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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK
Rape bill angers Malaysian women
Malaysian woman at a bus stop
Muslims make up about two thirds of the country

Women's groups in Malaysia are fighting a controversial bill proposed by an Islamic party which states that four male Muslim witnesses are needed to prove a rape.

The bill on hudud law - the Islamic penal code - has been proposed by the government of Terengganu, a rural state in the north-east run by the opposition Islamic party, PAS.

The party has declared it wants to set up an "Islamic state".

This is man-made - it's barbaric

Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri
Sisters of Islam
The bill is set to face stiff opposition from the federal government led by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad when it is tabled in the state assembly next month.

It is also facing legal challenges as, under the constitution, crime is a federal matter under the Penal Code.

About a dozen women's groups have formed a joint action committee to fight the bill, which they say is "perversely unjust".

Women's anger

The bill's original draft states that those who renounce their faith should be put to death, and that unmarried women who become pregnant - regardless of rape - should be whipped or stoned to death.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
Dr Mahathir is seen as a moderate Muslim
Sisters of Islam (Sis), which has lobbied Pas leaders on the issue, says the bill is a "total distortion" of Islamic law.

It argues that the original provision for four witnesses in hudud law was to protect women against accusations of adultery, noting that a wife of Prophet Mohamad was accused of adultery.

"This is man-made. It's barbaric," said Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri, a founding member of Sis. "God is all-forgiving and all-merciful in the Koran. That never comes up in this bill. All they talk about is punishment."

Ivy Josiah, executive director of the Women's Aid Organisation said the bill was "clearly misogynistic".

"There's a lot of fear that women are becoming equal to men," she said.

Political motive

Terengganu's Chief Minister Mr Abdul Hadi Awang, who is also deputy president of PAS, has said the bill has been amended to take account of objections by women. But the details will not be made public until the bill is tabled on 7 July at the Terengganu State Assembly.

Political analysts say PAS is seeking to gain political mileage over Dr Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (Umno) party ahead of general elections due in 2004.

"They want to show that they are the better Muslims," said Nur Jazlan, an Umno youth council member. "This is the problem within Islam nowadays.

"Everyone is saying 'My version is better than yours'."

Religion has long been a basis for party politics in PAS, which gained strength following the sacking and jailing of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. The party won control of two of 13 states in the 1999 election.

However, the 11 September terror attacks on the US has changed Malaysia's political balance. Dr Mahathir has consolidated his position as a moderate Muslim, gaining support among moderate Muslims and non-Muslims in the country, and strengthening ties abroad.

Earlier this month, he met Pope John Paul II to discuss peace initiatives in the Middle East.

PAS, however, was badly affected after the arrest of several suspected militants with ties to the party. Analysts say the party is no longer trying to win non-Muslim votes and is now concentrating on Islamic politics.

"They're targeting their own people in doing this," said Mr Jazlan.

Ms Sharifah Zuriah said although PAS would probably not be able to implement the bill, given the opposition against it, the fact that they were trying to do so was alarming.

"After this, what's next?" she said.

See also:

02 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
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