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.
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.
Mixed response to women judges
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.
“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.