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Malaysian Parliament Passes Controversial Islamic Law Amendment

  • Claudia Blume

Malaysia's upper house of parliament has passed amendments to a Muslim family law, despite protests by female senators, who say the changes will make it easier for men to practice polygamy and divorce their wives.

The revised Islamic family law, passed in the Malaysian senate Thursday night, has angered women's rights groups across the country.

They say the legislation, which governs the matrimonial rights of Muslims, will make it easier for men to have multiple marriages and to obtain divorces.

The amendment also gives men greater claims over their wives' property.

Nik Soriani, a researcher for the Malaysian women's organization, Sisters in Islam, says the law undermines women's rights and ignores reality in modern-day Malaysia, where many women contribute to the family income.

"Under the traditional law, the men had greater rights and greater responsibilities, while women had fewer rights and fewer responsibilities. But in modern circumstances, it seems that the women's responsibilities have increased - but their rights have been reduced. But, as for the men, it's the other way around," said Nik Soriani.

The amendments were made to standardize the family law across Malaysia. The 13 states in the mainly Muslim country previously had slightly different versions of the legislation.

Female lawmakers from the governing coalition strongly disagreed with the new bill. But Nik Soriani says the women were threatened with disciplinary action, if they voted against it.

"All the women senators opposed the law, but they had to support it because of the party grip. This is a system of party discipline under the Westminster model, where the party can invoke a wish, so that its members can vote according to the party line," said Nik Soriani.

Women's rights groups have vowed to raise public awareness in Malaysia about the implications of the new law, to put pressure on the government to review it.

The Islamic family law only affects Muslims, who are mainly ethnic Malays and make up about 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people. The country has also large Chinese and Indian communities, which are mostly Christian, Hindu or Buddhist.

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