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Upholding diversity in Islam

Dr Hamidah Marican

SISTERS in Islam (SIS) has a new executive director, Dr Hamidah Marican, who took over the helm from Zainah Anwar on 6 July 2009.

Over the past 21 years, the outspoken organisation which promotes justice and fairness in the name of Islam, has often been targeted for attacks by those who deem them either too liberal or deviant. They continue to be the subject of criticism at a time when Malaysia is dealing with the issues of syariah whipping for women, moral policing of beer-drinking Muslims, and proposed bans on pop concerts.

And yet, Hamidah notes that old issues such as the lack of justice for wives and children under Islamic family law, and violence against women, remain unresolved.

Hamidah has a doctorate in organisational development and has dealt extensively with workplace diversity and human resources. She has managed diversity issues in Intel, Shell and BP. In an interview with The Nut Graph on 14 Sept 2009 at the SIS office in Petaling Jaya, she talks about her high-flying career in the corporate sector and why she traded all that for a non-governmental organisation job with SIS.

TNG: Tell us more about your professional background and how you got involved in diversity work in the corporate sector?

Hamidah: I was a school teacher and then a lecturer before joining the corporate sector where I’ve spent close to 20 years. In Intel, where I spent seven years, I was chosen to lead a new group on organisational development (OD). Intel was my introduction to diversity in the workplace. Learning this field, which was totally new to me, took a toll as it required a lot of travelling and I had a young daughter. For the record, I’ve been a single mother for close to 16 years. There’s no way I could have done it without support from my parents and siblings.

My training in OD and diversity was on the job, and as I went through it, I was reminded of my growing-up years in the school system. I [am of] mixed heritage with Indian, Pakistani and Malay blood. I went through the system feeling second class. It was when Malaysia was going through transition after 13 May 1969, so affirmative action was in place. I felt like I didn’t belong to any group. I didn’t look Malay. I wasn’t typically Indian [Malaysian] because I was Muslim by faith. I felt neither here nor there and it made me go through school always at loggerheads with somebody or the other.

Over the years I’ve looked deeper into the larger diversity arena. It’s not just about Asians and westerners. I learnt issues surrounding gays and lesbians at the workplace, and ensuring that the systems and processes do not discriminate against them. Initially, I had my own reservations based on the way I was educated. But as I learned more, I began to understand that they [are just] a different group of people, and it really is their preference, and who am I to judge?

Firefighter looks at remains of New York’s World Trade
Center after 11 Sept attacks by terrorists
(public domain / wiki commons)

Interacting with people without passing judgement is important in diversity work. Sometimes, it’s not the other but it’s just you and your personal bias getting in the way. Diversity is about letting people bring their whole self to the workplace.

New dimensions opened up when I joined the oil and gas industry.

Then 9/11 happened. And all of a sudden I, Hamidah, became much sought after because I was a Muslim female who wears the hijab. Everybody wanted to know more about Islam. The oil and gas industry has workers from the Middle East and the last thing we wanted was quarrels and upsets in the workplace.

From here, I learnt a new dimension which was religion in the workplace. I was required to lead conversations with regards to Islam. This also meant I had to relook my early grounding in religion. I had to go back to the text to understand the substance so as to create an environment where people could talk about religion in a non-threatening manner, without labelling.

How do you view SIS’s work in today’s Malaysia where the lines between religions and even within Islam, are drawn more deeply than ever?

SIS’s work is becoming even more important. While we talk about diversity, let’s not forget there’s also diversity of thought. Islam, from its early days, has always promoted diversity of thought and opinion.

But we hear the same arguments that a group of learned scholars have interpreted the Quran a particular way and that is what everyone should follow, and those who disagree are labelled un-Islamic. What new element could you bring to this argument?

I’ve always believed in the principle of engagement and dialogue. It means talking with and understanding others. I always remind myself that I could be wrong, and I will not know until I sit down and engage. There is a gentler way to win the war.

Looking at the strong support for Kartika’s whipping, do you find that positions are more entrenched and that there is no interest in dialogue?

Kartika’s case is a problem where certain behavioural codes or requirements are codified and turned into crimes against the state. Islam is a religion of compassion. There are 107 verses in the Quran that talks about compassion and forgiveness, clearly indicating that God views us as mortal beings who are bound to make mistakes. And He’s given us space to reflect and reform.


The syariah maximum sentencing provision of 3-5-6 [three years’ jail, RM5,000 fine, and six strokes of the cane], is only a guide and should only kick in if you are a repeat offender who is causing harm to others. There is no evidence that Kartika was causing harm to others, so why the extreme punishment?

The situation that has emerged shows that many Muslims seem to confuse the concept of syariah with the content of syariah. The concept refers to syariah being a “path” or a body of law based on the Quran. The content, however, is the outcome of human interpretation. As such, interpretations will differ as we are mortal beings. Hence we see many schools of thought and law in Islam. 
My invitation for dialogue and discourse is to examine this very content. Dialogue must involve all stakeholders, not just ulamak and scholars, using the same rigour and intellect used by earlier ulamak. Dialogue must also keep in view the current constitutional provisions, gender perspective, universal human rights, equality at large and the lived realities of today. We must ensure that we leverage the diversity of thought that has been a common thread in Islam.

