In Ramadan this year, a video made by Maznah Yusof, a 38 year-old Muslim woman dog trainer, caused controversy in Malaysia. Three years ago, she had created and uploaded a video of her and her dogs in celebration of Eid ul-Fitr. The video shows her walking her dogs on a street as the takbir (chanting on the eve of Eid ul-Fitr) is heard in the background.
At the end of the video, Maznah explains that her message was meant to show that Eid should be celebrated regardless of species (animal or human), colour (illustrated by different coloured dogs), or origin (illustrated by different breeds of dogs).
To bring across her message, she shows short scenes of her washing a dog’s paws and her own feet, wiping its face and her own face with a (different) towel, and then feeding three dogs treats that resemble the small cookies usually offered to guests during Eid.
For this, she was arrested, detained and questioned for two days while being investigated under Section 298A of the Penal Code, which deals with ‘causing disharmony on grounds of religion’. The Malaysian Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) sent a report to the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) for action to be taken against her.
The director-general of JAKIM, Othman Mustapha, gave two contradictory statements on the video. While he seems to agree that ‘all animals are the same, except in terms of the purification’, he also said that the ‘video gave the impression that it was allowed in Islam’.
What exactly is not allowed in ‘Islam’? All four Sunni schools of thought touch on the purification of one’s self after touching a dog. The Shafii school of thought, which is followed by Malaysian religious authorities, declares a wet dog to be a heavy impurity (najis mughazallah) that requires washing with water and earth. An impurity has to be touched in order to exist. If it was simply avoided we would not need any rulings on it.
Additionally, the Maliki school of thought distinguishes between domestic and wild dogs. And where the Qur’an speaks of dogs it speaks of their benefits, as a protector of the persecuted youths in the cave (18:18) or of their abilities as hunters of our food (5:4). (See here for a video on the use of salukis as hunting dogs, and a writeup by a Malaysian veterinarian about his pet salukis).
Furthermore, Maznah herself explains that the video had been re-edited by someone else, and that she is merely showing compassion to dogs like any other animal:
“Is rearing dogs something non-Islamic? I want to ask, who is actually insulting Islam? I make sure my dogs are clean. I take care of them well. So, what is the problem?”
Another quote by Othman reveals why Maznah was charged only now, three years after posting the video, and without committing a clear crime:
‘…What is demonstrated by Maznah is wrong and seen as intentional, what more (sic) when it is recorded on video for public viewing. Although some quarters see the views by JAKIM as petty and inappropriate, the fact is that it has stirred anxiety among the public.’
In fact, it was only a few weeks into Ramadan that two Malaysian Chinese bloggers caused a similar polemic. Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee posted a picture of themselves on Facebook, that suggested that Muslims break their fast with bak kut teh (Chinese pork dish). They described the dish as being delicious and placed a ‘halal’ symbol on their image. They were later charged under the Penal Code, Film and Censorship Act and Sedition Act.
The reasons for Maznah’s arrest were not clear. She did not clearly violate the law, besides the vague charge of ‘insulting Islam’. Indeed, that is the most common accusation levelled against her by those who commented on the video, who could not see beyond the juxtaposition of something religious (takbir) and something traditionally considered irreverent (dogs).
Other government officials agreed with this sentiment. Communications and Multimedia Deputy Minister Jailani Johari, for example, labelled Maznah to be ‘morally defective’ and ‘requir[ing] rehabilitation’. Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the Malay Consultative Council, Hasan Mad, suggested that people who ‘played up sensitive issues in the country’ should be sent to a civic rehabilitation centre for guidance and counselling.
By attempting to summon Maznah for questioning, JAKIM is also acting beyond their jurisdiction as the religious body has no legal authority to question Maznah over her video.
But Maznah is standing her ground. She says she will not apologise because she has not done anything wrong:
“If I apologise over the video, it means I am submitting that I have indeed done something that is opposed to the Islamic teachings. The video did not insult Islam. Accusing me that I wanted to insult Islam is akin to defaming me.”
Finally, while this article briefly mentions that Maznah, who has short hair and dresses in masculine clothes, was dressed in a baju melayu, a traditionally male Malay outfit (versus a baju kurung, which is traditionally worn by women), none of the other articles mention her choice of masculine dress and appearance.
As this fact was not explicitly linked to her alleged misdemeanours, I wonder how much of a comment like ‘morally defective’ is related to the fact that Maznah does not look like a typical Malay Muslim woman, let alone behave like one.
To me, the video is also doubly significant for showing a marginalised Malay woman caring for an animal similarly shunned in her society. The fear and unfamiliarity with dogs in Malaysian Malay society has resulted in a disproportionate amount of hostility in the name of ‘Islam’, directed towards a dog trainer who loves her animals.