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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 March 2006, 07:55 GMT
Malaysia 'apartheid' row deepens
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Malaysian women. File photo
Ms Mahathir says new laws make daily life worse for Muslim women
There has been an angry reaction in Malaysia to remarks by the daughter of the former PM comparing Muslim women to black South Africans under apartheid.

Conservative Muslim women's groups say Marina Mahathir brought shame on the country by saying new Islamic laws have made local women second class citizens.

Her remarks were published with cuts in her regular newspaper column on Friday after being held back for several days.

Marina Mahathir is a prominent campaigner for women's rights.

Strong criticism

At the centre of this row is a newly introduced Islamic family law act.

Her (Ms Mahathir's) prejudiced views... smack of ignorance of the objectives and methodology of the Sharia
Muslim Professionals Forum

It was intended to help standardise the rules affecting Muslims across all of Malaysia's 13 states.

Opponents say it did so by dropping standards to the lowest common denominator, allowing men to divorce or take up to four wives more easily while giving husbands greater control over their wives' property.

Conservative groups disagree.

"Her prejudiced views and assumptions smack of ignorance of the objectives and methodology of the Sharia, and a slavish capitulation to western feminism's notions of women's rights, gender equality and sexuality," the Muslim Professionals Forum (MPF) said in a statement to the BBC.

The MPF argues that men wanting to enter polygamous marriages will now be scrutinised more closely.

Conservative groups also say that wives can now take out orders preventing their husbands disposing of property if they re-marry, just as the men can.

'Women regressing'

But it is Marina Mahathir's choice of language that has caused most anger.

"In our country, there is an insidious growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women, that between Muslim and non-Muslim women," she said.

She has argued vociferously that the changes to the law represent a step backwards for women's rights in Malaysia.

"As non-Muslim women catch up with women in the rest of the world, Muslim women here are only going backwards," Ms Mahathir said.

"We should also note that only in Malaysia are Muslim women regressing; in every other Muslim country in the world, women have been gaining rights, not losing them."

'Insulting' remark

Many here however argue that women play a far more active role in all aspects of life in Malaysia than in most other Muslim or east Asian countries.

Dr Harlina Halizah Siraj, women's chief of the reform group Jamaah Islah Malaysia told the BBC that Ms Mahathir's opinion was wrong about the reality of life in the country.

"Women in Malaysia are given unlimited opportunities to obtain high education level, we are free to choose our profession and career besides enjoying high standard of living with our families," she said.

Civil rights groups say the apartheid remark was insulting because Ms Marina's father, the former premier Mahathir Mohamad, bolstered Malaysia's race laws.

Those denied certain ethnic groups the same educational, financial and career opportunities given to the majority, predominantly Muslim ethnic Malays.

But what there seems to be a measure of agreement on is that Malaysia's Islamic courts are inefficient, under-funded, and suffer from a lack of women on the bench.


SEE ALSO
Malaysia women 'suffer apartheid'
08 Mar 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Row over Malaysian family laws
22 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia: Islam and multi-culturalism
07 Feb 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Malaysia
30 Dec 05 |  Country profiles

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