Malaysia has a dual-track legal system comprised of civil courts running in parallel with Islamic Sharia courts where Muslim Malays can be tried on religious and moral charges. Sharia is imposed only on Muslims and deals with moral and family matters. Non-Muslims are required to follow secular laws that deal with the same matters.

Islamic laws covering matters such as morality, inheritance, marriage and divorce. Sharia is applied on some matters throughout the country and has been applied in a more extreme manner in two Malaysian states, Kelantan and Terengganu. The Islamic Affairs Department, Jabatan Agama Islam, the national Muslim law body, was established shortly after independence and was given more power after the Sharia laws were strengthened in the 1990s.

There are laws in Malaysia’s more Islamic states that state anyone who misses Friday prayers three weeks in a row can be punished by six months in jail. Smoking, drinking or eating on Ramadan carry a jail term up to one year. “Perpetrators to sexual intercourse out of wedlock” can bring a sentence of two years. Occasionally sharia courts impose caning sentences on male Muslims caught drinking alcohol or committing adultery. Hugging or holding hands qualifies as “indecent behavior in a public place,” a crime that carries a six month prison sentence. There has been some discussion of passing laws requiring all Muslims to pay a “zakat” (religious tax) of 2.5 percent, with those not paying risking fine and up to three years in prison.

In the 1990s, Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS)—an Islamic political party—said it wanted to bring back stoning and amputations and the death penalty for apostasy. Thus far the Malaysia federal government and Parliament have vetoed their efforts. When Abdul had Awang because chief minister of the Malaysian state of Terengganu in 1999 and tried tied impose the punishments of stoning to death for adulterers and amputation for thieves, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad invoked Malaysia’s secular constitution to stop him.

The government-backed National Fatwa Council is one of Malaysia's highest Islamic bodies. When it issues a fatwa (edict) it is up to the individual states to implement the ruling. In 2008, The fatwa council banned women from dressing or behaving like men and engaging in lesbian sex, saying it was forbidden by Islam.


Islamic Courts in Malaysia

The sharia system, which issues rulings under Islamic law, is composed of a high court and courts in each state. A system of superior and subordinate courts handles civil and criminal law. Superior courts include the Federal Court, the Court of Appeals, and two High Courts. Shariah courts administer the personal affairs of Muslims, while civil courts govern Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and other religious minorities.

The Islamic sharia courts operate in parallel to civil courts here but apply specifically to Muslims. According to Reuters: “Islamic courts have authority over the country's Muslims. Islamic law is selectively enforced by local officials in each of Malaysia's 13 federal states. In some states unmarried Muslim couples caught in hotel rooms can be charged, while believers seen eating in the daytime during the fasting month of Ramadan can be fined. Kelantan state, run by an Islamist party, has separate-sex supermarket queues, but the national capital, Kuala Lumpur, is more relaxed. Yet many say Malaysia's secular status is being eroded. Many non-Muslims worry about Islamic law being eimposed on them. [Source: Reuters, June 28, 2006]

Impact of Malaysia's Islamic Law on Non-Muslims

In December 2007, Associated Press reported: “A ruling by Malaysia's highest court in a high-profile marital dispute could help determine whether Islamic courts have the power to decide the fate of non-Muslims, a deeply divisive issue in this mainly Muslim nation. The case involves Subashini Rajasingam, a 29-year-old ethnic Indian Hindu who is trying to prevent her Muslim convert husband from seeking a divorce in a Shariah court and to stop him from converting their younger son to Islam. Subashini is not contesting the divorce, but wants it to be decided in a civil court. "We are not challenging the authority of the Shariah courts," said Subashini's lawyer K. Shanmuga. "What we are saying is that in this dispute, because it deals with a non-Muslim marriage, and because one of the parties is a non-Muslim, the Shariah court does not have jurisdiction," he told The Associated Press. [Source: AP, December 26, 2007]

The case is being closely watched because it could set a precedent for inter-religious disputes and minority rights in Malaysia where the Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities have voiced fears that courts are unfairly asserting the supremacy of Islam. Laws in Malaysia are vague on which court has the authority to deal with disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims, especially within a family.

Civil courts have generally steered clear of taking a position in such cases, allowing Shariah courts to take the lead. This has not only raised questions about freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution but has also strained racial relations in this multiethnic country, which has enjoyed largely peaceful race relations for nearly four decades. The verdict "is very important in order to appreciate the interrelationship between civil courts and the Shariah courts, particularly so in cases involving conversions of spouses," said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer who has helped fight several such cases including Subashini's. "It will also have an important bearing on the right of parents to unilaterally convert their children to a particular faith," he told the AP.

