Malaysia should protect religious freedom and gender equality

How does the government intend to be a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018 when it behaves like an accessory in repressing religious freedom and women’s rights? Kasthuri Patto Member of Parliament for Batu Kawan asks.


Last week, I represented Malaysia and the Democratic Action Party at a conference organised by the International Panel of Parliamentarians for the Freedom of Religion and Belief in New York which was attended by 10 other diverse women Members of Parliaments from various backgrounds from different continents on “Women and Religious Freedom : Synergies and Opportunities”. These courageous, smart and capable legislators represented their native countries – Bolivia, Canada, Chad, Georgia, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa, Thailand, Tunisia and Turkey and was supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

This conference with other women lawmakers was exceptionally incredible as they shared their success stories and achievements to be voice of the voiceless, notable the voices of women in general and minority women in the context of religious freedom.

Protection of religious freedom

I learnt that Tunisia, after the Arab Spring, and with a flourishing constitution is a great achievement in a Muslim nation on religious democratisation with a new law passed that lifted the ban on Tunisian Muslim women marrying non-Muslims.

I learnt also in the Republic of Georgia, an Orthodox Christian nation where Muslims are a minority, MPs are lobbying for better legislations for the minorities and the marginalised including a quota for them to take part in nation building for a better, progressive and a prosperous Georgia.

In Malaysia, Article 3 of the Federal Constitution specifies Islam as the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation, Article 8(1) states that ‘all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection by law’. Article 10 protects the right to ‘freedom of speech, assembly and association and Article 11 firmly safeguards the freedom of religion where (1) every person has the right to profess and practise his religion’ ‘without propagating any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam’.

With eminent protection of religious freedom by the supreme law of the land, how is it then women (and sometimes men) become subjects of oppression, misogyny, patriarchy, chauvinism and the denial of fundamental human rights?

A fundamental right

Freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right to protect and preserve human dignity. Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights declares, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

With escalating religious intolerance, extremisms, state endorsed radicalisation and terror, women make up the largest group caught in this crosshairs of hatred, misogyny, patriarchy, violence, sexual violence, slavery and oppression. And most often, their voices of conscience are drowned by those who preach violence and hatred cloaked in religious garments.

Strangely enough, women’s rights work in parallel with human rights but very rarely bridged in matters on religious freedom.

Women who are members of religious communities, especially minority communities, often face double discrimination. They can be discriminated or persecuted because of their religion and also because of their gender.

Prof Nazila Ghanea an expert in international human rights laws at University of Oxford states that even international human rights provisions in hard law protecting women’s equality like CEDAW make no mention of freedom of religion and belief or even of religion. This shows that the topic of regious freedom, women’s rights and gender equality have not been given the due importance it deserves.

Want to be a UNHRC member

Malaysia is eyeing a spot to be a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018 and has submitted its membership application to the United Nations. By virtue of logic, nations that vie to be part of a very important arm of the UN, should at least be defenders of human rights and protect and promote civil liberties. Malaysia, sadly is a far cry from this with Malaysian government’s relentless witch hunt by the Najib Razak administration on members of the opposition and members of civil society who are deemed as voices of dissent. Perhaps Malaysia might want to reconsider its application to the UNHRC as there are some glaring requirements that have clearly been not fulfilled by the Malaysian government despite the same ruling party, UMNO Barisan Nasional, undefeated, being in power for 60 years.

These requirements that appear in the US Commission on International Religious Freedom include female genital mutilation, child marriages or forced marriages, polygamy, equal rights for women in the custody and care of children, the religious and moral education of children, passing on nationality to children and the ownership and administration of property, equality during marriage, equal grounds in divorce and annulment, property distribution, alimony and the custody of children and equal inheritance rights, regulation of clothing to be worn by women in public, access to justice, domestic and other types of violence against women, including rape, trafficking of women, forced prostitution and slavery.

All these violations are “government-assisted” as a result of the BN Establishment playing the role of judje, jury, enforcers and executioners of discriminatory, chauvinistic and biased laws and policies.

Enough with the chest-thumping triumphalism, the Malaysian government must clamber out of the bottomless pit of its bigoted apartheid-like outlook to hunt for its once used moral compass to empower, uplift, protect and promote human rights, particularly with regards to religious freedom and gender equality.

How does the Malaysian government intend to be a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2018 when it behaves like an accessory in repressing religious freedom and women’s rights?

Kasthuri Patto is a Member of Parliament for Batu Kawan, Publicity Secretary for Wanita DAP and IPPFoRB member.

OpinionKasthuri Patto