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Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006

Is Islam compatible with women's rights?


LOS ANGELES -- About 10 years ago Hillary Clinton delivered a seminal address in Beijing at the United Nations' 4th World Conference on Woman. The then-first lady stirred the international delegates by articulating a more inclusive definition of human rights. Bluntly put: "Human rights are women's rights," she said famously, "And women's rights are human rights."

It was one of the best speeches I had heard in a long time, especially about what I had thought was an old and settled issue. Even so, she pulled no punches whether it was in condemning female genital mutilation in Africa or forced abortions in China.

I was wrong, of course -- the issue of women's rights was neither settled then, nor is it settled now, certainly not in Asia.

Take the case of the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia with a population of 26 million, 60 percent of which is Muslim. Under the direction of former Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, the government strove to project an image of Muslim moderation, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Western investment is important to Malaysia, and so is continued economic development and modernization. Mahathir himself has delivered important statements on the need for responsible Muslims to control and indeed quarantine their radicals.

To be sure, these days not everyone around the world is convinced that the adjective "moderate" fits so swimmingly well with the noun "Muslim." Ironically enough, you can add an outraged movement of Muslim women in Malaysia to the list of doubters.

They are, it turns out, furious to the boiling point over the government's efforts to ram through a new so-called "Islamic Family Law." Under the Islamic Law already in effect in Malaysia, Muslim men are permitted to take up to four wives. The new legislation goes one worse: Not only would men not have to prove financial ability to support more than one wife, they would be permitted to seize the assets of the prior wife or even reduce their support of a prior, divorced wife in order to carry on with the new one(s).

Razlina Razali, a member of the activist organization Sisters of Islam, told The Manila Times: "They are giving more rights to the men while taking back the traditional Muslim women's rights. It is not justified because Islam promotes the principle of equality and justice, and traditionally it guards the rights of Muslim women."

To be sure, negativities and sweeping generalizations about the Islamic world can be unfair, misguided and poisonous. Many religions come up short in different ways. In the Catholic Church only men may aspire to be priests. In some Orthodox Jewish rituals, no woman may approach the Torah during a service.

And Malaysia itself is anything but unique in Asia on the issue of injustice to women. The international news media recently followed the heroic struggle of a raped Pakistani woman to bring her perpetrators to justice in the face of official indifference if not malevolence. Other examples where women do not have equal opportunity despite official protestations to the contrary abound. In otherwise forward-looking Japan, the brilliant, Arabic-speaking Yuriko Koike, the environmental minister, may be among the most talented politicians in Tokyo, but she has little chance of succeeding her boss, Junichiro Koizumi, as prime minister. Ask Korean insiders whether a woman could become -- in the near future, at least -- the president of the Republic of Korea and they will look at you with incredulity.

Malaysia aims to become a fully modern economic state, like Singapore. In fact, it is larger, more geographically dispersed, and richer in natural resources than its tiny city-state neighbor. It's true that, in some respects, Malaysia, an Islamic state, has succeeded in achieving some measure of balance between religious belief and economic pragmatism. But its people are nowhere as wealthy as Singapore's -- and there are several reasons for this. But surely one is the different way women are treated.

Decades ago, Singapore, with less than a fifth of Malaysia's population, consciously decided to double the size of its workforce (which then largely consisted of men) by educating, promoting and compensating women fairly. This policy of education and employment equality paid off handsomely as Singapore grew into a society with one of Asia's highest standards of living.

Struggles between modernity and the dark ages abound everywhere, to be sure. As Clinton pointed out in her 1995 speech in China, America itself struggled -- and indeed is still struggling -- to get it right. "It took 150 years after the signing of our Declaration of Independence for women to win the right to vote," she pointed out. Malaysia has been independent only since 1957.

Even so, the country needs to move forward, not regress. If Malaysia is to realize its potential of becoming Asia's fifth economic "tiger," then it is essential that Malaysia empower its women and fully integrate them into the economy. This is true all across Asia.

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran American journalist who has worked at Time, New York, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times.
Copyright 2006 Tom Plate


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