Subashini, a clerk, married Saravanan Thangathoray in a Hindu wedding in 2002. The couple have two sons, Dharvin and Sharvind, now aged 4 and 2. Saravanan told his wife in 2006 that he had converted to Islam. Subashini attempted suicide and was hospitalized. When she returned home, Saravanan had left with Dharvin, whom he claims has also converted to Islam. Saravanan, by then known as Muhammad Shafi Saravanan Abdullah, filed for divorce and custody rights over the children in a Shariah court in May 2006, and the right to convert Sharvind. Subashini separately filed for divorce and custody rights in the Kuala Lumpur High Court, and also asked it to prevent her husband from seeking relief in the Shariah Court. The court refused. The Court of Appeal also ruled in March this year that Subashini should argue her case in the Shariah Court. The ruling outraged civil rights groups, who say Subashini's chances of blocking a conversion would be slim in the Shariah Court. She then went to the Federal Court, which told Muhammad Shafi not to approach the Shariah court until it has ruled on the matter.

In the case of Subashini Rajasingam vs Saravanan Thangathoray, the the Federal Court by a majority of 2-1, dismissed the wife’s application for a court order to stop her husband, who had converted to Islam, from going to the Syariah court for a divorce and from unilaterally converting their infant children to Islam. It was dismissed on a technical ground. Under Section 51, Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, if one spouse converts to Islam, the other spouse can only apply for divorce three months after that conversion.

Richard Wee wrote in The Star: “Subashini filed her divorce application just before that three-month deadline. She had done so because her husband had filed a similar application in the Syariah court and that court was apparently prepared to grant a divorce order as well as an order for custody of her child despite her absence (she cannot appear in that court as she is not a Muslim). However, the Federal Court made some interesting observations. One major issue in that case was the conversion of one of the children in the marriage to Islam by the converted husband. [Source: Richard Wee, The Star, November 7, 2008]

Subashini had contended that the conversion was irregular and therefore void, as the law requires the consent of both parents when the child is converted to another religion. But the majority of the Federal Court, in a Judgment delivered by Datuk Nik Hashim Nik Ab. Rahman FCJ said: “The wife complained that the husband had no right to convert either child of the marriage to Islam without the consent of the wife. She said the choice of religion is a right vested in both parents by virtues of Articles 12(4) and 8 of the Federal Constitution, and Section 5 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1961.

Articles 12 (4) of the Federal Constitution provides that the religion of a person under the age of eighteen years shall be decided by his parent or guardian. Article 8 prohibits discrimination on the basis, among other things, of gender; and Section 5 of the Guardianship of Infants Act 1961 provides that both parents have equal rights in matters related to the child. “After a careful study of the authorities, I am of the opinion that the complaint is misconceived. Either husband or wife has the right to convert a child of the marriage to Islam. The word ‘parent’ in art 12(4) of the FC, which states that the religion of a person under the age of 18 years shall be decided by his parent or guardian, means a single parent.”

Syariah High Court Judge Charged with Taking Bribes

In November 2007, Associated Press reported: “A judge has become the first senior member of Malaysia's Islamic law system to face a corruption trial. He was charged with accepting bribes, a court official said. The authorities insisted it was an isolated incident that should not mar the reputation of Malaysia's Islamic law or Syariah Courts, which function separately from the secular legal system and handle family, personal and religious cases for the country's majority-Muslim population. [Source: AP, November 22, 2007]

Hassan Basri Markum, a Syariah High Court judge in the northern state of Perak, pleaded innocent on Tuesday in a civil court in Ipoh - which is under the secular judicial system - to five charges of soliciting or receiving about RM5,200 (S$2,200) in bribes, said his lawyer, Mr S. Theivanthiran. The government's Anti-Corruption Agency accused Hassan of demanding bribes between August and September this year in various syariah cases, including helping two couples marry without fulfilling Syariah requirements, Mr Theivanthiran said. If convicted, Hassan faces up to 20 years in prison.

Hassan, 53, has been working in the Syariah judicial system for more than 20 years. He is the first Syariah Court judge to face corruption charges, said his lawyer and a spokesman for the Syariah Judicial Department. Syariah Chief Judge Sheikh Ghazali Abdul Rahman told Malaysian media on Tuesday that any case of alleged misconduct involving Syariah judges is an isolated incident caused by an individual's personal weaknesses. 'We have an ethics code and directives for Syariah judges, lawyers and other officers,' Datuk Sheikh Ghazali said in the New Straits Times. 'Those who are proven guilty by the court of law will be punished accordingly.' The Syariah Judicial Department's spokesman confirmed Datuk Sheikh Ghazali's comments.

