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Malaysia, Women’s Groups in

Maznah Mohamad
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Malaysia, Women’s Groups in

Origins of Women’s Politicization through Islam.

There are 14 million Muslims in Malaysia, constituting 60 percent of the total population. While all Malays are constitutionally defined as Muslims, not all Muslims in the country are ethnically Malay. Non-Malays make up about 17 percent of the Muslim population. In this entry we confine the description and analysis of Malaysian women’s groups to those led by, and composed of, Muslim women.

Women’s involvement in political civil society can be traced to their involvement in nationalist politics of the early twentieth century. The Islamic-resurgence movement beginning in the 1970s also played a central role in women’s ascendance in the organizational sphere. The recruitment of women into Malay Islamic movements is quite similar to that of the early period of nationalist mobilization. Women were courted as participants in and leaders of these movements for two main reasons—first, to consolidate a new communitarian religious identity, and second, to involve them in the mass mobilization of other women, youth, and children into the movement. Many women joined these movements voluntarily, as they also identified with the goals of Islam’s resurgence and gained a sense of empowerment through it.

Women’s participation was highly crucial in order for the Islamization agenda to succeed. During the early resurgence period, women who joined Islamic movements were the voice of dissent instead of the harbingers of conservatism. For instance, early in the resurgency Malaysian society did not look kindly on Muslim women’s decision to wear the veil. Those who did have the courage to do so were frequently taunted as being akin to hantu bungkus (shrouded ghosts). But in no time, women’s veiling took on the proportion of “symbolic capital” for the movement’s ascendance around the world.

Most of the movements were urban-based and were initiated by young and highly educated Malays, many of whom had received their tertiary education abroad on government sponsorship. The legitimization of the newly founded Islamic organizations was dependent on the credentials of their membership. It was important that the movement could be backed by the support of highly educated women. One thesis about why Islamic fundamentalism was readily embraced was that it allowed members of newly urbanized, socially disintegrated societies in the wake of rapid modernization to find cultural refuge and preserve their identity through an assertion of a familiar heritage, Islam.

Organizational Diversity.

Given the intertwining pulls of both modernity (through education and urbanization) and cultural “re-traditionalization” (through Islam), the Malay-Muslim women’s organizations that emerged during Malaysia’s transition into a postcolonial nation-state inevitably took on a variety of characteristics. They ranged from pragmatist to centrist to communitarian and liberal-feminist in essence. From the nationalist period of the late 1940s until the current period of contested democratization, Muslim women’s groups have displayed a variety of orientations. One of these is displayed by the women’s wings of political parties. They are pragmatic and flexible in nature, so as to fit in with their party’s goal of capturing the state through electoral politics. A second group consists of the women’s arms of non-governmental Muslim organizations that grew out of the Islamic-resurgence wave that began in the 1970s. Their goal is to achieve a communitarian ideal built around a religious identity, rather than one which is linked to women’s interests per se. A third set would be those women’s groups that are autonomous and organizationally independent, not appendages to larger parent organizations. They are rights-based in purpose, and gender equality is their primary agenda.

Party Pragmatists.

An example of the first group is the Wanita UMNO, which is the women’s wing of the ruling Malay party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). This organization was formed in 1949, the main parent party, UMNO, having been formed three years earlier. The original name of Wanita UMNO was Pergerakan Kaum Ibu (PKI: Mothers’ Movement). The “mother” epithet was dropped in order to attract the participation of young women and the professional class. Although Wanita UMNO’s ideological position with regard to women is not always obvious, its practical aims are clear. It functions to coexist with, and be supportive of, the party’s wider agenda, which is to continue as the prime ruling party through its promotion of Malay ethnic interests and supremacy. In this larger scheme, there is no ambivalence about the niche carved out for the women’s wing. It is a vote mobilizer, specifically aimed at getting women’s support for the party. Wanita UMNO did not start out as a religious movement, but found itself adapting to changing circumstances brought about by the gradual but forceful influence of a rising Islamic lobby. For example, in line with UMNO’s backing of an Islamization agenda, the women’s wing had to incorporate this factor into the reconstruction of its image. At UMNO’s tenth general assembly in 2000, a resolution was adopted making it mandatory for its female members to wear the headscarf at all party annual meetings.

