Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, pauses during an interview at her office in Kuala Lumpur in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Jimin Lai

Marina Mahathir is a Malaysian writer and activist with a global vision.

The eldest daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, she was named United Nations Person of the Year in 2010 for her work fighting HIV/AIDS and discrimination against sufferers.

She’s been a tireless advocate for women’s rights for decades, and more recently has been speaking out against the Arabization of Islam in her home country.

At the recent Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Bali – a Hindu island in Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – she spoke with Asia Times about her work for Muslim women’s rights.

On the role of women in Islam:

Our work started with a group called Sisters in Islam, about six or eight women, journalists, academics, lawyers. The group was officially registered in the early 1990s, but the work really started in the late 1980s, when Malaysian women were fighting for a Domestic Violence Act, to criminalize domestic violence.

People opposing the campaign said it wasn’t possible, because Muslim men are allowed to beat their wives. So this group of women decided to do some research to see whether that was true. They consulted some scholars and looked at the Koran, and found that all this refers to Verse 434, of which there are many interpretations.

After six years of debate in parliament, the act was finally passed, and in 1996 Malaysia became the first Muslim country in the world to have a domestic violence act. That really put Sisters in Islam on the map.

Since then, our work has been about looking at assumptions about Islamic precepts, particularly in regard to women: about polygamy, about the hijab, about whether women can be judges, and so forth. The approach is the same: to look back at the text and see whether it is absolutely given, or is this an interpretation and an interpretation by whom.

On the spread of Muslim women’s rights activism:

Thirty years later, we’re still in existence. About ten years ago, this work began to attract women in other Muslim or Muslim-majority countries. In Indonesia, groups emerged everywhere.

The Musawah movement was launched in 2009 by a group of like-minded Muslim women. Musawah is Arabic for equality. It’s not a word that exists in the Koran, but it’s an Arabic word.

Its aim is to work for justice and equality in the Muslim family, working with family laws around the world dealing with issues like child marriage, divorce, inheritance, things at the core of a Muslim woman’s life and which can make her life miserable.

At the beginning, the movement met with a lot of resistance from Western feminists and from feminists in Muslim countries who think you should not talk about religion at all.

But when the Arab Spring happened, and they saw all these women in hijab but out there fighting for their rights, suddenly they saw the relevance.

How does this vision of the role of women differ from the Islam you grew up with?:

It doesn’t, except that it provides a solid textual foundation. The values I grew up with – that women can be educated, can lead, can do everything – now has this much more solid backing.

The CEDAW committee is the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Countries have to report on what they’ve done to end discrimination.

Many Muslim countries say, we can’t do this or that because it’s against Islam. We’ve unpacked those arguments and provided the committee with counterarguments from within the text. They’ve found it very useful to be able show how other Muslim countries are doing things.

On separation of religion and state:

In Malaysia, it’s an issue now. It’s a matter of the interpretation of the federal constitution, where our founders were very clear that we are a secular state.

But now that Islam is the official religion, this is interpreted to mean that Islam must pervade everything. There is social pressure to wear a jilbab, even though there is technically no requirement.

When there is a state religion, it becomes a source of power, which people say cannot be questioned. But at Sisters of Islam we say that if Islam is the source of law and public policy, it can be questioned.

It has to go through the legislature, which makes it of this world. This move to regulate, which has to be done through laws and regulations, is a move to control, to put us in a box, an ever smaller box. There’s more exclusion than inclusion.

In Malaysia they’re trying to promote Ahl Sunnah al Jemaah, a very Sunni box, for Muslims. You can easily fall outside the box. It’s control, of course. So if you’re Shia, you definitely don’t fit in. If you’re a liberal Muslim, you also don’t fit in. It’s an ever-shrinking box.

Is this a global trend?:

The Western media is fixated on a Middle Eastern form of Islam, a ferocious, negative, very nasty brand of Islam. But there are so many Islams. The media don’t seem to realize that the Middle East is only 15% of the Muslim world. I always say a typical Muslim woman does not wear a burqa, she wears a kebaya.

Muhammad Cohen is editor at large of Inside Asian Gaming and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance and cheap lingerie

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