Apostasy-Related Cases in Malaysia

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: The Christian husband of a Malaysian woman who died in December clashed with Islamic authorities who contended she had converted to Islam a week before her death and would be buried according to Muslim rites. A Malaysian court ordered the woman’s body released for a Christian funeral after the conversion claim was retracted. In another case, a 29-year-old woman who was born a Muslim but converted to Hinduism was ordered by Malaysian authorities to spend six months in an Islamic rehabilitation center, where she said officials tried to make her pray as a Muslim, wear a head scarf and eat beef, a sacrilege to Hindus. [Source: Sean Yoong, AP, February 23, 2008]

In January 2008, Reuters reported: “In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a high court has permitted the husband of deceased Wong Sau Lan to have her body cremated in Christian funeral rites. Reuters today reports that the Buddhist husband's 18-day legal battle ensued after his ethnic Chinese wife, who was baptised as a Christian in November 2007, died of kidney failure in a Kuala Lumpur hospital. Police claimed that the woman had converted to Islam by reciting Arabic verses during a session with a traditional healer a week earlier. However in court the Islamic Affairs Council agreed that the body could be released to the husband because the alleged conversion to Islam was not carried out in accordance with Islamic law. This is the latest in a series of court battles over the right of relatives to bury deceased family members in non-Muslim funerals. [Source: Reuters, January 18, 2008]

In March 2009, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian went to court to fight the secret conversion of his 15-month-old daughter by his estranged Muslim convert wife. AFP reported: “Carpenter Hoo Ying Soon, 28, is also challenging the temporary custody granted to his wife by a sharia court. Lawyer Tang Jay Son told AFP Hoo only learned of his wife and child's secret conversion two days ago through a sharia court notice, which said the woman had become a Muslim on January 28 and his infant daughter on February 3. "They also served him an interim court order... that grants the wife a temporary custody over the child and the reason for that is because the child is already a Muslim," Tang said. "But we have to bear in mind that the child was converted to Islam without Hoo's knowledge and consent as a father." [Source: AFP, March 5, 2009 =]

“The couple - originally both Buddhists who married in 2007 and live in central Negri Sembilan state- separated in September 2008, the lawyer said. He said the parents took turns to look after their daughter, who has now been given the Muslim name Nurul Syuhada Chew Abdullah. Hoo is now seeking custody of his daughter in the civil courts while his wife applies for a divorce through the sharia court. Tang criticised the Islamic authorities for allowing the baby's conversion without first determining the child's custody or the status of the couple's marriage.” =

In January 2008, a Malaysian Court has awarded a temporary injunction to an ethnic Chinese man to prevent the local Islamic Council from taking the body of his wife and burying her in accordance with Muslim rites. Christian Today Australia and news agencies reported: “The injunction issued comes after a dispute erupted between the widower, Ngiam Tee Kong, and the council over the conversion of his wife, Mong Sau Lan, to Islam. The husband insisted to the council and the court she remained a Christian up until her death. As such, he wanted her to be buried in accordance with Christian rites. According to a local newspaper, Mr. Kong received a letter notifying him his wife had converted to Islam and it was witnessed by a religious affairs authority. When Ms. Lan passed away, the hospital notified her husband that the council requested her body to be handed over to them so she could be given a Muslim burial. However, this was disputed by her spouse, where he argued that he had the legal authority as a husband to receive the body instead. [Source: Christian Today Australia and agencies, January 7, 2008]

Ian Buruma wrote in The New Yorker, There is the “case of a young Malay woman who no longer believed in Islam and wanted to marry a Christian. To do so, she would have to change her religious status. The secular authorities ruled that this was a matter for the Islamic court, but, of course, no Islamic court (whose authority she, as a non-believer, no longer recognised) would ever accede to apostasy. Her predicament has become a test case on the issue of Malay identity. After receiving death threats, she is now in hiding. Anwar rolled his eyes. “Islamically, it is indefensible that all Malays should have to be Muslims,” he told me. “Not all Arabs are Muslims, after all. But this case has become too political. It is better not to dwell on this issue. We should deal with poverty, rule of law, democracy. . . .” I must have looked unsatisfied. “Look,” he said, “I have Malay friends who no longer believe, who drink. But they don’t make an issue out of it.” [Source: Ian Buruma, The New Yorker, May 19, 2009 ]

Malaysia Rejects Bid for Christian Convert to Remove Islam ID Tag

In May 2007, Ian MacKinnon wrote in The Guardian, “The highest court in Malaysia rejected a Muslim-born woman's appeal to be recognised as a Christian, ending a six-year legal battle that heightened concerns over discrimination of the country's religious minorities. Lina Joy, 42, had fought the decisions of Malaysia's lower courts in an effort to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card, arguing that the constitution guaranteed her religious freedom. But the panel of three judges decided, in a majority verdict, that it had no power to intervene in cases of apostasy. These cases fall under the jurisdiction of Malaysia's Sharia courts, which run in tandem with the country's civil courts. [Source: Ian MacKinnon, The Guardian, May 31, 2007 +++]
“However, it has never been made clear which branch of the court takes precedence. The Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of worship, but ethnic Malays must be Muslim by law. "She cannot simply, at her own whim, enter or leave her religion," Judge Ahmad Fairuz said during the ruling. "She must follow rules." But Judge Richard Malanjum, the only non-Muslim on the panel, said it was "unreasonable" to ask Ms Joy to turn to the Sharia court as she could face criminal prosecution because abandoning Islam is punishable by a fine or jail. Critics of the verdict expressed dismay and said it failed to uphold the legal rights of Malaysians. +++

