will not go unnoticed in the rest of the Islamic world.