Muslim women find a champion

Observations on Malaysia

"Prejudiced", "ignorant" and "tiresome" were some of the words used to describe Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's prime minister for the 22 years up to 2003. Now the same terms are being applied to his daughter Marina, a feminist and Aids campaigner whose column in the Malaysian Star newspaper has provoked uproar.

Roused by a new law making it easier for Muslim men to contract polygamous marriages and to claim property after divorce (which can now be exercised even by text message), she drew a sharp contrast between the lives of the women affected and those of non-Muslim Malaysian women, who have been steadily progressing towards equality for 30 years.

"In our country," she stated, "there is an insidious, growing form of apartheid among Malaysian women - that between Muslim and non-Muslim women."

The reference to apartheid was guaranteed to shock - Malaysia was at the forefront of opposition to the racist South African regime. But Marina went further, suggesting that her country should create two ministries, one to ensure that non-Muslim women enjoy 21st-century rights and a second "that works to gag and bind Muslim women more and more each day for the sake of political expediency under the guise of religion".

Readers of the Star, however, didn't see the final bit. "For the first time in 17 years, the Star is censoring my column," Marina wrote in an e-mail to friends. "According to Alistair Tan, editor of StarTwo, 'Powers that be have decided that your viewpoint's too strong on this issue, and it's not the right platform to tick off the government. I know you will probably resist, but can you change the topic?' I said no, of course."

The column was eventually printed, but in a toned-down version - evidence, perhaps, of a repressive tendency in government circles. The Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act, two legacies of British rule, have been used to limit free speech, and the justice minister, Mohamed Nazri bin Abdul Aziz, recently warned he would not think twice about using them "against anybody who speaks against Islam".

This may be code: Nazri spoke after the Star had run a front-page picture of Marina and the daughters of two other former Malaysian prime ministers, Nori Abdullah and Hanis Hussein, at a conference of the liberal Sisters In Islam group in Kuala Lumpur.

"Some people interpreted this as telling the Star not to make a big deal about issues concerning Muslim laws," Marina told me. "The trouble is that there are hardly any ministers who have the courage to say anything that is more progressive. They are so afraid of attracting the ire of the religious right."

The governing coalition represents all three main races in Malaysia (the mainly non-Muslim Chinese and Indians as well as the Muslim Malays), but a fundamentalist party, Pas, waits in the wings.

Representatives of 40 Islamist groups went to see Nazri to complain about Sisters In Islam and Marina Mahathir. "He basically agreed with them," she said. "Then when the women's groups went to see him about a week later, he was rude and condescending and said that I was 'emotional'."

None of this is stopping her. At the end of our e-mail exchange Marina said she was off to a Bar Council event being hosted by Nazri.

"It's a bit of mischief to surprise him with my presence," she says. "I will try not to get emotional . . ."