Executive Director of Sisters in Islam
Even though Rozana Isa ventured down the path of women’s rights advocacy 22 years ago, she humbly states that she isn’t a pioneer. “Since before Merdeka, women’s rights activists have been around when they struggled alongside men for independence from the British,” she enlightens, listing names who helped achieve milestones such as equal pay, permanent jobs and pensions for women. However, she also acknowledges that there is still much to strive for, for women to be recognised as equals in law and practice in Malaysia. It was the same mindset that led her to wanting “to be a part of something that would bring change, that would make a difference,” she says. Rozana proceeds to explain some of the challenges faced by the country’s Muslim women.
We are such a unique society with different races. Are there unique challenges faced by Muslim women not experienced by others?
Women in Malaysia face many challenges, that is the premise that we all should begin with regardless of our ethnicities, faith, the status of our education and economy. Domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, discrimination on the grounds of gender, for example, cut across our diverse backgrounds. When there is a violation or transgression on those grounds, there are laws, or there should be laws, that apply to us as equals, as Malaysian citizens. At the same time, there are also many women, men and children who do not have rights under Malaysian laws because they are not citizens. They include migrants and stateless people; some even married or are born to Malaysians.
However, we also have parallel legal systems in Malaysia. Personal laws for Muslims in marriage, divorce, custody, and maintenance, to mention a few, fall under the Islamic Family Law of each state in Malaysia, which are mostly similar with some differences from one to the other. In this area of rights in the family, Muslim women differ from women of other faiths. For example, Muslim women do not have the same right to guardianship of their children as non- Muslim women; they only have custodial rights that the court grants; guardianship rights remain with the Muslim father. Another example is in inheritance, where non-Muslim women can receive an equal inheritance as their male siblings. Muslim women receive less inheritance than their male siblings as they have the duty and responsibility to care for their sisters. However, in today’s context, this form of inheritance needs to be reviewed because our lived realities have changed. Women are more than capable of managing their own lives, including financial responsibilities and obligations. In other words, Muslim women face the challenge of being recognised as equals with Muslim men and Malaysian women of other faiths.
Religion is a complex and sensitive topic in this country. Do you think this hinders the opportunities of us having open discussions which could lead to better outcomes for Muslim women?
We need to realise that, for as long as religion is a source of law and policymaking in Malaysia, everyone has a right to speak about it. If we give up our space to raise our concerns, then the dominant voice will continue to determine rights that we should have or not and the kinds of laws and practices that we should have or not in Malaysia. More often, what we are raising concerns about is how religious authorities, institutions and figures are interpreting religion for the rest of us. So, it is not religion that we are dealing with but the systems and structures and the people in and around them. We need to learn how to engage in how these authorities and institutions are impacting us and how we live as a diverse society instead of avoiding it altogether.
Can you tell us about your work with Sisters in Islam? What were some of the initiatives and impacts created?
The core of our work is to bring reform to Muslim family law and practice in Malaysia. We engage with activists and scholars, conduct research and public discussions, and raise awareness to Muslim women and single mothers about their rights in the family. We engage with students and youth on contemporary issues affecting Muslim communities, including gender identities and sexualities and addressing various religious extremism issues. Through Telenisa, our legal helpline and clinic we provide free legal advice to women and men about rights under the Islamic family laws and how to access these rights in the Syariah Courts, including the courts’ processes and procedures. During the pandemic in 2020, Sisters in Islam conducted 29 online sessions over 33 weeks reaching out to over 82,000 people on various issues on Muslim women’s rights in the family, their lived realities and experiences at the time. SIS also conducted a series of international public forums to address France’s terror attacks and bring in the Muslim world’s conversations and responses.
Sisters in Islam’s most profound achievement is to expand the space for public debate and discussion on Islam and women’s rights. SIS’s impact is not only felt and experienced in Malaysia but also in Muslim contexts globally. Many other Muslim women, individuals and groups, also, struggle to advance Muslim women’s rights in their communities and contexts. In 2009, Sisters in Islam initiated and launched Musawah, the global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family. What began as a study group in 1987 comprising eight women who are journalists, artists, activists, lawyers and academics is now a global movement of women and men who advocate for progressive Muslim family law reforms.
As a Muslim woman, do you feel there is an impetus for you to strive for other Muslim women?
What drives me is the knowledge that Islam stands for equality and justice. Yet, laws, policies, and institutions made in Islam’s name don’t necessarily provide women with that experience. Other people will not make these changes and hand it over to us on a silver platter. We have to demand and act for that change to happen.
What progress have we made to advance the rights of Muslim women? What areas do you think the government or religious bodies can improve?
There has been some progress for Muslim women. While they still don’t have guardianship rights, there have been administrative reforms for Muslim mothers to exercise guardianship rights such as signing for the applications for their children’s school transfers, passports and surgeries. Muslim women can obtain a mutual divorce in a shorter time frame than before. Mothers are granted custody of their children more than before. However, there are still many more areas that can be improved. Others would require comprehensive reforms. Enforcement of payment for children’s maintenance is still a significant issue.
Exercising the legal provisions upon application of polygamous marriages is another. Child marriage? We need to raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 for all children of all faiths in Malaysia without exception; we also must ensure that they stay in school, are given vocational training and are educated on their sexual and reproductive health and much more. Addressing the children is not sufficient; their parents also need to be supported with concrete programmes that would address poverty-related issues and social stigma.
While all of this involves better diligence and implementation by the various government and religious institutions, we also want a comprehensive reform of the legal framework for Islamic family laws, that recognises and acknowledges women and men as equals. It is possible to reform our laws to be better, to move with the times. Our societies have changed, and it’s about time that laws catch up with our lived experiences and realities. The continued disconnect between laws and our daily lives will only result in injustice.
Your message to anyone for this International Women’s Day?
You have the power to make a difference and bring change. Don’t hesitate to raise your voice against any injustices you see in your daily life. Someone is taking inspiration and building their courage from seeing you do just that.