- Recent controversial comments made by Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development and Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) leader, suggesting that husbands could use a gentle but firm physical touch in order to educate recalcitrant wives, set off a furore amongst gender right groups over this apparent condoning of domestic violence.
- The growing dominance of politicians and public servants with conservative, patriarchal and androcentric attitudes within the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development is a discouraging setback for gender rights groups in the country.
- Gender rights groups suffer from a perceived lack of religious legitimacy and their limited presence in mainstream religious domains. Conservative elements portray them as notoriously liberal.
- Gender rights groups will need to regroup and engage anew with religious elites, especially those from non-traditionalist institutions. They need to cultivate like-minded allies in political and social circles to promote progressive views to counter the conservatives’ narrative. They should work with political parties to boost the selection of women from diverse backgrounds as electoral candidates and subsequently as lawmakers.
* Faris Ridzuan is Research Officer in the Regional Social and Cultural Studies Programme at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Mohd Faizal Musa is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute as well as Associate at Weatherhead Centre Harvard University working on Global Shia Diaspora.
ISEAS Perspective 2022/56, 24 May 2022
The contestation over gender relations, especially evinced by official government narrative and policy, is currently unevenly skewed to favour conservative attitudes as Malaysia lags behind in women issues. This article argues that the appointment of conservative political office holders who hold a patriarchal and androcentric worldview, especially on domestic violence, coupled with the dominance of literalist religious interpretations on gender, strongly inhibit gender equality in Malaysia as a whole.
In mid-February, Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff, the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development and Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) leader, made some controversial remarks in a video about how husbands should treat wives. Husbands, she ventured, should use a “gentle but firm physical touch” that is “educational”, on recalcitrant wives. There has been a groundswell of outrage over this comment. What gender rights activists fear is that the phenomenon reveals the capture by conservative actors of key institutions meant to oversee and support family and gender development and relations.
This is not the first controversy involving public institutions signalling that occurrence. During the initial period of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development under Rina Harun introduced a series of posters that have been described by civil and women’s rights groups as an initiative that “could worsen gender stereotypes and to a certain extent encourage domestic violence”. These posters seemed to emphasise the importance of women’s appearance and advised work-at-home mothers to “groom as usual” and always look neat. Furthermore, they extolled that wives, in educating their husbands on doing household chores, should adopt a “Doraemon-like” tone and giggle coyly, as opposed to “nagging”. This is in order to avoid quarrels. Gender rights groups were shocked and confused by the underlying message of these posters.
While Siti Zailah’s comment angered many, it received support from conservative groups. Sisters in Islam (SIS), a non-governmental organisation well-known for its progressive views, condemned Zailah’s advice for a husband to hit the wife gently to reprimand her, and considered it supportive of “women being treated as subservient, inferior beings who deserve to be disciplined and corrected in their character and behaviour.”  Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, a coalition of women’s groups, called for the resignation of Siti Zailah following the comments. Several MPs, such as MP Yeoh Bee Yin from the opposition Democratic Action Party and Nurul Izzah Anwar from the opposition People’s Justice Party, also expressed alarm over the Deputy Minister’s statements and highlighted their concerns over already increasing domestic violence during the pandemic. Meanwhile, conservative groups such as Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA), Malay-Muslim NGO, supported Siti Zailah.
With Siti Zailah helming the role of Deputy Minister for Women, Family and Community Development, policies and official government narratives on gender relations are set to become more conservative. It does not help matters that Rina Harun, the Minister, is seen by the public to be lacking in capability, giving Zailah ample space to gain public attention. While Rina was a relative unknown before 2018, Zailah is highly regarded by many in the conservative camp. She was a religious official at the Kelantan Islamic Affairs Department before joining politics. She was responsible for training religious officers in the state for five years. Between 2000 to 2006, she was nominated Senator and in 2008 contested in the parliamentary seat of Rantau Panjang, Kelantan, which she has represented since. She was also PAS’ women’s wing leader from 2011 to 2015.
In 2017, Siti Zailah endorsed child marriages and more recently, she expressed that the government would have to consult the ulama to endorse the national road map to fight child marriage if the policies conflict with the Quran and Hadith. Furthermore, she stated that policies that do not clash with Islam will continue under the new government. Siti Zailah has also asked for flight attendants to dress in a syariah-compliant manner.
There is no space in this article to explore progressive interpretations and hermeneutics of Islamic texts to counteract conservative, androcentric, patriarchal and literalist paradigms and interpretations. But most certainly, the vast majority of religious elites and functionaries in Malaysia’s bureaucracy and courts are conservative, and Siti Zailah is just one among many.
