Islamic court makeover in Malaysia: Two women appointed to sharia court bench
In an Islamic judicial system that has been criticized as biased against women, two women have been cleared to hear the same cases as their male colleagues in sharia court. They will join the bench on Aug. 2.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Norhanum Yusof walks out of an Islamic courtroom, arm-in-arm with her sister. She has just been granted a divorce from her abusive husband, who didn’t show up for this hearing and who has ignored several court summons.Skip to next paragraph
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But it took two grueling years to annul the six-year marriage. Ms. Norhanum, who wears a black headscarf and a loose flowery dress, blames the sharia judge for cutting her ex-husband too much slack.
“If it was a female judge, then I would expect more sympathy for me,” she says.
Women in her position may soon get that. After years of debate, Malaysia’s government has appointed two female judges to the sharia courts, which operate in parallel with secular courts in this multifaith country. The women will join the bench on Aug. 2 and have been cleared to hear the same cases as their male colleagues, bringing a female perspective to a judicial system that has been criticized as biased against women.
Sharp divisions over the role of women
In the Muslim world, there are sharp divisions over the role of women in the judiciary. Countries like Lebanon, Morocco, and Pakistan have appointed women to judge cases in secular and sharia courts. Neighboring Indonesia has scores of female judges. In contrast, Iran and Saudi Arabia insist that only men can sit in judgment in their courts.
Malaysia is known for its tolerant brand of Islam. But it also has a conservative streak and has drawn attention for caning women for adultery and banning Christians from using the word Allah. Religious minorities often complain discrimination.
Government officials say the addition of female judges is part of a gradual overhaul of the sharia courts, which mostly administer family law for the Muslim majority.
The two judges will serve on lower courts in the capital, Kuala Lumpur and the city of Putrajaya. However, most sharia courts are run by Malaysia’s states, where interpretations of Islamic law differ widely and Malay sultans, who inherit power, are influential.
Next step for Malaysia, a 'tsunami of qualified women' in the courts?
Religious Affairs Minister Jamil Khir says he expects state authorities “very soon” to appoint female judges. “It’s up to them if they want to follow us. This will be a good example to the states,” he says.
Although there is no formal quota, each state should ideally have at least two female judges, says Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, Minister for Women, Children, and Community Development, and a former civil court magistrate. But the number could swell as more women currently working as lawyers and court officials apply to join the bench.
“Now we have opened the floodgates. I expect to see a tsunami of qualified women in our courts,” she says.