Malaysia's first women Islamic judges draw debate

KUALA LUMPUR Wed Aug 4, 2010 10:47am IST

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - Malaysia's first female Islamic court judges are set to take office but women's rights activists in the mainly Muslim country aren't cheering yet.

Limits on the cases they will be allowed to hear which may see them barred from making rulings on marriage and divorce have caused some activists to question whether the moderate Muslim country in Southeast Asia is really ready to empower women.

"We don't understand the basis for this. Presumably they're as qualified as the male judges so there's no reason to disqualify them on the basis of gender," said Marina Mahathir from Sisters in Islam, a Muslim women's rights group.

There are not many female sharia court judges Muslim countries due to differing views on whether they are allowed but neighbouring Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, has over 100 according to Sisters in Islam.

Suraya Ramli, 31 and Rafidah Abdul Razak, 39, both officials at Malaysia's Islamic judiciary department, were appointed in May and will serve beginning later this month in Kuala Lumpur and the administrative capital of Putrajaya respectively.

But a panel of the country's top sharia judges said the two women may be barred from hearing cases involving marriages and divorce. The panel is set to announce its decision soon.

Malaysia practices a dual-track legal system, with Muslims who make up 60 percent of the country's 28 million population governed by Islamic family and criminal laws while non-Muslims fall under civil laws. There are about 400 shariah judges and prosecutors in the country, according to court officials.

Sharia court judges in the country rule on Muslim marriages, divorce, inheritance and certain religious offences such as adultery and drinking alcohol, which are monitored by moral policing squads.

Malaysia's chief sharia judge Ibrahim Lembut said views differed on the powers of female sharia judges, but that any limitations would be "minor".

"Whatever a male judge can hear, a female judge can also hear, except on marriage via judicial guardianship, because that would require a male judge to carry out the rites," said Ibrahim.

The appointments would be followed by further measures to improve the system such as a fund for women whose husbands fail to pay alimony.

Sisters in Islam, which provides legal aid to Muslim women, said women have long been victimised by undue delays and unfair rulings in divorce and custody cases at sharia courts.

A bigger concern for womens rights campaigners is the growing conservatism among Muslims which is being reflected in calls to increase the application of strict Islamic criminal laws including against women.

A mother of two was last year sentenced to caning after she was caught drinking beer by Islamic enforcement officials at a hotel lounge. Her sentence was later dropped and replaced with community service after a public outcry.

Three other Muslim women later became the first to be caned in the country in February after they pleaded guilty before a sharia court for having sex out of wedlock.

(Reporting by Razak Ahmad; Editing by Kazunori Takada)

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