Fulbright scholar Othman works to improve Muslim women's lives
Norani Othman knows that many people consider the terms "Muslim" and
"feminist" to be mutually exclusive--and she's trying to bring
the the two together as a considerable political force in her home country
Othman, a Fulbright scholar visiting the law school this fall under the
auspices of the Law and Religion Program, is a member of Sisters of Islam,
a non-governmental organization devoted to legal issues affecting Muslim
women in Malaysia. For the past 10 years, Othman and the other group members
have actively sought to improve the status and situation of women in legal
matters despite the oft-restrictive interpretation of the Koran by Muslim
Describing her beginnings in the women's group as an attempt to "observe
and experience the problems women of our generation experience in the context
of their everyday lives," Othman, a professor of sociology in Malaysia,
says the first members of the group were lawyers, journalists and teachers--women
of the same faith "bound by common experience." Sisters of Islam
began as a study and discussion group that heard complaints.
"Eventually, we got fed up with the whining and complaining and asked
what could be done about the situation," Othman said. "We decided
to meet every Monday, and evolved into Sisters of Islam."
A multi-racial nation whose official religion is Islam, Malaysia has a diverse
population that includes Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Buddhists and Hindus.
Muslims, however, comprise 51 percent of the Malaysian population. When
Sisters of Islam evolved into a legal entity, many people dropped out of
the organization. For the 10 people who remained, the work became a personal
commitment. "We realized that if we didn't do it, no one would, and
we couldn't live. We said, `Let's try to do something and create some space
for debate,'" she said.
What Sisters of Islam did was publish two booklets titled "Are Muslim
Men Allowed to Beat Their Wives?" and "Are Men and Women Equal
Before Allah?" The booklets focused on domestic violence, an ongoing
project for Sisters of Islam. The group lobbied the government to draft
better laws on the issue. Sisters of Islam works under the core values of
self-learning and critical evaluation in trying to change the laws, relying
on the translation of the Koran for their purposes.
Through the booklets and other urgings Sisters of Islam presented to the
government, the group began to run into controversy. "Religious groups
started to make statements," Othman said. "We wrote letters to
newspapers and started some crucial debates." By publicizing the issues,
Sisters of Islam got others involved in their work. The group registered
itself publicly and had a one-day forum to hand out its booklets. "We
got the media there--we learned from the West in matters of strategy,"
she said. "We had a number of women who wrote to us in support of the
articles; we've become a kind of local institution."
The growing success of Sisters of Islam's endeavors has left Othman with
little time to pursue strictly academic research; instead, she "combines
activism with scholarship," publishing on the same issues in which
she's involved. Through the Law and Religion Program, she hopes to have
a vehicle for the human rights work under her specific Islamic studies program.
"You start with one simple thing, addressing the issue of women in
Malaysia, and because of the nature of society we are forced to go beyond
that," she said. "It's a quest of public law."
Othman is hopeful that Malaysia's growing stature will serve her well in
her cause. Support for the causes comes through economic development, the
growth of educated women and a mobile middle class," she said. "More
and more women will experience these things."
She is encouraged by the growing support of women in the country. "Countries
like Malaysia and Indonesia should create models of Islamic modernity,"
Othman said. "We have political stability and high economic development--both
of which are crucial. We must address the needs of the Muslim constituency
in light of these factors."
to the December 9, 1996 contents page