WHEN it comes to international human rights obligations, the Malaysian government has behaved like a faithless lover: making promises to the world it never intended to keep. The banning of Sisters in Islam (SIS)’s book Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, which is now being judicially reviewed in court, is a demonstration of this faithlessness.
Malaysia pledged to the world that it would advance the rights of women and eliminate discrimination against women when it ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw). So how does banning a book that discusses the problems faced by women in the face of Islamic extremism advance women’s rights? How does shutting out a SIS publication demonstrate respect for women’s views and their right to express themselves? Did then Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar even think about Malaysia’s international pledges when he made the decision to ban the book?
When is our government going to start taking its international obligations seriously and stop being a chameleon on the world stage?
Equivalent to Myanmar
When it comes to ratifying international conventions, Malaysia is roughly on par with Myanmar, an undemocratic country governed by a military junta. We have failed to ratify most of the major international covenants in the world. For some reason, our government is unable to pledge not to commit torture, to acknowledge the existence of refugees, or to refrain from being racist.
As of 25 Nov 2008: Parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in dark green;
countries that have signed but not ratified in light green; non-members in grey
(Public domain; source: Wiki commons)
Thankfully, we have at least been able to promise not to discriminate against women and to protect children’s rights. Malaysia ratified both Cedaw and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1995.
Even then, reservations were made. For example, for the CRC, Malaysia has reserved its obligations under Articles 1, 2, 7, 13, 14, 15, 28(1)(a) and 37.
What? We made a reservation on the very first article of the CRC? Yes, we did indeed.
Incidentally, Article 7, which we also refrained from making any obligations, guarantees a child these few basic rights: a name, a nationality, and, as far as possible, to know and be cared for by his or her parents. But Malaysia won’t promise that.
Given the remaining obligations Malaysia has signed up for relating to women and children, one would think that the government would really make sure that these obligations are carefully met.
In fact, one would assume that a book such as SIS’s, which discusses challenges Muslim women face, should even be funded by the government to highlight women’s issues and generate public discourse and dialogue.
Whether or not the home minister or civil servants agree with the book is, frankly, irrelevant. Cedaw doesn’t mandate the government to agree with women’s groups on everything.
What is relevant is that this book is about women’s issues in an Islamic context. And Cedaw did mandate countries to commit to the full development and advancement of women, and to guarantee them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights on an equal footing with men. That includes the right to express themselves.
SIS’s lawyers have therefore argued in their submissions in court that the home minister’s excuse that the book could “confuse the Muslim community especially women” clearly “smacks of discrimination”.
It is not the home minister’s job to be paternalistic and decide what books Muslim women can or cannot read. It is the home minister’s job, as part of the Malaysian government, to act in ways that do not contravene Malaysia’s international obligations.
From the titles read out in court, it appears that the book contains essays on issues pertinent to the discourse on women’s rights. Discussions on the impact on women when “immoral behaviour” is criminalised are included, along with essays on how to encourage and develop progressive interpretations of the Quran.
These discussions appear to be completely in line with what the UN Cedaw Committee had in mind for Malaysia when it reviewed our performance in 2006. In its concluding comments, the committee instructed Malaysia to conduct comparative studies of countries where “more progressive interpretations of Islamic law have been codified in legislative reforms.”
Former Home Minister Syed
Hamid AlbarThe committee also encouraged the Malaysian government to partner with Islamic jurisprudence research organisations, civil society, women’s groups, and community leaders. But far from partnering with SIS, the Home Ministry, which initially refused to give its reasons for the book ban, is instead silencing genuine discourse and dialogue on the impact of political Islam in women’s lives.
The Cedaw committee also strongly urged Malaysia to incorporate its convention promises into national law. Discriminated women would then be able to rely directly on local laws to hold the government or any other entity accountable. Although the Malaysian government has thus far failed to fulfil the committee’s recommendations, SIS’s lawyers argue that the government is still bound by its international promises.
After all, as part of Malaysia’s bid to join the UN Human Rights Council in 2006, we voluntarily pledged in writing to “actively support international action to advance the rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children and the disabled.” Or did we mean that we would work hard to protect women internationally, but not so hard domestically?
It has been said: “The best way to keep one’s word is not to give it.” Malaysia has been doing well, as far as not giving its word on international treaties is concerned. But where we have given our word, the government should take its pledges seriously and start incorporating Cedaw and CRC principles into local law.
The government, especially decision-makers such as ministers, should also do as the Cedaw committee recommends and educate itself on women’s issues. This would help firmly establish a culture that is supportive of women’s equality and non-discrimination. It would also ensure that the Malaysian government doesn’t act in ways that contravene the international treaties it has signed.
For now, the government is simply making empty promises to the international community and to citizens by not fulfilling the treaties it has signed. If we are to hold our heads high as Malaysians on the international human rights stage, we need more concrete measures from our government, and fewer empty promises.
Keeping Chin Peng out
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