Musawah, meaning "equality" in Arabic, held its first international meeting in Kuala Lumpur in February, and brought together hundreds of Muslim scholars and activists. They argue that aspects of Muslim family law are neither compatible with the daily realities of women's lives, nor defensible under Islamic principles.
Musawah ambassador Marina Mahatir is in Melbourne and spoke about the movement Wednesday night at a forum hosted by the National Centre for Excellence for Islamic Studies.
Presenter: Joanna McCarthy
Speaker: Marina Mahathir, Musawah ambassador
JOANNA McCARTHY: Why was there seen to be a need to establish the Musawa movement?
MARINA MAHATHIR: Well, basically it is to connect a lot of women's groups around the world that have been working for justice and equality in the Muslim family to share their experience and for solidarity. The groups in Muslim Musawa feel that the time to work on all these reforms by engaging with Islamic authorities is now necessary and it's very, very important, because that's the only way to push forward for equality and justice.
JOANNA McCARTHY: Well, could you outline in what ways are some aspects of Muslim family law seen to discriminate against women?
MARINA MAHATHIR: Well, it's not the Islamic laws as found in the Koran per se, it's the interpretation and the implementation of these laws in individual countries, where very often, for example, men are seen as the heads of families, and therefore women are completely cut out from making any decisions for themselves or their families. When it comes to guardianship of their children, for instance, when it comes to inheritance, and also just getting proper compensation when they divorce and such. There have been very many good laws in some countries but some of these have been amended backwards, so to speak, where women have been given less rights. So Musawa is very vigilant about these issues and want to push forward for reforms in these areas.
JOANNA McCARTHY: Historically, of course, Malaysia, Indonesia and the region has been known for a more moderate practice of Islam but is there still a reluctance to allow women to interpret the Koran and the Hadith?
MARINA MAHATHIR: Yes, there is. Women in general, but particularly women who - the more conservative and traditional Islamic groups, say, do not have the authority because we didn't go to university and have not studied at the same level as a lot of the ulama. But many of us have been working on the ground and we know the issues on the ground for women, and therefore we feel that these issues have to be brought forward because these are the lived realities of women and they need to be addressed no matter what the Islamic authorities say.
JOANNA McCARTHY: What's more critical in your view? Is it educating women about their rights under Malaysian law and their rights in Islam, or educating the men?
MARINA MAHATHIR: I think educating both. Because I think many of the interpretations of Islam have been very patriarchal, very male biased and a lot of them are simply not founded in the Koran. So it's important to go back to the Koran, to the source, to look at what it says, and we are very confident that the Koran actually addresses both men and women equally and calls for fairness and justice for both sexes.
JOANNA McCARTHY: Moving on to Malaysian politics, you recently criticised UMNO for the fact that there is only one woman on its supreme council. Is UMNO and indeed are Malaysian parties generally out of touch with the needs of women?
MARINA MAHATHIR: I think generally they are, which is unfortunate. UMNO in particular has a large female membership, about half, and they don't seem to be cognisant of that fact and elected only one woman, which is down from three the last time. I'm hoping that the new cabinet which will be announced today will provide more strength to women by giving them more posts in the cabinet, and also strengthening the Women's Ministry to do more for Malaysian women.