“Two-hundred Muslim protesters who gathered in a prayer vigil outside the court yesterday greeted the verdict with cries of "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). The woman, born Azlina Jailani, started attending church in 1990 and was baptised eight years later. She was given permission to change her name, but "Islam" remained as her religion on her identity card. +++

Malaysia Court Halts Baby Hindu Boy's Conversion to Islam

In March 2007, Reuters reported: “A Malaysian court has taken the rare step of ordering a Muslim man not to go ahead with plans to convert his baby son to Islam, pending a last-ditch legal effort by the Hindu mother to take custody of the boy. The Court of Appeal, which usually defers jurisdiction in religious matters to Malaysia's Islamic courts, granted the mother an injunction barring the father from converting their 1-year-old to Islam, local newspapers said. Once the boy is converted to Islam, the father could seek custody of him in an Islamic court. He did this last year with the couple's elder son, aged 3, the papers said. The legal battle highlights constitutional tensions over religion in mainly Muslim Malaysia: the charter assures freedom of religion but in practice non-Muslims have found no recourse to civil courts where questions of Islamic identity are involved. [Source: Reuters, March 30, 2007 |+|]

Many non-Muslims refuse to submit to Islamic law. “In 2005, the High Court ruled it could not intervene to stop state religious officials giving a man a Muslim burial against his Hindu widow's wishes. She said he was Hindu but an Islamic court ruled he was Muslim. In the latest case, the lawyer for the Hindu mother said an Islamic court might award custody of her younger son to the father before she could exhaust all her civil legal options. "If the injunction is not granted, the wife's right will be over-reached before the appeal is heard in the Federal Court and it will cause severe injustice," state news agency Bernama quoted the lawyer, Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, as telling the Court of Appeal. "There is also the possibility that the father will convert the second child. The threat is substantial." |+|

“But the injunction may be only a brief legal victory for the mother, R. Subashini, who married under Hindu rites in 2001. The Court of Appeal ruled earlier that the father had the right to go to the Islamic court to have his marriage dissolved and to seek custody of the younger son. The injunction granted on Friday applies only until the mother can persuade the Federal Court to hear her appeal against the Court of Appeal's March 13 ruling.” |+|

Malaysian Woman Allowed to Revert to Buddhism

In May 2008, a religious court in Malaysia allowed a Muslim convert to leave the Islamic faith. The BBC reported: “Penang's Sharia court ruled that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah was free to return to Buddhism, following the collapse of her marriage to a Muslim man. It was decided she had not had proper counselling during her conversion. [Source: BBC, May 8, 2008]

“Malaysians are rarely allowed to renounce the faith - those who do can be prosecuted under stringent laws. Malaysia insists a non-Muslim marrying a Muslim must take their faith. Ms Siti, an ethnic Chinese, converted when she married an Iranian Muslim man. When their marriage collapsed, she filed a case with the Penang court asking to be allowed to revert to being a Buddhist. The judge found in her favour, saying it was clear she had never practised Islam after her conversion and continued to pray as a Buddhist. "The court has no choice but to declare that Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah is no longer a Muslim as she has never practised the teachings of Islam," said Judge Othman Ibrahim. ||||

“He instead blamed the state Islamic council for not fulfilling its responsibility of counselling and guiding new converts. Analysts say the judge used a very liberal interpretation of the law because in many countries converts are treated just like those who are born into Islam - and are prohibited from changing their faith. Islamic affairs are governed at a state level so this decision may not form a precedent for other parts of Malaysia. The local religious council in Penang may also appeal against the ruling. ||||

IANS reported: “Siti Fatimah, who is from Nibong Tebal, is Chinese by birth. In her application filed in May 2008, year to renounce her religion, Siti Fatimah, whose Chinese name is Tan Ean Huang, said she converted to Islam in July 1998 but never practised it. The woman claimed before the court that she had converted for the sake of marrying an Iranian named Ferdoun Ashanian in 1999, but he left her a few months later. She has no knowledge of his current whereabouts. The issue of non-Muslims converting to Islam, mostly for the sake of marriage, is a sensitive issue in Malaysia. If the marriage does not work, parents born of different faiths have gone to court to determine the religion their children should follow. [Source: IANS, March 2009]

