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Malaysia: Both Genders Under an Apartheid


By Abdul-Lateef Abdullah


[Abdul-Lateef Abdullah is an American convert to Islam. He holds a bachelor's in political science and economics from the University of Delaware, a master's in social work from Columbia University, and recently earned a doctorate from the Institute for Community & Peace Studies, Universiti Putra Malaysia, in the field of youth studies. He has worked as a Program Assistant for the Academy for Educational Development (Washington, DC); and with the Taqwa Gayong Academy (New Jersey, USA and Penang, Malaysia) for troubled youth, both Muslim and non-Muslim]


The outspoken activist daughter of former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad has criticized what she described as censorship of one of her newspaper columns, which described the status of Malaysian women as akin to apartheid. She said that while non-Muslim women enjoyed gender equality, human rights and legal protection, Muslim women had lost rights and status, were victims of discrimination by Muslim men and had become second-class citizens. Ms. Mahathir said the government, headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi whose moderate Islamic policies have otherwise won praise, was "gagging and binding Muslim women more and more each day for the sake of political expediency under the guise of religion".

What Ms. Mahathir cites in terms of changes to the laws for political expediency is true to a degree in my opinion, as, once again, Islam is being used to cover up a growing political and social reality that is firstly this: Muslim men (Malay) men are feeling increasingly threatened that their women are ‘catching up’ and exceeding them in many areas, including two of the most important ones -- economics and education. It is a fear-based reaction to a perceived threat and has many different manifestations. Once again, as we Muslims love to seemingly do, we use Islam as our way out and escape route. Once again, we refuse to look at WHAT'S WRONG WITH US and address the heart of the problem with honesty and humility, but rather put the blame on others for our problems or better yet -- claim that our women and the laws that deal with them are not ISLAMIC enough.

Malay women are amazing in my opinion and deserving of everything they have achieved. They work, they care for children, they take care of their homes, they cook, they own businesses, they head companies, etc. Although many men adjust to this out of sheer necessity, many others do not seem to be able to handle it as well. On the one hand, they are losing out -- women now make up 70-80% of local university students for example and are increasingly earning more. My own wife and her older sister are two examples that I know of within my own family where the women earn more than the men. While on the other hand, the men seem less willing than the women to put in the time and effort to adapt and change (this is of course not true for all mind you, just a general perception). It is as if they want the benefits of the modern world by allowing their wives to work, which often means less stress on the family financially, but at the same time they want a traditional cultural structure by expecting their women to do ALL the work in the home as well. Furthermore, those that do adapt and change often do so with the belief that they are somehow compromising Islam. Among some of the more conservative factions in the country, there is this dichotomous worldview here between Islam and ‘other’ -- meaning that if you embrace modernity in certain respects you cannot really be a 'good Muslim', and by doing so you’re even too ‘Western’. I’ve even heard of heads of certain religious schools here not permitting their students to eat (halal) hamburgers, claiming that such a thing is too Western and not ‘Islamic’.

These types still for the most part do not see Islam as timeless and universal, whether for the past, present or future. A lot of this has to do with how they are taught it to begin with, and the fear that the modern world brings to many of the more conservative folk. In a word, these groups do not seem to know what to do, or how to react to the way the world is changing around them. They are sort of in paralysis. As a result, many are reacting by falling back on what they know, i.e. Islam as it is understood within a narrow cultural context. They are unable to moderate the changes around them because (in my opinion) their understanding of Islam is as an object - it looks like 'this' and if it doesn't look like 'this', then it cannot be Islam. They are trapped in an Islam of the mind which sees it as a fixed object, a picture, a concept, whereas if the picture changes, it violates their mental schema and therefore cannot be Islam. This freaks them out and causes them to react with drastic and expedient measures which often translate into changes to the laws. Again, a lot of this has to do with attachment to, or the belief that Islam is culture rather than a state-of-being that transcends culture.

The Problems are Multidimensional, Not Islamic

The Malay culture typically does not value planning and being proactive and tends to be more reactive in nature. Malay men, following suit, are now reacting to a perceived threat to their own power and collective role as the head of the society/family, and as such, are falling back on Islam to justify their recent actions. The current global economic realities are not helping, however, because as the world moves toward a more service-oriented economy, naturally, it favors women. The past agrarian and industrial-based economies were in need of a certain type of brains and brawn better suited for male labor. However, women tend to excel in communications, customer relations, languages, soft skills, human services, etc. and as such; the men are losing out due to the structural, post-industrial changes that are occurring in the economy as a whole. This is a global phenomenon mind you and not particular to Malaysia. Also, there was a study done here not so long ago as to why females were faring better in school than males and, based on the findings, a lot of it had to do with learning styles that were more suited to the modern-day curriculum, which also favors females.

