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 of Malaysia.

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 men.

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."

--Danielle Service

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