AFP reported: “Apostasy, or renouncing the faith, is one of the gravest sins in Islam and a highly sensitive issue in Malaysia where Islamic sharia courts have rarely allowed people to abandon the religion. Siti Fatimah Tan Abdullah said she had never practised Islamic teachings since she converted in 1998 and only did so to enable her to marry her Iranian husband. The couple married in 2004 and she filed for renunciation after her husband left her, winning approval from a religious court last year in a decision appealed by the Islamic Religious Council in Penang state. [Source: AFP ]

“Penang's Sharia Appeal Court said Ms Tan could revert to Buddhism, but only because her conversion was not valid and done only for the sake of marriage. 'She has been living a non-Islamic lifestyle and praying to deities and this clearly shows she never embraced Islam,' said Ibrahim Lembut, one of a three-member panel of judges. 'The question of conversion does not arise because she never intended to become a Muslim in the first place.' Ms Tan welcomed the decision. 'I am very happy that this is finally over. It has been a long struggle,' she told reporters outside the court.

“The Penang Islamic Religious Council also endorsed the ruling, which it said confirmed the status quo in Malaysia, where religious courts operate in parallel to civil courts. 'The original decision gave the impression that one could simply convert out of Islam. So now it is clear this is not the case,' its lawyer Ahmad Munawar Abdul Aziz told reporters. 'In this case, the court has made it clear that this was a unique case where her conversion itself was invalid,' he added. 'So this removes the fear among the Muslim community that conversions may be subject to review.' Islam is Malaysia's official religion and more than 60 percent of the nation's 27 million people are Muslim Malays.”

Islamic Law and Women in Malaysia

Many men in conservative areas refuse to shake hands with women. In Kelantan couples caught sitting too close together on park benches have to be on the look out for moral police. If they are caught they are fined up to £285 in the city's Sharia courts. In 2003, a woman was fined $1,000 for sitting to close to a man she was not related to. Unrelated men and women caught riding together on a motorcycle have been arrested on similar “close proximity” charges. Unmarried couples caught having sex are often forced to marry.

Women in the state of Selangor are forbidden from entering beauty contests and participating in fashion shows because the clothes they wear are too revealing. According to a 1996 law, legal action will be taken against women who wear body-hugging dresses, bikinis, leotards, low-cut blouses, which show cleavages and high -slit skirts that expose a large part of the leg. Women who are convicted face a fine a $4000 or six months in jail or both.

In 1997, Noni Mohamad and two other contestants in the Miss Malaysia Petite beauty contest were arrested for indecent dressing for wearing leotards and swimsuit. The women were fined 400 ringiit ($145) and told if they didn't pay the fine they would be jailed for two months. The ruling is not clear on women athletes, swimmers and gymnasts. As to appear non-discriminatory, the law also states that men will be punished if they reveal their body between their knees and navel.

In March 2002, bikinis were banned in Terengganu and Kelantan, which have a number of beach resorts that are popular with European vacationers. Malaysian tourism officials complained the ban produced a noticeable drop off in the number of foreign visitors to Malaysia.

Women in Northeast Malaysia Told to Stop Wearing Lipstick and High Heels

Ian MacKinnon wrote in The Guardian, “Women in a northern Malaysian city ruled by conservative Islamists are being urged to forsake bright lipstick and noisy high heels in an effort to preserve their dignity and avoid rape. Authorities in Kota Bharu have distributed pamphlets recommending that Muslim women do not wear heavy makeup and loud shoes when they go out to work in restaurants or other public places. But municipal officials in Kota Bharu, capital of Kelantan state which is run by the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic party, stressed that the code was not an edict, merely advice for women wishing to follow the "Islamic way". [Source: Ian MacKinnon, The Guardian, June 24, 2008]

“The party's brand of Islam - mocked by Malaysian liberals as "Taliban Lite" - has already decreed that supermarkets must a have separate lines for men and women at checkouts, and beaches should be segregated. But the only directive on dress came a decade ago when it was ordered Muslim women must wear non-transparent headscarves that cover the chest, along with loose-fitting, long-sleeved blouses. Violators face a fine of up to £75 and as many as 20 women are punished for breaking the rule every month.

Azman Mohamad Daham, a spokesman for Kota Bharu municipality, said the latest suggestion contained in leaflets was part of a two-year old campaign. "We just distribute pamphlets," he said. "Our minimum guideline is [women] must wear headscarves. The rest is up to them. If they want to follow the 100 percent Islamic way, it's up to them." The goal of the modesty drive was to prevent rape and safeguard the women's dignity, he said.

