Pushing the Law: Challenges for Divorced Women in Malaysia

After Sobia’s post last week about The Other Half of the Sky, a Tunisian film that tells a story about a woman’s experience with inheritance laws, I was interested to see this article, which talked about other cracks that women may fall through in another shariah-inspired legal system.  In this case, Mariam Mokhtar is writing about Muslim women’s experiences of divorce in Malaysia.

To back up a bit, Mokhtar was responding to developments described in this article:

Muslim women with problems should voice them to the Secretariat on the Protection and Enhancement of Muslim Women (Senada) to be channelled to government bodies for action.

Senada chairman Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abd Jalil said the secretariat would look into matters brought up by women pertaining to syariah laws such as divorce and other social problems.

“We will tackle the problems based on which parliamentary constituency the woman belongs to and work with non-governmental organisations within that area,” she said.

Shahrizat, who is also the special adviser to the Prime Minister for women and social development affairs, added that the key areas Senada would pay attention to were law, policies and regulations.

Sounds good, right?  Well, it seems like things might be a bit more complicated.  Mokhtar begins her response with this:

“[So] the newly formed Secretariat on the Protection and Enhancement of Muslim Women (Senada) is supposed to help Muslim women with problems? [...] Somehow, I doubt it.

Too many women and children have been let down by the current Syariah system, especially over the rights of a divorced Muslim woman. Countless other families have been torn apart by inequality, greed and by men who impose their selfish will on women.”

Focusing on the problems of “the current Syariah system” (which she discusses in its political and historical context, rather than dismissing the concept of “shariah” altogether like some people do), Mokhtar explains that the court system is expensive and subject to frequent delays.  Because of this, Muslim women have a hard time accessing support payments from their former husbands; some husbands even disappear, and the courts are unable to find them.  This leaves many women vulnerable and often depressed.

Although Mokhtar doesn’t go into extensive detail regarding the ways in which shariah law is exercised in the courts that she describes, her article does point to some of the ways that the law needs to be considered in context: if not enough safeguards exist to protect the people involved, and if not enough community support is available when women are not able to track down their former husbands, then the system needs fixing, regardless of the religious origins of the laws involved.  She also argues that many past initiatives aimed at supporting women have ended up failing, and she expresses skepticism that the latest one, Senada (as described above), will be any different.  That said, it seemed unclear whether her proposed solution of changing the laws would be sufficient to address the problems, or whether there might be some potential for Senada to function in a more effective way than Mokhtar predicts.

I did find Mokhtar’s description in her final paragraph of children who come from “a broken marriage” to be a bit simplistic and reductive; children can face all sorts of challenges and respond to them in very diverse ways, and the suggestion that all of these children will end up as “scarred”, as she describes, is a little far-fetched.  Despite this abrupt ending, the article was an interesting challenge to some of the projects that can be created to support women, as it asks some important questions about how effective these initiatives truly are and whether they can actually respond to some of the real challenges that Muslim women face in Malaysia’s court system.

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