Judge Nenney Shushaidah, one of the first women to ever serve on Malaysia’s Sharia high court, says that she believes religious law “exists to protect women’s rights” — even as women’s rights activists in the country continue to decry how Sharia law and the country’s patriarchal judicial system “selectively discriminates against women.” Shushaidah, who hears up to 80 cases a week — particularly cases involving child custody and polygamy, which is legal in Malaysia — told BBC News that “Islam holds women in high regard” and that as a judge her role was to “return to its teachings and maintain worthiness using Shaira.” But in her comments she also acknowledged the obstacles faced by professional women in the country — herself included.
“Back in my day, most Sharia judges were men who questioned the need for women in the practice,” Shushaidah admitted. “I never dreamed of becoming a judge. As a lawyer, I didn’t know if I could take on such a senior role that dealt with complicated cases. And as a woman, I felt doubt and fear. Sometimes I do feel uneasy. As a woman, I must feel, and I’d be lying if I said I felt nothing. But I am a judge and I have to make sure I am always clear and objective.”
The idea that Islamic law “favors men and treats women badly,” she insisted, was a “misconception.” As an example, she pointed to how she handles polygamy cases in which men ask the court for permission to marry another wife.
“A man has to have very strong reasons for wanting another marriage,” said Shushaidah, explaining that she requires all wives and prospective wives to testify in court to ensure that “they are on board with the arrangement.”
“He must show he can look after the welfare of his first wife as well as the women who come after. He is not allowed to neglect the needs of anyone,” she added.
But activists such as Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson aren’t convinced by such platitudes.
“We have no objection to Sharia law that doesn’t discriminate against women, gay people or social and religious minorities,” he told BBC News. “The problem with Sharia law in Malaysia is that too often it does precisely that. Religion is never an acceptable reason to violate international human rights standards of equality and non-discrimination.”
In September, a Malaysian Sharia court publicly caned two women for allegedly attempting to have sex — a punishment that was decried as homophobic, regressive and barbaric by activists. Asked about the case, Shushaidah declined to comment on specifics but characterized caning as a way “to educate offenders so as not to repeat the act again.”
Read the full story at BBC News.