One month ago, on 28 January, the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) organised a forum at The Concorde Hotel, in Kuala Lumpur.
The speakers were IRF’s Ahmad Farouk Musa, Jeffrey Kenney from DePauw University, Indiana, Amran Muhammad of the Islamic and Strategic Studies Institute (ISSI), and Syed Farid Alatas from the National University of Singapore.
They were going to discuss the regression of the Muslim world from champions of civilisation and science, to radicals. They were attempting to find factors that encouraged Muslims to regress to the “glory days” of the 7th-century Arab world.
You need not be a thinker, an Islamic scholar, a woman or even a Muslim to realise that something was definitely missing before the talk, “What is wrong with Islam now?” had started.
Here is what was wrong with the talk.
It was puzzling that for such an important question, no one had thought to invite even one woman to sit on the panel.
There were no women on the panel of the forum.
Maybe organisers will claim that women academics had declined their invitations, or had other previous commitments. Or perhaps they thought the female academics were busy clearing up Sunday lunch and enjoying “family time.”
The more likely explanation for the absence of women is that the organisers “forgot” about women. Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim and 50 percent women. Many Malay women feel downtrodden and that they are third class citizens. Is it any wonder they feel like this?
There is equality between the sexes in Islam, but when it comes to implementation of the teachings, women are treated as inferior. The problem lies with Muslims.
Despite equality, women are blanked-out
Muslim women are not the problem. The problem is the attitude of some Muslim men.
When there is a rape, the women are told to cover up. What about telling men that they should learn to respect women or avert their gaze if they cannot bear to look at a woman without feeling that they have to rip off her clothes and seduce her?
When a single Muslim woman dies, all her property goes to the Baitulmal fund.
A Muslim woman who is left an inheritance is only entitled to half of the portion allotted to her brothers.
A Muslim man may marry an underage child, or marry a girl that he has raped to escape prosecution.
A Muslim man is allowed four wives, none of whom can divorce him without his permission. Should a couple divorce, the laws of paying maintenance to his wife and kids are commonly not strictly enforced by the Syariah courts.
If PAS politicians continue to tell women graduates to hang up their degrees and stay at home to make babies, the government should not waste money awarding scholarships to Malay women.
Abdul Hadi Awang, the PAS president once said he was opposed to a woman menteri besar, despite other Islamic nations like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Bangladesh having had women leaders and prime ministers.
I know of women whose husbands have threatened their wives with divorce, or threatened to marry a younger woman, if they defy his will, do not vote for the candidate of his choice, show an independent streak, or go out without asking for his permission.
There are Malay men in the country who demand that their womenfolk obey them, and those who fear women and harass them.
Two extremes in Malaysia
The treatment of Muslim women in Malaysia generally falls within two extremes.
At one end, are the insecure men who sanctioned the interrogation of 91-year-old Dr Siti Hasmah, because they have an issue with her husband, Dr Mahathir Mohamad. They wanted to harass and humiliate her just to send a message to Mahathir.
The same sort of men ordered women who drink beer or have premarital sex, to be flogged. We rarely hear about the punishment, if any, which is meted out to men.
Two teenage girls in Kelantan were held captive for two days and gang-raped by thirty men in 2014. Hudud and syariah laws are no deterrent, but education, reformation, stricter enforcement, and women’s rights would be better solutions. Why did the community not raise any alarms?
Despite a plethora of crimes against women, the Muslim community cannot be bothered to protest en masse against the injustice. You only see the same tired faces of the same placard-bearing activists and NGOs who keep alive the fires of support for the victims.
Not the first all-male forum to be held
This is not the first all-male talk to fail Muslim women.
In September 2016, the forum called “Pindaan Akta 355: Antara Realiti Dan Persepsi,” in Shah Alam, similarly had no women on its panel. Although Act 355 deals with hudud and syariah law, the organisers didn’t seem to be smart enough to invite women to the panel.
The forum was male superiority at its worst: an all-male panel, in front of a largely male audience, addressing laws which will impact on Muslim women.
Human rights lawyer, Siti Kassim, tried to ask a question but was ignored, by the moderator. She persisted and was heckled.
It is evident that in Malaysia, the Muslim woman’s voice does not count. The absence of women from the forum yesterday exemplified that.
Perhaps, Muslim women need to “do a Siti Kassim” and stick up their middle fingers to be counted.