With regime change, Sisters in Islam finds new support... but also new challenges

SIS executive director Rozana Isa stands in front of a caligraphy of verse 33:35 from Quran that touches on equality before Allah. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
SIS executive director Rozana Isa stands in front of a caligraphy of verse 33:35 from Quran that touches on equality before Allah. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

PETALING JAYA, May 1 — The surprise win by Pakatan Harapan last year has been a relative boon to local civil society, but perhaps even more so for the sometimes maligned Muslim women’s rights group Sisters in Islam (SIS).

Speaking to Malay Mail ahead of its 32nd anniversary in June, the group said Putrajaya is now more willing to listen to non-profit groups and rights activists when formulating its policies.

“We’ve been able to have ourselves be seated at the table ― to convey what we're doing now, to explain the work we’re doing, the women we’re helping, the issues we’re touching, and areas that need to be addressed,” its executive director Rozana Isa said.

SIS said it is glad to be joining other women’s rights groups to participate in Putrajaya’s effort to formulate a Gender Equality Act, which the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry told Parliament last month it will consider the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

After years of being stonewalled by the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government, SIS can also finally rejuvenate its push for a reform of the Muslim Family Law, which refers to a set of laws including the Islamic Family Law (Federal Territories) Act 1984.

“It’s also being able to knock on doors and to request for meetings, in relation to pushing Islamic family law reform forward,” Rozana added.

The reform has been among the keystone of SIS’ struggle for decades.

The group maintains that when it was first passed, the Act was a model Muslim family law for other Muslim-majority countries, but has since been amended several times over the years, with the latest in 2006, and become increasingly regressive and biased against women.

“At least now the conversation is going somewhere. There’s definitely more openness to hear from us,” Rozana added.

A view of SIS’ office where staff handles the Telenisa free legal advisory service. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
A view of SIS’ office where staff handles the Telenisa free legal advisory service. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

SIS also found its work, especially its Telenisa free legal advisory service, recognised recently with a surprise RM20,000 contribution from deputy women’s minister Hannah Yeoh's personal allocation.

“That really came as a surprise. It wasn’t something that we requested for.

“It was a small but very appreciated amount,” Rozana said, adding that it has been years since SIS received a contribution from Putrajaya.

The contribution, she said, will fund its data gathering process, expansion of its mobile legal clinics, and engaging experts to analyse the data.

Doors always open to women

But Putrajaya’s generosity also brought with it animosity, among others in the form of rebuke from Opposition party PAS.

The Islamist party’s deputy president Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man claimed the funding was unfair, labelling SIS as “controversial” and causing “polemic” among Muslims. Similarly, PAS’ Rantau Panjang MP Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff accused SIS of “confusing” Muslim women, while urging Putrajaya to ban SIS for allegedly abusing the name of Islam.

SIS was however backed, among others by Yeoh herself who lauded the group for defending the rights of Muslim women, and Petaling Jaya MP Maria Chin Abdullah who urged PAS against using religious agenda on women’s rights.

“It’s a very easy way to detract the public from the work that we actually do. Nice try, but I would like to add that during that month, the calls that came to us actually doubled,” Rozana said.

A short summary based on the Telenisa Statistic and Findings 2018. ― Infographic courtesy of Sisters in Islam
A short summary based on the Telenisa Statistic and Findings 2018. ― Infographic courtesy of Sisters in Islam

According to Telenisa, it handled 576 clients last year, with the highest number from Selangor and Kuala Lumpur ― in addition to 16 clients from overseas. Out of the total, 411 were new clients.

Telenisa has also reportedly helped 8,400 people across the country since 2003.

When it comes to issues involving wives, a third of them involved maintenance ― mostly where husbands are not providing any.

SIS said it dealt with 176 polygamy cases last year, a stark increase from 106 cases in 2017 and 75 in 2016. Over one in 10 of the cases involved polygamous marriages that were not registered in the country, while 16 per cent of the cases involved polygamous marriage done without knowledge of the first wife.

A short summary based on the Telenisa Statistic and Findings 2018. ― Infographic courtesy of Sisters in Islam
A short summary based on the Telenisa Statistic and Findings 2018. ― Infographic courtesy of Sisters in Islam

“Women come to us, we take them for their word. We don’t make judgments on their situations.

“I think it’s that openness that really compels women to feel comfortable to come to SIS,” Rozana said.

Women no longer ignored at the back

SIS first assembled in 1987, comprising of lawyers, academics, journalists, analysts, and activists, and has since then never shied away from challenging the status quo of Islamic thought that arguably tends to be biased towards the patriarchy.

For example, in 1991 it published two ground-breaking booklets Are Women & Men Equal Before Allah? that advocated the message of equality in Islam, and Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives? that was in support of a national campaign to criminalise domestic violence.

Some of the many booklets published by SIS over the years. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Some of the many booklets published by SIS over the years. ― Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

Over the years, the group has also spoken on the bigger picture when it comes to Islam: On Islamisation, governance, nation-building, and providing the space for women to speak up on their “lived realities”.

Inadvertently, the stand taken by SIS may have perhaps overshadowed its grassroots work with Muslim women, but the group remains unperturbed by any backlash.

“We are criticised because we challenge the status quo, we challenge authority. We are challenging institutionalised religion which promotes religion in a certain way that is narrow and not open, and representative of the ideas of the nation.

“We claim the authority to speak, that's what makes some people so ‘menyampah’. But we claim that authority based on our own, and other women’s life experiences,” Rozana suggested, using the Malay word that roughly means “annoyed” or “disgusted”.

“We won’t back down. That’s probably the part that irks them the most,” she added.

However, Rozana takes solace in the rising number of women who speak up on issues that affect them, especially on social media, amid apparent clampdown by authorities on women’s gatherings such as the recent Women’s March Malaysia and a forum on de-hijabing.

Rozana takes solace in the rising number of women who speak up on issues that affect them, especially on social media. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Rozana takes solace in the rising number of women who speak up on issues that affect them, especially on social media. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

“When you look actually at the content that they’re speaking about, it’s actually about their experience. This is something that we need to keep banging on doors, and harp about,” said Rozana.

“There’s the Islamic authority, and there’s the lived realities that we experience ― that’s the one that we take authority from, to be able to speak about what’s going on with our lives.”

Besides continuing its push for reforms, SIS also looks to provide alternative views and continue empowering women to participate on issues, laws, and policies that affect women, especially Muslim women.

“The way to actually promote and navigate through this is to raise our voices even more and louder.

“Because obviously they don’t want to hear what we have to say. To counter that we have to raise our voices no matter what,” she said.