Given the apparent trend, Malaysia sorely needs a counteracting narrative to patriarchal and literalist interpretations of Islamic sources. Women clerics such as Nuridah Mohd Salleh, the leader of PAS’ Women Wing from Terengganu, or Asma Harun, a PAS leader from Selangor, carry the same tone as Zailah’s. Fatin Nur Majdina Nordin from the Islamic NGO, ABIM, or Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud and Aiman Athirah from PAS’ splinter party, Amanah, are no match for Zailah and are often considered to be much less charismatic than her. None of them openly challenged Zailah’s view on the permissibility of beating wives in Islam either. This leaves the interpretation of the Quranic verse 4:34, which seems to endorse the act of beating wives, confined to literalist and patriarchal readings.
Recently, the Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia (JAKIM) appointed Hakimah Mohd Yusoff as their new Director. She is its first woman head. Hakimah’s views on theological and contemporary jurisprudential discourses are however not known to many; she was formerly the head of Halal Hub, a less visible wing under JAKIM. Her appointment was based more on seniority in the organisation rather than anything else. It remains to be seen how she positions herself on matters such as the legal marrying age for Muslim women.
The conservatism of the abovementioned female politicians and religious elites stems from their tertiary training or alma mater. While Asma Harun has a degree from Al-Azhar, Nuridah Mohd Salleh and Hakimah Mohd Yusoff graduated from the Islamic Faculty of the University of Malaya, the alma mater of many PAS activists. Unfortunately, those who carry progressive views such as Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud and Aiman Athirah are not considered to be asatizah, for lack of a degree in Islamic studies.
Another impediment to the appearance and presence of progressive female voices may be the fact that female clerics became visible in Malaysia only in the 1990s, and they fall behind male clerics in Malaysia’s patriarchal climate. Women clerics are also expected to only discuss ‘fiqh wanita’ or women jurisprudential affairs and the role of parenthood, and no other themes.
CIVIL SOCIETY GROUPS LACKING RELIGIOUS LEGITIMACY
In 2009, Sisters in Islam (SIS) released a publication entitled “Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives?”. SIS put forth compelling hermeneutical and socio-historical arguments that the Quranic verse 4:34 does not permit husbands to beat wives. However, SIS lacks religious legitimacy in the eyes of the conservative and rural public, as its members are largely not from the fold of religious preachers or asatizah. It is also not part of their strategy to dominate the pulpits of mosques and religious platforms to spread their progressive ideologies, so their discourse does not gain public traction. To complicate matters, there is also a 2014 Selangor fatwa declaring SIS a deviant organisation for subscribing to “religious liberalism and pluralism”. This proclamation still stands today, although it is being contested by SIS. Furthermore, their perceived standing as a liberal organisation hampers their ability to gain credibility in the public space where fearmongering against the dangers of liberalism is rampant.
Patriarchalism was never as dominant or as strong before colonialism and Islamic revivalism as it is now. Before the colonial period, in fact, there were matriarchal systems in the Malay world, such as in Negeri Sembilan, but such systems were overshadowed and discarded during the colonial period. This trend was further compounded by the religious revivalism of the last 40 years, immersed within processes such as the Islamisation of economic and political systems. Islamic revivalism, in Islamising public space through government policies instead of leaving religion to personal choice, has strengthened extant conservative and patriarchal strands in Malay culture.
Ideology and praxis do not match though. On the one hand, ideologically conservative gender paradigms drive policies and laws and promulgate essentialized roles of women as child bearers and homemakers, and men as breadwinners. While on the other hand, in practice, we have the quotidian experience of women participating both in the public and private spheres. Hence, women with ideologically patriarchal views are more likely to gain prominence and power as they ironically espouse patriarchalism while climbing up the patriarchal social hierarchy. It is definitely hard for a woman espousing progressive, non-patriarchal, non-androcentric and gender egalitarian views, especially overtly, to climb up the social and political hierarchy, let alone disseminate their progressive views. This cultural dimension of patriarchy is not a culturalist analysis; there are very real structural impediments that women face in Malaysian society. For instance, while Kelantanese and Kedahan women are popularly known to be very capable, illustrious and business-minded, PAS’ laws and religious interpretations attempt to put women under gendered surveillance.
STRUCTURAL REFORM FOR GENDER EQUALITY
Beyond the lack of spaces for progressive interpretations and conservatives’ capture of Malaysia’s bureaucracy and courts, there is a need to examine the structural factors that drive patriarchy and gender inequality in Malaysia and what gender rights groups and gender movements can do to level the playing field.
