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.
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At Kuala Lumpur’s sharia court, a mildewed, open-sided building on a busy highway, reactions among petitioners are mixed. Female plaintiffs like Norhanum believe that female judges will be more responsive to women in divorce and custody hearings. Among men, there is less enthusiasm. Some, though not all, argue that women can’t make cool decisions in heated cases.Skip to next paragraph
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“Women might be too emotional. I’m not sure about their professionalism,” says Man Yusop, a bank employee who was helping his brother to register his marriage.
Mat Sabuddin sat with his estranged wife on a vinyl bench, waiting for a hearing on alimony payments. He claimed that women were not as flexible as men when it comes to negotiations. “I’m wary of female judges. They might be a bit problematic,” he says.
Asked about such objections, Rafidah Abdul Razak, one of the two new judges, gives a diplomatic reply.
“What I’m going to do in court will be the same as a male judge. I will follow the same law and listen to the facts of the case,” she says in an interview at the religious affairs ministry where she works. Before taking this job, she spent five years working as a sharia lawyer.
Ms. Rafidah admits that she feels a “heavy responsibility” in her new position, as her decisions will probably be put under a spotlight. As lower-court judges, neither woman would issue sentences for “moral offenses,” such as adultery or drinking, though they would do so if they win promotions to higher courts. Rafidah declined to comment on the caning of women.
What will happen to polygamy?
Malaysian feminists have argued that Islamic laws are applied in discriminatory ways that privilege the rights of Muslim men over women. A common bone of contention is polygamous marriages that can penalize older wives and their children. Polygamy is legal for Muslims, though the prior consent of wives is required for additional marriages.
Mr. Yusop, the banker, says that Muslim men needed strict laws on family matters. Otherwise, he says, “we would marry, divorce, marry, divorce, marry, divorce.”
Under sharia law, a man can verbally divorce his wife and file papers, though a court-ordered mediation for the couple is mandatory. However, the process is more protracted for a woman who initiates the divorce, say lawyers. Norhanum ran away from her husband in 2008 and sought a divorce after he began beating her and took up with another woman.
Norhanum’s husband failed to attend court hearings and ignored several police summons. If a wife is a no-show on three occasions, the divorce is automatically granted. But if it’s the husband that doesn’t show, a judge can refuse to grant a divorce, trapping women whose spouses are uncooperative or who have remarried without permission.
“Why give the benefit of the doubt to a thug?” complains Noorazima Yusof, the younger sister.
Appointing female sharia judges may have an indirect bearing on another controversy in Malaysia over jurisdiction in cases involving non-Muslims. In recent years, conversions by husbands to Islam unbeknownst to spouses have spawned complex custody battles that straddle civil and sharia courts and raised doubts over which court has the final say.
Religious minorities complain that sharia judges have overstepped their powers and exploited the government’s reluctance to offend Muslim opinion. A test case involving a Hindu mountaineer whose wife is contesting his deathbed conversion to Islam is due to be heard in Malaysia’s highest court on Aug 6.