What do you think about the challenges facing Muslim women over the years? Are they facing new challenges or old ones that have not been resolved?


The issues are the same but they are becoming more challenging. When laws are codified based on one interpretation, it is problematic. We need to keep engaging and bringing in the lived realities of women. The realities of women today are very different from the time of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.

How do you view PAS? Their recent muktamar passed a resolution to investigate and ban SIS.

I’m convinced they don’t really know us. So I invite them to talk to us and know our work. We can have a dialogue without labelling and judging the other.

SIS is perceived by critics as too liberal. You are now the first executive director who wears a tudung. Have you received any comments on that?

I’ve not heard any. It’s also not fully out in the open that I’m the new executive director. But I think it will be a surprise to some. In the past, SIS has been accused of forcing its staff to remove their hijab.

What was your early religious grounding like, since you mentioned that you had to revisit it in the course of your organisational development work?


My late father was a religious man. I had a good balance of religious teaching from school and my father’s guidance. The frustration for me when growing up and in my years as a teacher was being told that as a Muslim, you could not do this or that, and these become the yardstick for whether you are a good Muslim. That was a source of conflict for me especially since my father always taught that in Islam there is no compulsion and that things ought to be done in love.

As I did OD work, I also found the difference between what was cultural and what was religious. And when I could differentiate, I was able to read the Quran with a new perspective. There were also certain habits, like how my childhood ustaz said we were not to underline or mark in the Quran at all, but as I grew older, I realised that if I’m going to study the Quran, I’ll have to make notes in the text.

Care to share the circumstances of becoming a single mum?

I was in a marriage that wasn’t working. If I were unhappy, I would raise an unhappy child. In order for that not to happen, it meant getting out of the marriage. It was my first exposure to how unfair the syariah court system can be. favicon

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7 Responses to “Upholding diversity in Islam”

  1. Farouq Omaro says:

    “SIS is being criticised for being too liberal.” Well, the thing is, Islam is a liberal religion. Or else, how could there be dozens of sects and interpretations!

  2. shukarno says:

    re: “There is no evidence that Kartika was causing harm to others, so why the extreme punishment?”

    […] [The judge] wants to put a stop to forces beyond his pale, and the single outlet of not-very-creative expression for men is that curious anger-violence axis.

    I think there’s a kind of mealy-mouth concession by those who defend the Islamic punishment as being in all respects, tame. They’d ratchet up the volume to 11 if they could. Sigh, too bad.

    There was a recent case against a bunch of street (i.e. homeless) children in Indonesia caught playing a child’s game but over real money, equivalent to RM0.20 coins. The judge meted out the harshest sentences possible. That’ll definitely teach them a lesson they’ll never forget.

  3. mae says:

    “There is no evidence that Kartika was causing harm to others, so why the extreme punishment?”

    So, only when harm is caused to others then punishment can be meted out? What logic is this?

  4. siew eng says:

    Is Mae being farcical?

    In Malaysia, you never know…

  5. Adam says:

    The women in Islam should be the rational voice to reform Islam in modern times when women play a pivotal role in family building. Keep up the good work, ladies.

  6. mat says:

    Siew Eng…stay out of’re not even a Muslim.


    And thank goodness she’s not one in Malaysia, I say. Look at how badly the state treats Muslim women in Malaysia even though Islam exhorts justice, compassion and fairness.

    In any case, since when do Muslims alone qualify to speak out against injustices done in the name of Islam? If that were the case, men shouldn’t be able to speak out against injustices done against women and children, too, no?


  7. Abdul says:

    Hamidah Marican’s statement above reflects her ignorance. [Given that] the Holy Quran totally forbids alcoholic drinks[,] how can she say: “There is no evidence that Kartika was causing harm to others, so why the extreme punishment? The situation that has emerged shows that many Muslims seem to confuse the concept of syariah with the content of syariah”?

    Here is a verse in the Holy Quran which totally forbids alcohol:

    “You who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, [dedication of] stones, and [divination by] arrows, are an abomination of Satan’s handiwork. Eschew such abomination, that you may prosper. Satan’s plan is [but] to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer; will you not then abstain?”

    (Al-Ma’idah 5:90-91)

    We know that the consumption of alcoholic drinks may ruin our health. Many families all over the world suffer so much when the members of their families become alcoholics. Drunken people are capable of committing serious crimes.

    The physical health effects associated with alcohol include cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, epilepsy, polyneuropathy, alcoholic dementia, heart disease, increased chance of cancer, nutritional deficiencies, sexual dysfunction, and death from many sources.

    The social problems arising from alcoholism can be significant. Being drunk or hungover during work hours may result in loss of employment, which may lead to financial problems, including the loss of living quarters. Drinking at inappropriate times, and behavior caused by reduced judgment, may lead to legal consequences, such as criminal charges for drunk driving or public disorder, or civil penalties for [unruly] behavior. An alcoholic’s behavior and mental impairment while drunk can profoundly impact surrounding family and friends, possibly leading to marital conflict and divorce, or contributing to domestic violence. Alcohol withdrawal differs significantly from most other drugs because it can be directly fatal.

    It seems to me that her ignorant statement is against Islam when she condones the offenders. As a Muslim, she must obey Allah and His messenger the prophet Muhammad.

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