As an indicator of Malaysia’s lack of structural progress in gender egalitarianism, Malaysia ranks 104th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020 out of 153 countries and 9th out of 11 countries in the Southeast Asian region. Suhakam, a human rights institution in Malaysia, cites that according to this index, “Malaysia is still far behind in other key areas including literacy rates (86th), economic participation (97th) and political participation (117th). ” Certainly, there are a lot of structural factors such as disparity in education, political and work opportunities that reinforce the patriarchal and androcentric paradigms of the religious and political elites who interpret Islamic sources and discourses. In turn, these patriarchal and androcentric paradigms also reinforce the structural gender inequality in a feedback loop.
As gender rights groups and gender movements in Malaysia try to gain momentum to galvanise structural change in gender equality through lobbying and discursive strategies, they are encumbered by religious and political elites as well public officers who hold androcentric and patriarchal views on gender relations.
In contrast, outside the religious domain such as in politics, Muslim women are doing quite well. For instance, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat has been elected as Chief Justice; Latheefa Bibi Koya was briefly Chief Commissioner of Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission; Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus is the Governor of the Central Bank of Malaysia and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was Deputy Prime Minister during Pakatan Harapan’s administration. However, gender egalitarianism is not progressing as fast in the religious domain.
There is a need for systemic change, and gender rights groups and gender movements need to work in a concerted manner to reform religious elites, asatizah and preachers in the country to adopt a more gender egalitarian worldview. This is all the more important since their chances of lobbying government agencies and courts captured by religious conservatives appear slim. Instead, they need to cooperate with religious elites who are more gender-progressive in order to introduce the public to more progressive Islamic interpretations of gender relations and equity. This may be difficult since there is a scant number of progressive religious elites. Gender rights groups and gender movements also need to ensure that more progressive religious elites occupy influential positions in religious bureaucracies and key ministries. Key figures such as former Terengganu’s Mufti, Ismail Yahya who opposed female circumcision (FGM) and Mohd Na’im Mokhtar, Malaysia’s Sharia Chief Judge who appointed two women Sharia judges in Selangor in 2016, need to be engaged and given wider reportage.
While Malaysia and Indonesia are different from each other in terms of Islamic approach and climates, both countries are seeing more women participating in the public arena, and this includes Islamic missionaries.
Among the strategies to ensure the equal access of women to matters of justice within the Islamic arena is to follow the footsteps of the state of Selangor in electing more women as Sharia judges. At the moment there are only two women Sharia judges, one of them being Noor Huda who was trained at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; the government is positioning her to disseminate a more creative and innovative outlook on Shariah law. Civil society groups such as Sisters in Islam, or ABIM must ensure that they have like-minded allies graduating from non-traditionalist institutions, who eventually move on to work in important positions in the religious bureaucracy and courts, as well as in key agencies such as the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.
In order to achieve a balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making, and gender mainstreaming in all policies and measures, political parties need to push for more women from all backgrounds to be electoral candidates.
One concrete strategy is for civil society actors and progressive actors to gain legitimacy by winning over the conservatives in a struggle over day-to-day women’s issues such as fair wages in employment, equity in access and opportunity to higher education, and support for mothers who take on the double shift of homemaker and n employee, self-employed person or entrepreneur. All these concrete efforts will ensure that overarching issues concerning women such as the legal marriage age for Muslim women will get fair attention, and not only from conservative voices. The call to add more women leaders must be made effortlessly with a coherence of concerted efforts from both political parties and civil society actors.
At the moment, Malaysia’s Director-General of Education is Nor Zamani Abdol Hamid, and there are other key positions held by women such as the Director of the Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia (held by Hakimah Mohd Yusoff), and the Information Director-General (held by Roselindawati Abdul Rahman). In addition, women who are influential within social media with more than a million followers include female celebrities such as Noor Neelofa Mohd Noor and Mira Filzah. Being in positions of influence and authority, these women can dismantle structural and cultural patriarchy to contribute to gender egalitarianism and women’s development and progress. They should work together with fellow male allies and not resort to blaming men and male actors per se. Humanistic and gender egalitarian Malay and Islamic traditions that can be gleaned from the historical past and continued intellectual heritage should be revived in public discourse.
The capture of the key ministry dealing with women’s development, by conservative, patriarchal and androcentric political actors who adopt literalist and patriarchal interpretations of key Islamic sources and law does not bode well for gender egalitarianism in Malaysia. This has culminated in the ministry endorsing acts that may lead to domestic violence, and meeting with little to no opposition for doing so. Gender rights groups’ perceived lack of religious legitimacy and their little foray into mainstream religious discourse make little headway in changing the mainstream conservative religious discourse on gender relations and equity.
