Malaysia’s first female Islamic court judges are set to take office, but women’s rights activists in the mainly Muslim country aren’t cheering yet.
Limits on the cases they will be allowed to hear, which may see them barred from making rulings on marriage and divorce, have caused some activists to question whether the moderate Muslim country in Southeast Asia is really ready to empower women.
“We don’t understand the basis for this. Presumably they’re as qualified as the male judges so there’s no reason to disqualify them on the basis of gender,” said Marina Mahathir from Sisters in Islam, a Muslim women’s rights group.
There are not many female Shariah court judges in Muslim countries due to differing views on whether they are allowed, although Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has more than 100, according to Sisters in Islam.
Suraya Ramli, 31 and Rafidah Abdul Razak, 39, both officials at Malaysia’s Islamic judiciary department, were appointed in May and will serve as judges beginning later this month in Kuala Lumpur and the administrative capital of Putrajaya respectively.
A panel of the country’s top Shariah judges has said the two women may be barred from hearing cases involving marriages and divorce. The panel is set to announce its decision soon.
Malaysia practices a dual-track legal system, with Muslims who make up 60 percent of the country’s 28 million population governed by Islamic family and criminal laws, while non-Muslims fall under civil laws. There are about 400 Shariah judges and prosecutors in the country, according to court officials.
Shariah court judges in the country rule on Muslim marriages, divorce, inheritance and certain religious offenses such as adultery and drinking alcohol, which are monitored by moral policing squads.
Malaysia’s chief Shariah judge Ibrahim Lembut said views differed on the powers of female Shariah judges, but that any limitations would be “minor.”
“Whatever a male judge can hear, a female judge can also hear, except on marriage via judicial guardianship, because that would require a male judge to carry out the rites,” Ibrahim said.
The appointments would be followed by further measures to improve the system such as a fund for women whose husbands fail to pay alimony.
Sisters in Islam, which provides legal aid to Muslim women, said women have long been victimized by undue delays and unfair rulings in divorce and custody cases at Shariah courts.
In related news, the Malaysian state of Malacca is to allow Muslim girls under the age of consent of 16 years to marry in a bid to stem unwed pregnancies, angering the country’s women’s activists and politicians.
The Islamic council in the southern state on Tuesday announced that it would allow marriage for Muslims below the current minimum age of 16 years for females and 18 for males.
“This is an outrage. We’re turning back the clock when there’s ample evidence to show that we should not condone child marriages,” said Ivy Josiah, executive director of Women’s Aid Organization, a rights group.
Malacca Chief Minister Mohammad Ali Rustam said permission would only be granted after consent by the teenager’s families as well as the state Islamic courts.
“For the state government, this is the best step to deal with the problem of abandoned babies and unwed pregnancies,” he was quoted as saying by the Utusan Malaysia newspaper.
Malacca earlier announced that the state would open a special school for Muslim girls who become pregnant out of wedlock, a move that also came under fire from rights groups.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction, and such policies should not be carved out by state religious authorities but the federal Ministries of Women, Education and Health,” Josiah said.
Malaysian Family and Community Development Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil said that underage marriage was “morally and socially unacceptable.”
The number of underage pregnancies in Malaysia rose to 111 in the first four months of this year from 107 in 2008, according to government numbers.
UN data showed that in 2006, the latest for which numbers are available, the rate per 1,000 births was 12 in Malaysia compared with 52 per 1,000 in Indonesia.
Recent cases of babies being abandoned by their unwed mothers have led the Malaysian government to set up its first baby “hatch,” where mothers can drop off unwanted children anonymously.
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