It advises that women should refrain from using heavy makeup, particularly bright lipstick. Loud high-heel shoes should also be avoided, though if women insisted on wearing them the heels could be padded with rubber to mute the sound.

Islamic Head Scarves and Women in Malaysia

In the two states ruled by fundamentalists, women who work in the government are required by law to wear head coverings and all women are heavily pressured to do the same. This trend is relatively new. In the 1970s, few women wore head scarves. The custom became popular after the Iranian Revolution in the 1979.

Women who don’t wear headscarves are some ostracized by those who do. One woman told the International Herald Tribune, “There is pressure in the workplace, pressure in the schools, It’s a conformity thing. There are people who are saying, ‘You are getting too aggressive or too Westernized,

In most of Malaysia there is no effort to segregate the sexes and force women to wear the veil. Most Muslim women voluntarily wear headscarves, in keeping with Islamic tenets, while non-Muslim women do not. Some Muslim women wear elastic arm bands that keep their forearms totally covered.

Traditionally-dressed Malay women wear long-sleeve, ankle-length caftans (loose dresses) made from shimmering materials and “tudungs”, pharaoh-like head scarves that are fastened below the chins with a pin and sometimes hang down like boy-scout neckerchiefs. Others wear head coverings that are wrapped around the head and are not pinned under the chin and look like head scarves worn by women in the Middle East.

Before the 20th century, Malay women still wore kemban, just sarongs tied above the chest, in public. As Islam became more widely embraced, they started wearing the more modest yet elegant baju kurung. The baju kurung is a knee-length loose-fitting blouse that is usually worn over a long skirt with pleats at the side. It can also be matched with traditional fabrics such as songket or batik. Typically, these traditional outfits are completed with a selendang or shawl or tudung or headscarf.

In conservative areas, women wear white prayer shawls, or “mukenahs”, when praying at a mosque. Some women hide their faces but breast feed their children in public.

Muslim Laws in Kelantan and Terengganu

In Kelantan, which is dominated politically by the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), there are laws banning alcohol sales, gambling and unisex hair salons. Men and women are required to use separate supermarket lines and the states popular shadow puppet plays can only be staged for tourists because they have Hindu influences. Religious officials are at posted Moonlight Beach (formally known as the Beach of Passionate Love) to make sure couples don't touch.

Singing and dancing in schools is discouraged (they can't be banned because they are administered by the national government). In some schools in Kelantan, student spend 60 percent of their time studying Islamic material. Kelantan follows the Muslim week. Schools, government offices and business are closed on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.

The Kelantan Islamic government has also passed a law banning excessive lipstick as an "early step towards fighting illicit sex." Lights are kept on during films in movie theaters to make sure no hanky panky goes on. Hotels have to build separate swimming pools for men and women.

Local assemblies have supported instituting “hudut” (Muslim law)—in which thieves have their hand amputated and adulterers are stoned to death—but were unable to implement the law because of opposition from the federal government. Kelantan is the most conservative and Islamic state in Malaysia. It is also the poorest but it takes pride in the fact that it is recognized as the least corrupt state.

After PAS came to power in Terengganu in 1999 it imposed sharia, complete with stonings and amputations and set up gender segregated lines in supermarkets and tried to implement a number of measure that primarily affected the Chinese community such as banning alcohol and pig farming. Interest was banned on state-granted housing and car loans to civil servants and “un-Islamic” taxes and tolls were rescinded. An Islamic-orientated curriculum was introduced in the schools. The sale of alcohol and gambling were restricted.

There was an effort to apply sharia to all ethnic and religious groups not just Malay Muslims. Police raided Chinese-owned nightclubs. These moves were unpopular and caused a drop in tourism. PAS was thrown out of power in 2004 and eased up on some of their more extreme positions.

Taleban Lite in Malaysia

Nick Meo wrote in The Times, “In a sign of their clout, the American pop diva Gwen Stefani has agreed to wear traditional costumes in her Malaysian concert next week after conservative Muslim youths protested at the “indecent dressing and obscenity” of her skin-baring act. An Islamic opposition party demanded that her show should be cancelled. The platinum blonde star has agreed to cover up in the hope of heading off further protests.[Source: Nick Meo, The Times, August 18, 2007 +]

“Older Malays bemoan a younger generation that has become puritanical, self-righteously declining to attend social functions where alcohol is served. Headscarves, rare 20 years ago, are worn by almost all Malay women now, although often in combination with tight jeans. Islam has always had a prominent place. It is the official religion of Malaysia and the Constitution states that anyone born Malay is Muslim. +

“The debate over the parameters of its role, an old argument in Malaysia, was given a new outing when Najib Razak, the Deputy Prime Minister, broke a taboo to declare that the nation was an Islamic one. He said: “We have never been secular because being secular by Western definition means separation of the Islamic principles in the way we govern the country.” The Council of Churches of Malaysia afterwards accused him of stirring up racial tension. +

Taleban Lite in Kelantan

Nick Meo wrote in The Times, “Over a drink of green coconut at what used to be called the Passionate Love Beach until his Islamist party came to power and scrapped the name, state minister Takiyuddin Hassan outlines the victories in the war on sin. Mr Hassan’s party boasts a different set of achievements: banning mini-skirts, chastising unmarried couples and renaming Kota Bharu’s favourite beauty spot. They also closed down nightclubs, banned nearly all bars except a few Chinese restaurants, where no Muslims are allowed, and refused to let a proposed cinema open unless there were separate sections for men and women. [Source: Nick Meo, The Times, August 18, 2007]

“As for Mr Hassan, a moderate who was once a lawyer, he is proud of his party’s achievements in Kota Bharu. He says that it has kept the rustic capital of Kelantan state upright and clean-living. The biggest building in the city is a gigantic headquarters decorated with concrete Korans where the moral enforcement department is based. Its bearded officials spend much of their time prowling parks in Kota Bharu in search of amorous young sinners.

“Mr Hassan is sensitive about the mocking nickname of “Taleban lite” sometimes levelled at his party from Kuala Lumpur, where bars do a roaring trade and the cinemas are full of dating couples. Yet he is sure that the moral example set in Kota Bharu will some day win over his lax compatriots to the south. “Malaysia is a Muslim state. We hope we can change the mindset of our people in Kuala Lumpur so they can live according to Islamic principles too,” he said. Not all parties agree.” +

Impact of Taleban Lite of Racial Relations in Malaysia

Nick Meo wrote in The Times, “Some fear that assertive Islam threatens to upset the delicate balance between the 60 percent Malay Muslim majority and the nonMuslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, which have managed to coexist, sometimes uneasily, since the troubled birth of the country in 1957, at a time of civil war and ethnic tension. At the time many feared that the new nation was doomed to failure. It has instead built a strong economy and an imperfect democracy, dominated for 50 years by the United Malays National Organisation, which has survived without the coups or upheavals that have plagued her neighbours. [Source: Nick Meo, The Times, August 18, 2007 +]

Ronnie Liu, of the Democratic Action Party, said: “Socialising between Malays and the other ethnic groups is much rarer than it used to be. You go into coffee shops and restaurants now and they no longer cater to an ethnic mix of customers. It wasn’t like that before.” Some nonMuslim Chinese and Indians feel increasingly treated like second-class citizens. They complain, usually privately, that Islamic religious schools are much better funded than theirs and that a system of affirmative action favours Malays when it comes to university places. +

“Minority religions are particularly worried about a series of apostasy rulings. Chinese or Indians who want to marry a Malay must convert to Islam, causing great problems if they divorce or are widowed and want to return to the religion of their birth. In a notorious case this year a Malay woman called Lina Joy attempted to have Malaysia’s courts recognise her conversion to Christianity, but failed and was hounded and fled into hiding. Some hardliners have even called for the execution of apostates.”

Religious Police in Malaysia

Malaysia has religious police known as the Jawi. They routinely arrest Muslims for drinking alcohol, kissing in public, gambling, insulting Islam, eating in public during Ramadan, practicing homosexuality and not praying enough. The laws only apply to Muslims. The police have the right to enter homes, bars and hotels and so forth without a warrant.

When the Jawi raid a bar they are coordinated enough to have all the exit and entrances staked out when the raid is conducted. The raids are often conducted in party areas like Penang, in some cases on holidays like Valentine’s day. If men are caught with beer their mugs are placed in plastic bags like bullets from a murder case.

The Los Angeles Times described a 4:00am raid on a hotel in Georgetown, one of the more liberal parts of the country. The police had no warrant and announced that they were ‘Housekeeping” and burst in the room. Inside was a Muslim man and a Hindu man. The woman was set free because it was deemed that she was a Hindu but the man was charged with being in a room alone with a woman, a crime under Sharia law punishable by two years in prison and fines of $790.

Nick Meo wrote in The Times, “Every state has a religious department with Saudi-style moral enforcers and nowhere are they more active than in Kota Bharu, a city of mosques along a muddy river that bustles during the day but falls silent at nightfall. Unmarried couples found sharing hotel rooms are hunted down by the enforcers. Couples caught sitting too close together on park benches are fined 2,000 ringgit (£285) in the city’s shariah court under a provision called khalwat ” loosely translated as “close proximity”. Couples have been forced into marriage after being caught together and moral enforcers sometimes pick on foreigners. [Source: Nick Meo, The Times, August 18, 2007 +]

“NonMuslims as well as Malays also sometimes fall foul of the enforcers in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere and there are claims that instead of being paragons of Islamic virtue the enforcers are prone to bribery and have recruited vigilantes into their ranks. In Kota Bharu the enforcers declined to speak to The Times. Mr Hassan explained: “They are worried about being made to look like fools. It could damage the image of Islam if their work is portrayed in the wrong light.” +

“Nurhayati Kaprawi, of Sisters in Islam, a group that has spoken out against khalwatand the enforcers, said that many of their raids followed anonymous tip-offs. She said that they frequently terrorised people by barging into homes in the middle of the night. Ms Kaprawi said: “They say they want to implement Islam but the truth is they are really smearing Islam. If they are not stopped they really could become like the Taleban.” +

Kuala Lumpur’s Morality Squad

January 2006, it was announced that Islamic religious authorities had formed a team of volunteers to patrol Putrajaya, the administrative capital of Malaysia, to prevent "indecent behavior" among Muslims. Associated Press reported: “A 75-member Islamic Council Volunteer Squad will be on the lookout for offenders - such as Muslim couples holding hands in public - in Putrajaya, just south of the largest city, Kuala Lumpur, said Che Mat Che Ali, director of the Federal Territory Islamic Department. "Their role is to prevent indecent behavior," Che Mat told the New Straits Times newspaper. "We want them to approach people and advise them against creating social problems and committing sins like that." [Source: AP, January 19, 2006 **]

“A department spokeswoman, Zainab Mohamad, confirmed that the team began work Jan. 16. She stressed that the volunteers - members of Muslim community groups - were not empowered to arrest anyone. The volunteers, uniformed in blue vests and white caps, are expected to alert the department's enforcement officers if they spot offenders while patrolling Putrajaya's parks and other public areas. **

“Islamic department officials already inspect lovers' haunts and occasionally raid venues like discos. Islamic courts can charge suspects with various offenses that often carry prison terms and fines. Critics say the Islamic officers are overzealous and violate civil rights.” **

Jawi Accused of Mistreating Women

In January 2005, morality police known as the Jawi raided a nightclub along Jalan Ampang in Kuala Lumpur. About 100 Muslim youths, half of them women, were allegedly detained for several hours, placed into lock-ups and “treated in a high-handed manner.” The women, including a celebrity, claimed they were ogled at by the officers who also made derogatory comments about them.

Suhaini Aznam wrote in Star, “The raid by the Federal Territory Religious Department (Jawi) on a Kuala Lumpur nightclub has brought into focus this issue as well as the behaviour of officers involved. The mistreatment of the women detained by Jawi’s “morality policemen” has brought wide condemnation by many quarters including Muslim ministers. Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Sharizat Abdul Jaili proposed that women officers be in future raiding parties involving Muslim women. In this case, about half of the 100 people detained were women. Yet only two women officers were at the nightclub. [Source: Suhaini Aznam The Star, January 30, 2005]

The other bone of contention is the quality of the Jawi officers themselves. It was widely reported that the men are alleged to have taken advantage of the women’s embarrassment over their predicament, fears of male Muslim authority and lack of knowledge of their rights. Some women were even kept in lockups for up to 10 hours before they were released. In that time, they were humiliated by being ogled at, and were made to parade for the officers so that photographs could be taken of their “improper attire”.

The basic question is, as always, who gave the guardians of morality the right to be our guardians? In cases of adultery, Islam requires that four men of unimpeachable character must witness the act for themselves to be able to testify. In this case, the Jawi officers seemed to have exercised their duties with undue zeal. The raiding party members were said to have spoken harshly to the women. At the nightclub, they were made to sit on the floor. At the lockup, they were not allowed to go to the toilet. So in desperation, one reportedly relieved herself in full view of everyone else.

Why did Jawi raid the nightclub in the first place? It is the police who check for drugs and prostitution. Jawi presumably was looking out for inappropriate dress and close proximity among young men and women, albeit in full view of the public. And the sale and consumption of liquor, of course.

The alleged mistreatment of women during a raid by the Jawi should not have occurred since the syariah law has more stringent provisions on dealing with women, said Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Radzi Sheikh Ahmad. “Islam has a lot of respect for women. The provisions on women should be more stringent, and good etiquette, good manners and courtesy towards women are expected. “So, it was a surprise (the alleged misconduct of the Jawi officers),” said Radzi, who is the minister in charge of law.

Radzi said Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had expressed concern when the matter was discussed in the last Cabinet meeting. “He said the officers had acted in an un-Islamic manner,” he added. Radzi said Abdullah had then directed the Attorney-General to ascertain if the religious authorities had the power to detain people. He added that the other question was the absence of female officers during the raid and also examination of the women.

He added that civil law required the presence of female officers during such raids and it should also be a requirement in syariah law. “If there is no such provision, then it has to be made. It is only logical,” he added. Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2019

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