Where I disagree with people like Marina Mahathir is that what is happening is not a simple linear string of events. What we must understand is that the changes that are occurring are dynamic, in that there are many things happening at the same time. Just as Allah is and how He creates, operating as an ‘Infinite Dynamism’ to quote one scholar, L. Galian, we must therefore realize that like all of life's situations, many different things are happening at the same time that have brought us to this present situation. If we rely on oversimplified, mechanistic ways of looking at the world and events around us then we will do just that - oversimplify the problem - which is great for making headlines but falls short of the whole truth. People love to make noise by coming up with oversimplified problems for complex phenomena, i.e. Islam is the problem! The Muslim scholars are the problem! Men are the problem! We have apartheid in Malaysia! The problems are multi-dimensional, interwoven, systemic, culturally and historically rooted and involve elements of culture, education, economics, religion, social change, gender relations and others. It is a ‘perfect storm’ or stew of factors if you will. That being said, however, we can point to fundamental issues believed to be critical, such as what I have outlined above.

Using Islam as a Vehicle

Lastly, this being Malaysia, we must note the political reality driving this as well. As the UMNO government has always had the rural Malays as a main constituency, there is this balancing act that the government must also maintain in order to maintain its hold on power, which is to appeal to the urban masses that want modernity in all its glory, as well as the rural Malays that are more conservative religiously. It tends to play out in this very way, with policies that continue to drive Malaysia forward as a modern Muslim country on one hand, without forgetting its rural base and their values, particularly in terms of Islam, on the other. In order to appear ‘Islamic enough’ to the rural folk (and to fend off the opposition PAS Islamic party), they have to appeal to this conservative religious base and they often do it through the Shari'ah laws that effect Muslims. So this political factor is also a major issue I think that often makes the government appear to be contradictory in terms of its ultra-modern approach to economics, development, technology, etc. and its insistence on a social code for Muslims that appears regressive. For politicians, it is a lot easier to 'Islamize' a few laws than to attempt to revamp your education system to instill truly Islamic values, or change the very culture of your people toward the same! Thus, it is usually the laws that they address first to soothe certain groups. However, to his credit the Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, is actually trying to change the culture here in a positive way through Islam Hadhari, which is a very promising program with the exception of its name, which has caused much undue criticism and confusion. But changing a culture takes generations and in today's modern world, people want change overnight.

Muslim vs. The West Muslim vs. The West

In spirit, I sympathize with Ms. Mahathir’s concerns, but in many ways she sounds like a typical Western feminist that refuses to acknowledge that there are fundamental differences between the worldviews of the Judeo-Christian world, which in its modern form maintains a secular humanistic worldview, and that of the Islamic world, which reflects a tauhidic worldview. Simply put, these basic differences in fundamental worldview (see the writings of Prof. Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas for more on this) imply that although we may agree in terms of certain basic values, e.g. women and men are equal in the eyes of God; it does not necessarily mean our approaches to achieving equality are or should be the same. Being an American myself, I can say with conviction that the American notion of women's equality is in many ways a farce. Even in the halls of government, there are still only a handful of women lawmakers and those in top leadership positions across the country. Many of the women there are hoodwinked into thinking that they are 'liberated' and equal, while in actuality they are treated as nothing more than pieces of meat and willing pawns for the gods of global capitalism and their corporate and financial elite. If the women there could only see – objectively and without the bias of political correctedness - how they are treated in the name of equality!

I believe the approach to this kind of problem is thus: that we acknowledge, as Allah purports in the Qur'an, that the problem is a HUMAN one. Rather than trying to make it a Muslim vs. The West kind of issue, which is nothing more than an attempt to project one’s own shortcomings on to the ‘other’, that we all acknowledge that it is a problem everywhere, yet one that has different 'faces'. Then we can start addressing it through honest, self-critical dialogue as to how our different religious traditions and cultures view the problem and its potential solutions and accept the fact that we may not agree on certain things, but that we can and must tolerate each other’s approaches as sovereign peoples and nations. Of course, I'm probably way too idealistic and naïve in this regard, but it is my belief that most of these issues we are facing today are human problems, not those particular to any nation or culture. They stem from the same root, which is our forgetfulness and/or ignorance of our Creator and that of our own selves.

Disclaimer: the foregoing represent the views of the author alone, based on his opinions and observations from living in Malaysian society over the past five years.


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