I recently became aware of rape threats made on social media towards Datuk Noor Farida Ariffin, a well-respected former Malaysian ambassador to the Netherlands. Also a lawyer, she was the co-founder of Sisters in Islam, a local non-governmental organisation for women’s rights, and is the spokesperson of a local group of prominent Malays called G25.
In December 2014, G25 published an open letter to the Malaysian government calling for, among other things, “a rational dialogue on the position of Islam in a constitutional democracy“. Signed by 25 former high-ranking civil servants, including directors-general, secretaries-general, ambassadors and prominent individuals, the letter demands a second look at the position and application of Islamic laws in the country, as well as the jurisdiction and limits of the powers that religious authorities can have.
Among other points, the letter focused on a minister’s response to a recent court ruling that transgender women in Malaysia have the right “to dress according to their identity”. Even though this state ruling is in favour of a marginalised group — and therefore should be seen as justice, the main objective of Islamic law — the fact that it is related to women, their sexuality and/or their appearance makes it a favourite target for being a threat to Islam and society at large.
“… [Minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom] viewed the right of the transgender community and Sisters in Islam (SIS) to seek legal redress as a ‘new wave of assault on Islam’ and as an attempt to lead Muslims astray from their faith, and put religious institutions on trial in a secular court.”
The letter also highlighted the need for marginalised populations (like the poor) to feel safe from state intrusions of an individual’s privacy. One Shariah Criminal Offenses law in particular targets low-income unmarried couples who are found to be guilty of the crime of khalwat, or ‘close proximity’. Noor Farida says that “personal sin” should not be considered a crime that is punishable by the state.
The Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia (JAKIM) conducts regular ambushes to catch those engaged in khalwat, which have sometimes resulted in injuries or even death. Many of these ambushes are posted on YouTube to serve the sordid purpose of a public hanging. MMW writer Alicia sums this up in her piece on sexual immorality in Malaysia:
“Too often, sexual immorality is intertwined with class: cases of close proximity (khalwat) involve couples caught in budget hotels, in cars parked in quiet places, and in public parks, couples who cannot afford to marry or hire a room at an expensive hotel, a place very rarely ventured by the moral police.”
The letter invited scornful responses from two Malay rights NGOs, Malaysian Muslim Solidarity (ISMA) and right-wing Perkasa. ISMA, a group known for its Malay-centric voice, resorted to “personal taunts” such as suggesting that the letter’s “expired” authors should “go back to masjids and repent“, while Perkasa’s secretary-general merely questioned if the authors had done anything at all for Malaysia.
During a talk on “Fighting Religious Extremism in Malaysia” in London recently, Noor Farida gave a review of recent incidents of rising religious extremism in Malaysia, as recounted by Mariam Mokhtar of Free Malaysia Today:
“But the current reality, she said, was a disturbing picture of Islamic NGOs and religious authorities wielding power over a cowed population, with the Malays being watched by a brutal and unapologetic moral police who act like thugs and the non-Malays and non-Muslims subject to intense provocation.”
She gave a laundry list of vile acts which involved body snatching, the conversion of minors, the ‘Allah’ issue, the seizure of Bibles and the actions of born-again Muslims. She also spoke of Muslims being persecuted through mindless acts perpetrated by the religious authorities.”
In early December this year, Noor Farida was at a G25 forum on Islam and democracy. The forum aimed at creating an inclusive Consultative Committee of Experts to advise the government on amending state shariah law, within the requirements of the Federal Constitution and National Principles (Rukun Negara).
Her call for a review on the crime of khalwat was met with threats of murder and rape on social media. Facebook user Al Mujahid Arman posted “[her blood is halal]” while another Facebook user Sharul Nizam Ab Rahim threatened to break into her house and rape her.
Despite lodging police reports, the police were slow to investigate and to date, the two men have neither been caught nor convicted. Meanwhile, Noor Farida herself is under investigation for sedition. The Sedition Act, an “outdated colonial vestige”, has been increasingly used to “suppress legitimate offline and online dissent in Malaysia“. Put simply, as her opinion is contrary to ‘official Islam’, she must be silenced.
Looking through the lenses of age, gender, class and race is essential. Since Noor Farida is Malay and Muslim, being a high-ranking government official (and an elderly woman who does not wear hijab) means that she upsets notions of a proper Malay woman. (Although being a young hijabi politician in Malaysia brings with it another set of stereotypes.) As such, she must be ideologically disciplined by both the state (Sedition Act) and the public (Facebook).
Noor Farida has many important points on religious extremism and how religious laws can coexist with secular ones. Why then, is her dissenting opinion not even tolerated, but considered an invitation to threats of murder and rape? Because the threat of rape serves to intimidate, and showing women their ‘proper’ place in society simply contributes to the preservation of patriarchy as the status quo.