That's One Small Step for Malaysia, One Giant Leap for South Asia

The Times of India reports that Muslim women's rights groups claimed a large victory in South Asia yesterday.

Where:

Malaysia

What's happening?

On Thursday, Premier Najib Razak appointed the first two women to the country's Islamic Court: Suraya Ramli will serve in Putrajaya, and Rafidah Abdul Razak in Kuala Lumpur. Razak said he made the appointments to give women a voice in family and women's rights cases. Before last week, Malaysian women often complained about the injustice of Court decisions involving divorce proceedings, inheritance and child custody cases. "Now we must maintain the momentum of such progress," Women, Family and Community Development Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil told The Times of India.

While many Islamic countries  seem happy to appoint women to ordinary civil and criminal courts, female Sharia judges--the interpreters and implementers of religious law-- are rare. In Syria, women comprise 14 percent of the judiciary in non-religious courts, but have no voice in Sharia or Islamic court proceedings. Indonesia, too, has female judges, but none who can interpret Sharia. And in March, Egypt overturned a ban on female judges in its civil and criminal courts, but it didn't apply to the Islamic chambers.

India and the U.K. have less formal Sharia judicial review organizations where women serve; however, Palestine and Sudan are the only other places, besides Malaysia, where females can serve as judges in a more concrete, traditional capacity. Just last year, Khuloud Faqih and Asmahan Wuheidi became the first female Islamic judges in Palestine, and in the Middle East.

Still, the Malaysian decision is controversial because some claim it violates Sharia law. Clerics like Yehia Ragheb, the president of the Cairo Judges' Club, maintain that women shouldn't serve in the courts because they are forbidden to spend time alone with men under Islamic law.

What's next?

According to John Voll, a professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University, the Malaysian appointments are poised to have a broader impact than the case of Palestine in 2009: The Palestinian appointments were overshadowed by the regional conflict with Israel. After only a few days, the Malaysian appointments have received greater media attention and coverage from surrounding communities. "The South Asian Islamic Community, [in contrast to] the Arab, is much more open to the possibility of this kind of development," Voll said. "The impact of this will be greater regionally from Indonesia to South Asia and the Philippines than the Palestinian [appointment] is [in the Arab world]."  So while Palestine may not be in a position to set an example for other Arab countries, Malaysia could be a leader for Islamic countries in South Asia.

Another reason the Malaysian decision is significant: the Malaysian political environment is more conducive to female participation.  The Malaysian political context "is more polite than the Arab," Voll says. "In Egypt, a female judge's voice would get drowned out by all of the male judges." Female judges in Malaysia, then, are more likely to be heard in the Islamic court, and around the world.

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Elizabeth Weingarten is an editorial assistant at the New America Foundation. A former Slate editorial assistant, she also previously wrote for and produced the Atlantic's International Channel.

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