This month two new judges began working in the Sharia courts of Malaysia — Rafidah Abdul Razak and Suraya Ramli. The two have been assigned to family court, and will be hearing cases to do with marriage and divorce, child custody, alimony, shared property division and inheritance.
Their appointment, hailed as a step toward women’s equality, stirred debate when the governing council for the Sharia court system let it be known that severe limits might be placed upon the women’s duties. In the beginning of August, however, the council announced that they will be instated with full powers, turning what could have been a set back for women’s rights into a full-fledged victory
Nonetheless, the appointment of these women clearly raises some issues (other than the original furor over whether they should given equal power to their male co-workers).
Will they truly advance women’s rights in Malaysia, or will they reinforce centuries old norms which are prejudicial against women? If they simply enforce the patriarchal rulings of centuries past, then they will not represent a very big step forward for women, and indeed may make it harder for other women to establish equal rights. When influential and educated women accept the notion that women as a whole should have fewer rights, and uphold the system which legalizes that notion, it becomes more difficult to change the situation, to challenge those prejudicial laws, and move towards a more egalitarian society. Of course, as judges, their ability to effect change is limited; their job is to enforce the law, not to rewrite it. However, given the wide range of precedent in Islamic rulings, they certainly can opt for more woman-friendly interpretations over ones that favor men at the expense of women.
Second, the appointment of of female qadis — judges in a Sharia court — begs the question, “Why do Muslim majority countries see a need for a dual court system?” And, equally important, why are Muslim minorities in certain Western countries pushing for Sharia courts in those nations? Surely if a law is good for one citizen, then it is good for all citizens. And conversely, if a law is good for the majority of citizens, then it is good for every citizen. A dual legal system only stands to propagate a society in which second class citizenship is guaranteed for certain religious groups. (Just to clarify this could be the group that has access to the special courts, or the group that is excluded from them, depending on whether you consider the secular law or the religious law superior.) I respect that countries such as Malaysia do not want to impose Muslim law on their religious minorities, but sound secular regimes have provisions protecting freedom of religion that makes it possible to approximate religious law through the secular system. For instance, in the US if I want to follow the Qur’an’s guidelines on inheritance, I simply write my will in accordance with those guidelines. If I want custody and child support to reflect Muslim principles, I get a pre-nup which lays out the terms in case of a divorce. There is no need for a special court to make Islamic rulings, though a secular system does require individuals to take responsibility for themselves.
Despite these concerns, I can only think that the net effect of the new female qadis will be positive. Women advancing into respected positions within the court will surely help open doors for further advancement down the road. The more women are involved in every level of Muslim society, the more likely our rights are to be respected.
Thankfully, while these two women represent a first for Malaysia, neighboring Indonesia has some 100 female sharia judges and Palestine became the first country in the Middle East to have female sharia Qadis, last year with the appointment of Khouloud el-Faqeeh. Secular judges have been presiding in Muslim countries for many years (Eygpt’s first female judges were appointed in 1996, Bahrain began appointing female judges in 2006, etc.) Let’s hope things continue to improve!