Malaysia: Zainah Anwar

I want to live in a society that celebrates our plurality, our differences, our diversity and sees that as a blessing instead of a threat.

— Zainah Anwar

With a group of women, Zainah Anwar wanted to find out if it was true that Islam discriminates against women. Turning to the Koran, they found that it advocates justice, equality, dignity and freedom. So they set up Sisters in Islam (SIS) which promotes women’s rights within Islam. With the Legal Aid Center of the Malaysian Bar Council, the group opened a legal clinic which serves some 700 clients a year. It runs a legal advice column in a Malay daily to help women know their rights, and conducts monthly study sessions, public education programs and training on women’s rights in Islam.

"We grew up with the idea that God is just, that Islam is a just religion," says Zainah Anwar, founding member and executive director of the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS), based in Malaysia where Muslims make up the majority of the population. "Suddenly, as adults we were confronted with the realities of lived Islam, which was discriminatory against women, which was oppressive of women. It was hard for us, as believers and thinking individuals, to think that God would ever want to discriminate against one-half of the human race." That spurred Zainah Anwar and her friends to turn to the Koran to find out whether the scriptures were actually unjust towards women. There they discovered verses that talked about mercy and compassion and justice, and of men and women being each other’s protecting friend and guardian. For the women, discovering the Koran’s insistence on enjoining what is just and on promoting the principles of justice, equality and dignity was a refreshing and liberating experience. "That was a turning point for us; it opened our eyes to the fact that this discrimination in the name of Islam was due to interpretation of the text rather than the text itself," she says, adding that it gave them the courage to share these views with the public. From that awakening, it was only a matter of time before SIS was formally registered in 1990. "We knew that we needed to claim the right and create the public space for a public discussion on Islamic issues," she says. "And also to educate Muslims and the public that when Islam is used as a sort of law and public policy to govern the private and public lives of citizens, then every citizen has the right to engage with Islam to define and talk about how it impacts on us as citizens of this country."

Sisters in Islam (SIS)