Women’s groups want all female judges allowed into Shariah system

Women’s groups here are railing against the reported barring of female judges from the Shariah justice system in certain states. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Women’s groups here are railing against the reported barring of female judges from the Shariah justice system in certain states. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 20 — Women’s groups here are railing against the reported barring of female judges from the Shariah justice system in certain states, calling it another form of institutionalised gender discrimination in Malaysia.

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan also labelled the ban unconstitutional, noting that it is the result of state fatwas (religious edicts), which she said are guidelines and are therefore not legally mandatory.

“The attempts by some state fatwa councils to bar women judges from the Shariah justice system is yet another tool to push a misogynist agenda and maintain the status quo of inequality for women in the workplace, attempting to ensure that women are prevented from being in positions of authority.

“Furthermore, it conflicts with the Federal Constitution and other federal law (i.e. Acts of Parliament), and these pronouncements can cause confusion,” she said in an email interview with Malay Mail Online.

Human rights lawyer Honey Tan added that every states’ fatwa council should reconsider the ban, pointing out that the inclusion of women in legal discourse would result in more diverse discussions.

“Other stakeholders such as women’s groups that are knowledgeable in Shariah matters should be included in those consultations because diverse views would contribute to richer discussions and learnings.

“It is astonishing how often women are shut out of key discussions,” she said, adding that this likely stems from the notion that women are academically inferior to men.

She said, however, that this was not an isolated incident as women are often marginalised in “law-making, law practice and decision making processes”.

“There are very few women judges in the appellate courts, and in legal practice, you see very few women who are senior or managing partners.

“The type of legal work done between male and female lawyers also differ: most women are in conveyancing. If there are women litigators, very few are criminal practitioners,” she said in an email to Malay Mail Online.

The All Women’s Action Society (Awam) pointed out that as per the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw), which Malaysia has ratified, women’s right to political participation should be guaranteed and protected, making it crucial for Putrajaya to intervene.

As such, the group said it was imperative for the Malaysian government to ensure society here creates a more “fair and equitable” environment for women.

“Diversity in representation is crucial as it makes for better decision-making and helps build a democracy and a political culture that represents diverse interests and values,” it added.

Earlier this week, the country’s top Islamic court judge Tan Sri Ibrahim Lembut faulted state fatwa councils for barring the entry of women judges in the Shariah justice system, even as he admitted the gender had better academic qualifications compared to their male counterparts.

He added that although the National Fatwa Council has agreed to have female Shariah court judges, some state fatwa councils have still refused to follow suit.

He said currently, only Malacca, the Federal Territories, Kelantan, Perlis, and Sabah allows Muslim women to become Shariah judges.

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