Malaysia: Nazreen Nizam of Sisters in Islam laments Malaysian regression in rights

Publication Date: 
April 13, 2011
Malaysian Muslims recite prayers during a ceremony on the first day of Moharram, which marks the start the Muslim new year.

BANGKOK (TrustLaw) – Malaysia is considered a tolerant, progressive and successful developing Muslim nation; its capital is a gleaming metropolis with one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world.

Yet the politicisation of religion in recent years has led to a regression in gender rights under the country’s Islamic Family Law, a prominent women’s rights group, which is aiming to reform the legislation, told TrustLaw.

Under the law, it is more difficult for a woman to get a divorce if the husband refuses; fathers have ultimate rights over the children, even if the mother has custody, and women are forced to accept polygamy without question, even if they are unhappy with the situation, said Nazreen Nizam, legal and advocacy officer of the women’s rights group Sisters In Islam.

“Under the Islamic Family Law in this country, the mother and the father do not have equal rights. The mother can have the custody but she cannot have the guardianship,” Nizam told TrustLaw. “That is a kind of direct discrimination.” 

Sisters and other women’s rights groups have managed to change three instances – regarding immigration, healthcare and schooling – where mothers can also sign legal papers “but this is only regulation and not under the law,” she said.

“So there are instances where the mother goes to the immigration office to get a passport and the officer at the counter would still ask where the father is.”

Inheritance law also remains discriminatory by not adapting to a changing society where men no longer look after women completely, women contribute financially to the economy and polygamy remains a deeply taboo topic in Malaysia.

Nizam said people see polygamy as a God-given right.  And even though some women do not agree with it, they acquiesce “because they sincerely believe this is religion, they think that if it’s from God, it should be good and even if I’m not happy with it, there must be something good behind it.”

She added, “That’s the mentality we need to change.”


Nizam said Malaysia has not always been like this. She said formerly there were stricter conditions for men to enter a polygamous marriage but over the years amendments have been made.

“I can see that we’re getting more and more regressive… When the law becomes more regressive it becomes more difficult for women because it doesn’t reflect the reality,” she said.

According to her, this regression is a result of a recent phenomenon – the politicisation of religion.

“The political parties are using it as a tool because when you say this is Islam, this is what we’re trying to do and this is God’s law, you kind of put fence around people. That’s how you control them.”

She said this prevents people from questioning why such practices are accepted and those who dare to question the current status quo – like her group – will be “bombarded with all these criticisms that we are deviants.”

Sisters In Islam was established in 1998 by a group of women from various backgrounds. The group always has maintained that religion has been used to justify cultural practices and values that regard women as inferior and subordinate to men as a result of men’s exclusive control over the interpretation of the text of the Qur’an.

Sisters in Islam have attracted both praise and criticism for their stance on issues ranging from polygamy (which they say is a conditional right based on men’s ability to deal justly with all the wives) to Islamic dress code (the group is against state’s intervention on how women dress).


Whenever a women’s rights group complains about aspects of Islamic Family Law which discriminate against women, authorities will contend the law is “perfect” and blame the problem on the men who fail to comply with it, Nizam said.

“But that does not solve the problem,” she told TrustLaw.

“If you’re just going say the law is OK, it’s the man who’s at fault… well the man is actually behaving that way because the system allows him to. So basically we need to change the entire system.”

Nizam said, “(SistersIn Islam) now have a draft Muslim Family Law looking at examples of other Muslim countries that have managed to reform their discriminatory laws to a more egalitarian ones.”

They aim to introduce the draft in Malaysia. This year, “we’re going to go out all and all around the country” conducting outreach and community awareness training on the draft,  she said. 

It won’t be easy.  “People think if it is God’s law, then it is divine and who are we to question it. But we put a differentiation between Sharia and Fiqh. Sharia is divine guidance, but Fiqh is the law,” she said.

“What we are doing is questioning the law which is manmade and can be changed.”

What Sisters in Islam are asking for – change in Malaysia – is not new, said Nizam.

In “other countries like Morocco, Tunisia or Indonesia, people already have asked for change and they already got their reforms,” she said.

“Change is possible and change is necessary.”

Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhamad