If ever you thought that ONLY Muslim Women of the West are “liberated”, take a look at Malaysian Muslim women! Women in Malaysia are empowered. I’ve seen Hijabis playing rugby, I’ve seen Muslim women holding machetes – knocking off the tops of coconuts in the street, I’ve seen Niqabis riding motorcycles (they’ve even modified the motorcycle to have a “seat” for women who wish not to use the straddle seat). I’ve seen Malaysian Muslim women in every aspect of life excelling, pushing forward, and I’ve seen everyone in her family and society supporting her. They are CEOs of companies, judges, members of parliament, professors, army women, police women, mothers, wives and more.
After spending the last 4 years in Malaysia, I found Malaysia to be a model Muslim country that is actually giving women the rights that Islam entitled them to so many years ago (and not letting patriarchy or culture snatch them away from her). Here’s what I’ve seen in Malaysia:
-EDUCATION: There are 13 female university graduates for every 10 male graduates. In my Islamic studies classes, women outnumbered men 3 to 1. Our university was teeming with female professors who were teaching in front of mixed classes of male and female students (separated side to side, not back to front). Almost every one of my male professors said that his wife was also a teacher or professor, most holding PhDs or Masters. The Rector of my university, the International Islamic University of Malaysia is a woman!
-WORK: 47% of Malaysian women are in the workforce. Women are not limited to the home, cooking and cleaning (nor are they stopped from doing so). It’s very common for most families to have takeout every night because both spouses work (and no one is complaining, there’s plenty of food stalls outside every home, and it’s cheap!).
-RELIGION: There are Muslim women scholars! It’s amazing and refreshing to see that almost every conference has female speakers included, and even conferences geared toward women will also include male speakers. From my experience, the genders are not at odds with each other, they work together in harmony and respect. Women scholars speak in front of mixed gatherings and no one bats an eye- they look at her based on her credentials, not her gender.
I recall a funny moment when my professor asked us to find a “contemporary” fiqh issue to write a research paper on – I told her I’d like to research the topic of “women speaking to a mixed audience of men and women”. She laughed, looking confused, knowing I’m from the US. She answered, “that’s not a contemporary issue, that’s been researched thoroughly, of course women can speak in front of men.. that’s not a controversial issue these days.” I was told of women scholars in our past, female teachers of our great ulama, and I was dumbfounded. In America, still, this is an area of controversy, yet in Malaysia it was a non-issue.
-CLOTHES: The headscarf is not enforced, yet a majority of Malaysian Muslim women choose to wear it, in whatever shape and form they desire – whether that’s an abaya and niqab, skirt and top, Baju Melayu, or jeans. The “Haram Police” are not lurking around. In fact, since there is a large Chinese and Hindu population, it’s common to see non-Muslim women in shorts and tank tops, but they are not shamed nor looked down upon, “for you is your religion, for me is mine” as Allah says in the Quran. Freedom of religion is respected, differences are tolerated.
-MOSQUE SPACES: Every single mosque I’ve gone to has had a prayer space for women, even in the kampung “village” area, where you’d expect things to be different. And in the largest and most well known mosques, there’s NO physical barrier between the women and men, much like the masjid of the Prophet Muhammad (S). Women with children are welcomed with warm smiles, not scornful looks – even in i’tikaf, staying the night in the masjid for Ramadan.
-MEN RESPECT WOMEN: Not once in my 4 years did I feel disrespected by a man, looked down upon, nor ogled or stared at. The men here are allies of women. Respect is one of the greatest traits of the Malay people, and it trickles down to gender relations as well. Husbands help with their kids, in fact it’s more common to see fathers with babies strapped around them in baby carriers than mothers!
-FAMILIES: Women are not forced to marry. Every marriage I’ve attended in Malaysia in my 4 years here have been by the choice of both husband and wife, and with the blessings of their families. Many families here are eager to support their children to get married, even if they’re young and in university. The girl’s parents continue to support her financially until her husband has graduated and started working – taking the financial burden off the couple for their first couple of years.
The beauty of Malaysia is that the women are able to exercise all their rights and freedoms that Islam gave her, yet they don’t feel the need to lose their femininity in the process – they still retain such a soft and loving nature, still dress modestly and act respectfully and elegantly. Sure, every place has its issues, and I’m sure Malaysia has its vices. But from what I’ve seen, they are a model for the rest of us to take heed to.
May Allah bless Malaysia and her people, Ameen!
Safiya Ravat graduated with a degree in Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh and Usul al Fiqh) from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, as well as a Journalism degree from the University of Houston. She and her husband live in Dallas, TX where they are working under the Bayyinah Foundation. Full bio here. Follow them for more videos and posts on Facebook at Mahad and Safiya.