HISTORICALLY, discrimination against women is not peculiar. It happened globally and in almost all civilisations. Women were often treated as their husbands’ properties. They were denied the right to own property or to exercise any civil or public positions.
There are many examples of such deprivation across Europe and Asia. For instance, during the 16th to 18th centuries, women in England were denied the right to cast their votes in elections, let alone to contest a seat in Parliament or representative councils.
In Asia, the Arab Jahiliyyah in the pre-Islamic era witnessed a most oppressive form of infanticide, where newborn baby girls were buried alive fearing that they will bring hardship and poverty to the family.
Islam not only recognised the position of women and their rights, but enshrined them in the syariah. The Quran even dedicated a specific chapter to women, entitled Surah an-Nisa’, which outlines in detail the rights of women and the preservation of their honour.
If one would study and analyse the entire corpus of Islamic teachings, one would quickly discover that there is no room for the discrimination of women in the name of Islam.
Consequently, the apparent discriminatory practices pervasive among Muslims are essentially not juridical, but are largely influenced by local customs of a male-dominated society. Such practices have no roots in Islam, and only continue to tarnish the name of Islam.
In the context of Malaysia, the origins of the women’s rights movement can be traced back to when Malaya achieved Independence.
The 1957 Independence Day had spurred a nationwide spirit of self-determination and nationalism, which in turn also encouraged women to develop themselves, mainly through education.
The fast growth of schools and education infrastructure, and the equal access accorded to women had a major role in elevating Malaysian women from where they were then to where they are today.
In the whole process of developing our country, women have made significant contributions to every aspect of Malaysia’s development, especially in social, cultural and economic sectors.
Currently, Malaysian women constitute a significant portion of the labour force in the professional and non-professional sectors.
Statistics in 2007 showed that there were more highly-educated women than men; they amounted to 61.9 per cent of all university students totalling 59,207.
Women have also proven that they thrive and can do well in the education system and are well qualified to be employed in many sectors, be it public or private.
However, there are indeed concerns on the under-representation of women at the decision-making level in the public and private sectors.
To mitigate this, the government introduced a policy in 2004 that promotes women to occupy at least 30 per cent of all decision-making positions at all levels. In other words, women are now given adequate opportunities for promotion and career advancement.
A survey carried by the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry in 2007 regarding the distribution of female employment by occupation showed that women were mostly concentrated in the clerical and service areas.
In another survey conducted in 2008 on numbers of registered professionals, the figure showed that most professions were actually dominated by men except for accountancy and legal professions, where women make up almost half of the workforce. This is testimony to the equal ability of men and women to carry out work in the professional field.
Efforts were made by the government to enhance the capacity and capabilities of women to progress to higher levels. For example, the establishment of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry is one of the manifestations of the government’s commitment that was made during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and was duly carried out.
In the realm of the judiciary, Malaysia practises a dual legal system composed of civil courts and syariah courts. Malaysian women have been appointed to serve as judges in civil courts since the 1980s, with the proviso that women judges in the High Courts should only hear civil cases and not criminal cases, which may involve capital punishment.
As for the syariah courts, women were only appointed as judges beginning the year 2010 with the appointment of two female judges in Kuala Lumpur, followed by Melaka, Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis, Kedah, Sabah and Selangor.
The appointment of Muslim women as judges has been a controversial issue for years in Muslim countries due to perceptions that such appointments might not be in conformity with the syariah.
There is also a prevailing perception doubting the capability of women in reasoning and making decisions, and what more in matters relating to religion.
Such doubts are baseless from the perspective of Islam.
In Surah al-Ahzab verse 35,
Allah underscores the spiritual equality of men and women in regards to religious obligations: every good deed done by men and women will be evaluated and rewarded equally.
Surah al-Tawbah verse 71 further underpins this position, articulating men and women as “protectors of one another”, enjoining “what is right and forbiding what is wrong...”, thus having equal responsibility in carrying the duties and trusteeship of khalifah (vicegerent).
In sum, women in Islam enjoy equal position with their male counterparts. There is no prohibition from the Quran and the Sunnah for women to hold high public positions. It is only prejudicial customary practices that undermine women’s rights.
The writer is deputy chief executive officer of International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia