Promoting an understanding of Islam that recognises the principles of
justice, equality, freedom, and dignity within a democratic nation state

The SIS Story

It began with a question. If God is just as Islam is just “ why do laws and policies made in the name of Islam create injustice? This was the burning question faced by the founding members of Sisters in Islam (SIS) when they began their search for solutions to the problem of discrimination against Muslim women in the name of Islam.

The group first assembled in 1987 within the Association of the Women Lawyers (AWL) when several women lawyers and their friends came together under the Association's Shariah subcommittee to study problems associated with the implementation of new Islamic Family Laws that had been legislated in 1984, and enforced in 1987. The group was composed of lawyers, academics, journalists, analysts, and activists, and many women confided in them their marital problems and the difficulties they faced when seeking legal redress from religious authorities. These early meetings focused on problems with the law and its implementation, and the solutions needed to remedy shortcomings within the system.

The group held its first meetings in the living room of a house shared by Zainah Anwar, a former journalist and senior analyst and Noor Farida Ariffin, then President of AWL and Legal Advisor to the Economic Planning Unit in the Prime Minister's Department.

The group's first initiative was to organise a workshop in 1988 involving the National Council of Women's Organisations, the Federal Government's Women's Affairs Division, and the Islamic Centre (Pusat Islam) of the Prime Minister's Department. The workshop sought to alert the authorities to the problems women faced with the implementation of the new Family Laws, and to recommend substantive legal and procedural reform to ensure that Muslim women's rights were upheld under the law.

Reading it for Themselves

Law reform, however important, was only the beginning of the journey. Many within the group felt that dealing with the law alone was insufficient, especially in view of the fact that Islam was being increasingly referred to as a source of injustice and oppression. Women complained that they suffered in silence. They believed that Islam demanded their complete obedience to husbands, even when the men deserved no such consideration. They were told repeatedly in religious lectures and sermons “ at private homes, over radio and television, at mosques and in the courts “ that men were superior to women, that the evidence of two women equalled that of one man; that the husband has the right to beat his wife or to take a second wife; and that only place for a disobedient wife in the hereafter was hell.

The nature of these early meetings thus began to change: some within the group felt the urgent need to re-read the Qur'an to discover if the Text truly supported the oppression and ill-treatment of women. The need for Textual considerations was urgent, for women's groups that had been urging the Government to make domestic violence a crime now faced the problem of dealing separately with how the law applied to Muslims. For example, the Joint Action Group against Violence Against Women (JAG), formed in 1985, had encountered opposition from representatives of Pusat Islam who asserted that domestic violence laws could not apply to Muslims at all. A Muslim man, they claimed, had the divine right to beat his wife, and no human law could deny him that right.

Those supporting the rights of men sought justification for their views in the Qur'anic verse on nushuz, commonly interpreted as 'disobedience'. As stated in Surah An-Nisa, 4:34:  As for those from whom you fear nushuz, admonish them, then banish them to beads apart and "strike" them.' As Muslims brought up to believe in a just God and a just Islam, it was difficult for women to believe that God could sanction injustice, oppression, and violence towards them. In view of these Scriptural claims, the need to turn back to the Text had become imperative.

By this time, membership of the group had also evolved. Only three of the original group remained, while the AWL President, Noor Farida, had gone on to head the Gender Unit of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. New members continued to meet in Zainah's living room, and by 1989 these seven women formed the core of what was to become Sisters in Islam:

  • Amina Wadud, a teacher of Qur'anic Studies at the International Islamic University who would go on to publish her pioneering work, Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective¹
  • Askiah Adam, an analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia
  • Norani Othman, a sociologist at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (the National University of Malaysia)
  • Rashidah Abdullah, a senior programme officer in the gender and development programmed at the Asian and Pacific Development Centre (APDC)
  • Rose Ismail, a journalist at the New Straits Times
  • Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri, cultural affairs adviser at the US Embassy, and artist
  • Zainah Anwar, a senior analyst at ISIS Malaysia
founding_members_1991.jpgThe concentration of the group thus grew from a focus on law reform to encompass broader considerations of Islamic law. The group, now meeting weekly, began to study the Qur'an closely, looking afresh at the verses used asa source of laws discriminating against women. The group's area of study included hose sections of the Text used to justify domestic violence, polygamy, women's unquestioning obedience to men, the inferior position of women as witnesses, and gender inequality in general.

Through methodological foundations grounded in Iqra' (Read', the first word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad saw), the group's Textual studies opened up a world of Islam that was based on the principles of mercy, equality, justice and love. It became patently clear that it was not Islam that oppressed women, but male-centred interpretations of the Qur'an influenced by cultural practices and values of a patriarchal realities, voices, and experiences of women have been largely silent  and silenced  in the reading and interpretation of the Text. This human silence, the group believed, had been erroneously interpreted as the silences of the Qur'an.

Through the expertise of mufassirah (an expert in tafsir, 'interpretation') Amina Wadud, the group engaged actively in a model of Qur'anic hermeneutics thatexamined the socio-historical context of Revelation as a whole, and that of particular Qur'anic verses. The group examined the language of the Text and its syntactical and grammatical structure, and it looked at the Text as a whole to understand its worldview. This combined methodology allowed an exciting interface to emerge between theology and interpretation on one hand, and daily realities of Muslim women within the contemporary socio-legal context on the other.

For example, through its studies the group discovered that the verse on polygamy explicitly stated that '… if you fear you shall not be able to deal justly with women, then marry only one'. It was clear that as long as interpretation, and thus control, of the Text remained exclusively within the domain of men, focus would remain principal on the verse's permission to 'marry up to four' “ a phrase in which men see the word of God as validation of male desire and experience. To women, however, the Text clearly addressed their fears of injustice. The right to polygamous marriage was conditional, according to the Qur'an, because the verse goes on to assert that marrying only one wife '… will be best for you to prevent you from doing injustice'.

Similarly, the group also found that the dominant interpretation of Verse 4:34 (as one that justified domestic violence) was inconsistent with the overall Qur'anic ethos of justice and compassion, and that there were other equally valid interpretations of 4:34 that were not premised on the permission of domestic violence.

Basis of Action

Empowered by their knowledge, the women were compelled their findings with the public in an effort to break the dominant belief that Islam discriminated against women. A prime opportunity arose in 1990 when, in the case of Aishah Abdul Rauf v. Wan Mohd Yusof Wan Othman, the Selangor Shariah Appeals Court decided that the husband did not have the right to take a second wife as he had not fulfilled the four conditions under Islamic Family Law that sought to ensure that justice would be done.

The judgement “ and the ensuing debate on the right of men to enter polygamous relations “ encouraged SIS to write letters to the editors of all the major newspapers asa strategy for an alternative voice to be heard in the public space. Searching for a name, the group sign their first letters as 'Daughters of Islam', naming themselves after a group they met at a women's meeting on 'Reading the Qur'an for Ourselves' in Karachi, Pakistan. Their letter was published the next day in the English-language daily, The Star, to immediate enthusiastic response. So groundbreaking were the group's views that a rival English-language daily, the New Straits Times, also sought to publish the same letter. The New Straits Times, however, would publish only the original letters and requested that the group modify the content of the original letter and the name of the group. And so it was that in 1990, 'Daughters of Islam' became 'Sisters of Islam'.

(It should ne noted that the letter was also published in Utusan Malaysia and Utusan Melayu – two leading Malay-language dailies “ in which SIS had used the Bahasa Malaysia version of its name, Puteri Islam, and continued to do so for a year until SIS discovered that another group already existed under that name.)

No Turning Back

There was no turning back for Sisters in Islam. The group continued with its intensive research into the Qur'an, tafsir literature, Islamic law, and women's rights. Its research at the time focused on addressing two issued of urgent concern: equality between men and women, and domestic violence. Convinced that Islam contained a universal message of equality and justice, the group published two questions-and-answer booklets: Are Women & Men Equal Before Allah?and Are Muslim Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives? The first booklet was intended provide a basic understanding of the message of equality in the Qur'an, and how human understanding of God's intent in a patriarchal world has led to inequality. The second booklet was part of SIS's efforts to build a Muslim public constituency that supported the national campaign of women's groups to make domestic violence a crime.

By 1991, the two seminal booklets on women's rights in Islam were ready for public launch. Given the criticism directed against the group “ especially after its second letter to the editor in 1991 on women and leadership “ there was some concern about revealing the identities of the group's individual members to the public.
Members were determined to promote SIS's advocacy, however, and the group received the support of no less of a person than the Minister then in charge of women's affairs, Datuk Napsiah Omar. Napsiah had been a keen supporter of women's rights for many years, and agreed to launch the books.

The response was tremendous. Over 200 women and men from civil society groups, academia, the Government, and the business community attended the launch and one-day public forum. Many were heartened to hear for the first time about an Islam that publicly spoke to their own sense of fairness and justice.

Strengthened by public support, SIS adopted another strategy to influence public policy: it began submitting memoranda to the Government on law reform. It sent its first memorandum in 1993 to then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and argued against the proposed Kelantan Syariah Criminal Code (the so-called Hudud law) The memorandum detailed the draconian nature of the proposed criminal penalties, as well as systematic discrimination against women presenting arguments from religious, legal, and socio-historical perspectives. It also provided empirical evidence of injustice and gender discrimination in Muslim countries where similar criminal laws were in place. In 1994, SIS submitted its second memorandum to the Government on the Domestic Violence Act, arguing on religious and legal grounds that Muslims should not be excluded from the jurisdiction of the proposed law.

The Larger Context

From the beginning, SIS has recognised the importance of engaging the larger issues of nation-building, governance, Islamisation, and the challenge of change and modernity. In 1992, SIS organised its first national conference on "The Modern Nation State and Islam", thus expanding its tradition of learning and engagement with the Islamic tradition, and beginning a deeply rewarding collaboration with international scholars of Islam on issues of contemporary relevance to the ummah. It also began to take weekly lessons on the Qur'an and Islamic law and social change and modernity from the renowned Egyptian reformist scholar, Dr Fathi Osman, who was a visiting professor at the Law Faculty of the International Islamic University for two semesters in 1993 and 1994.

By the end of the 1990s, SIS activism expanded to include even broader non-secretarian issues such as upholding democratic principles and the fundamental liberties guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, as well as urging the observance of human rights principles and international treaties and conventions signed by the Malaysian Government. SIS then began to take public positions of critical importance in the face of attempts to prosecute Muslims attempting to leave Islam, and efforts to silence differing opinions in Islam.

Underlying these activities was the firm belief that, as a concerned group working towards a better society, SIS could not isolate itself from the larger human rights and democratic movements in the country. A movement for gender justice must necessarily be a part of the larger human rights movement, and vice versa. The protection and expansion of the democratic space enabling a civil society to thrive “ and upholding the fundamental liberties of the Malaysian Constitution “ are the responsibilities of all citizens, for it is precisely these liberties that have enabled groups like SIS to exist.

For the first 11 years of its existence, the members of SIS have worked on all the group's project without pay, offices, or support staff. Love, passion, and emotional and financial support from family and friends sustained the eight members through their activities and publications. But as Islam and politics continued to impact on the lives of Muslims and peoples of other faiths throughout the world, the demand for SIS's work and the SIS voice of reason and compassion also grew steadily. By 1998, SIS finally established an office with permanent staff. Two founding members became co-directors: Zainah Anwar and Sharifah Zuriah Aljeffri.

Continuing Expansion

From a focus on research and advocacy, SIS began to expand into public education. In 2000, it began work on a training module on women’s rights in Islam and revived its original study sessions. The impetus came from the expansion of SIS membership to include younger women, many of whom were fresh graduates who had just begun their professional careers. At the same time, more and more people, Muslims and those of other faiths “ both men and women – had become interested in the SIS voice for change.

These study sessions, which in the first year of their revival were open only to Muslim women, soon welcomed everyone – men and women, Muslim and those of other faiths alike. SIS also began conducting two-day training programmes on women's rights in Islam that would reach wider audiences and build a public constituency to support the Islam of justice and equality that SIS stands for.

Further expansion took place in 2003 when SIS established its service arm: a legal clinic offering legal counselling via email, fax, letters, telephone and face-to-face meetings. By the end of 2006, the clinic has served 1,768 clients.

The demand of SIS work at the international level has grown phenomenally. SIS is at the forefront of a growing international movement seeking to develop an understanding of Islam as a religion of justice and equality in the modern world. As women have been the first and the most affected by the rise of political Islam in their own communities, it is no surprise that in many Muslim countries women's groups are organising and networking at the international level to build support, and to share knowledge and strategies to develop a more egalitarian and just vision of Islam.

Today, SIS continues to evolve at a pace that sees it growing ever stronger. The group now admits male associate members, and has organised supporters and volunteers into the Friends of SIS (FOSIS). SIS works with many more supportive men today, including scholars, muftis, and judges, and its list of local donors grows larger “ growing larger. SIS has moved into larger office in a leafy old neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya and has 12 full-time staff, several part-time and project staff, and involves academics from local universities in its research projects.

From just one letter written by eight women who made the effort to study their religion for themselves, SIS is now one of the main advocates of justice and equality in Islam “ not only in Malaysia but throughout the world. For Muslims and citizens affected by unjust Muslim laws and the rise of conservatism and extremism in their societies, SIS has successfully created a public voice and a public space that enable Muslims to engage with their faith in the struggle for justice, human rights, and democracy in the twenty-first century.

Notes:
¹ Amina Wadud, Qur'an and Woman, Penerbit Fajar Bakti, Kuala Lumpur, 1992.
² Norani Othman, Rashidah Abdullah, Rose Ismail, Sharifah Zuriah and Zainah Anwar are active members of SIS today. Amina Wadud and Askiah Adam remain involved and committed to SIS as supporters.



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