One important strategy for gender rights groups and movements is to work to reform religious elites, asatizah and preachers so that they can help propagate progressive religious discourse. This is necessary since the political and religious bureaucracy has been captured by patriarchal and androcentric elites, and seems impervious to progressives’ lobbying for now. There also needs to be a network of like-minded allies for civil society groups to work with, involving graduates from non-traditionalist institutions who can possibly go on to occupy positions of influence in government and in society in general.
Gender rights groups and gender movements need to pick up the momentum to galvanise grassroots actions to get women from diverse backgrounds appointed as electoral candidates and law-makers; this can counteract and dilute the dominance of conservative voices. Only then can systemic and structural changes occur to promote gender egalitarianism in Malaysia, alongside progressive and gender egalitarian hermeneutics and interpretations of key Islamic sources, laws and texts.
 Lingan Suganya, “Malaysian Minister under Fire for Apparently Endorsing Domestic Violence,” News, Benar News, Accessed May 6, 2022, 17:12:00+08:00, https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/malaysian/video-fallout-02142022120855.html.
 Soo Wern Jun, “Women Ministry’s ‘Household Happiness’ Posters Could Fuel Gender Stereotypes and Domestic Violence, Advocacy Groups Say | Malay Mail,” accessed April 20, 2022, https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/03/31/women-ministrys-household-happiness-posters-could-fuel-gender-stereotypes-a/1852073.
 “It implies that women are ultimately responsible for getting domestic chores done when the duty should be a shared one. It makes women the ones who need to persuade their partners to chip in, and worse, asks that women downplay a rightful request by using infantile language and mannerisms — so as not to offend the apparent sensitivities of men. The implicit message is that men are allowed to slack off on domestic work and it’s women who must follow up with them — but they should only do so nicely. In short, it sends the message that women are subordinate in the home and are not allowed to function as equals to men,” said Women’s Centre for Change in a strongly worded statement. (Soo Wern Jun, “Women Ministry’s ‘Household Happiness’ Posters Could Fuel Gender Stereotypes and Domestic Violence, Advocacy Groups Say | Malay Mail,” accessed April 20, 2022, https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/03/31/women-ministrys-household-happiness-posters-could-fuel-gender-stereotypes-a/1852073.)
 Lingan Suganya, “Malaysian Minister under Fire for Apparently Endorsing Domestic Violence,” News, Benar News, Accessed May 6, 2022, 17:12:00+08:00, https://www.benarnews.org/english/news/malaysian/video-fallout-02142022120855.html.
 “Hannah Concerned about Deputy Minister’s Support of Child Marriage,” Malaysiakini, 10:56:00+08:00, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/513990.
 M. Fakhrull Halim, “Child Marriage: Deputy Minister Says Policies That Don’t Clash with Islam Will Go On,” Malaysiakini, 20:14:00+08:00, https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/514611.
 Yasmin Masidi and SIS Forum (Malaysia) Berhad, Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives? (Selangor: Sisters in Islam, 2009).
 Amongst its arguments, SIS argued that the word “daraba” in the Quranic verse 4:34, which is traditionally understood as “strike”, could refer to the act where someone “strikes out” on a journey or “gives or sets as an example”. Furthermore, even if classical jurists were to accept that “daraba” means “strike”, SIS argues that the historical context tells us that it is not a license for men to beat their wives, considering that he final verse in the Qur’an on male-female relationships which regards women and men as being each other’s protective friends and partners. Ibid, 11-13.
 Hafiz Yatim / theedgemarkets com August 27 and 2019 15:29 Pm +08, “Selangor Fatwa Declaring Sisters in Islam as a Deviant Group Stands — High Court,” The Edge Markets, August 27, 2019, http://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/selangor-fatwa-declaring-sisters-islam-deviant-group-stands-%E2%80%94-high-court.
 After Malaysia experienced waves of Islamic revivalism in the 1970s, outward forms of symbolism and ethnoreligious identity markers such as the veil or tudung among women leaders also render more religious legitimacy to wearers of the tudung, and the leaders of SIS, many of whom do not don the tudung, do not have claim over this symbolic legitimacy of religiousness.
 Klaus Schwab et al., Global Gender Gap Report 2020 Insight Report. (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2019).
 “Gender Equality – SUHAKAM,” accessed April 20, 2022, https://suhakam.org.my/portfolio/gender-equality/.
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