Another movement similar to Wanita UMNO is the Dewan Muslimat PAS (Women’s Assembly of PAS). This is the women’s wing of Malaysia’s main Islamic party, the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS: Islamic Party of Malaysia). The wing was formally established in 1953. The purpose was to complement the earlier establishment of the party’s Dewan Pemuda (Youth Assembly) and Dewan Ulama (Religious Scholars’ Assembly). The mission of PAS women, according to its official memorandum, is to “build a society of high morals in all spheres of human life and to be the upholder of true Islamic teachings,” as well as to “spawn a generation of mujahidah (fighters with a cause) women who are knowledgeable, charitable, worshipful, and will function as the da’ie (preachers) of society.” Until recently, all the women leaders had their formal training in the field of Islamic education, having studied at Islamic institutions either locally or in Indonesia. However, an increasing number of professional women (including those educated in the West) are now joining and leading the party. The Dewan Muslimat has also established an international network, including links with the International Islamic Women’s Union, which has its headquarters in Sudan.

Despite the reticence of PAS women in supporting gender rights, the party as a whole assumed a new sense of pragmatic relevance with Reformasi, a movement spurred by the victimization of Anwar Ibrahim, the then deputy prime minister of Malaysia, when he was forcibly removed from government. In the 1999 general election, given the rising Malay disaffection surrounding Reformasi, UMNO and its coalition partners in the National Front, were left with few winning strategies, except to discredit PAS in the eyes of voters. UMNO used the campaign strategy of painting PAS as unsupportive of women’s rights, as PAS had a policy of not allowing women members to stand as candidates in elections. UMNO’s attack on this stance immediately put PAS on the defensive. It had to erase the voters’ impression that its women members were playing second fiddle within the organization and hierarchy. It was at this point that PAS began to project some of its women leaders in a more prominent way.

In 2004, the party finally relented and allowed women to run in the eleventh general election—thirty-five years after it fielded its first and last woman candidate, who had won a seat in 1969. By the 2008 election, the right of PAS women to stand as candidates was no longer a debatable issue. In this election, the party fielded thirteen women candidates. Three were elected as members of parliament, and four others as state assembly representatives.

Further down this spectrum of pragmatism lies the opposition political party, the Parti Keadilan Nasional (PKR: National Justice Party). It was formed as a counterpoint to UMNO at the height of the Reformasi movement by people sympathetic to Anwar’s plight, including supporters who defected from UMNO. The party’s principles were couched in terms of universal social justice and Islamic democracy. Given its need to obtain broad-based multi-ethnic political support, PKR was careful not to be identified as an Islamic party, although it would never go so far as to proclaim itself a secular party. Since the party was founded on a multi-racial platform, the whole question of Islamization had to be reconceptualized. When the party was formed at the height of Reformasi, it attracted the support of large numbers of youth. At that time Anwar’s teenage daughter, Nurul Izzah, was center-staged as a prominent political icon. In no small way she and her mother, Wan Azizah, became the focus of attention for the mobilization of youth and women into the party. UMNO read this as a danger signal and responded very swiftly by concentrating its reform strategies upon youth, even creating its own Young Women’s wing, the Puteri UMNO. Nurul Izzah remains one of the most popular faces of youth and change after winning a parliamentary seat in the March 2008 general election.

Religious Communitarians.

In addition to political parties are the women’s divisions of non-governmental Muslim organizations, such as that found in ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia: Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement) and JIM (Pertubuhan Jamaah Islah Malaysia: Islamic Congregation of Malaysia). In these we also find the active involvement of Muslim women. ABIM was among the earliest Islamic NGOs to spearhead the Islamic resurgence in Malaysia. It was registered in 1972. One of the founders was Anwar Ibrahim. In its early years it exerted a strong influence over Malay youths. The original structure of ABIM included a women’s wing known as Helwa ABIM. One of the first issues that occupied its members then was to persuade Muslim women to adopt the veil, over objections from some quarters during that period. Women’s early and main role in Helwa ABIM was to establish a network of preschool education emphasizing Islam in its curriculum. Women ran day-care centers and Islamic kindergartens (TASKI), as it believed that the goals of Islamization would effectively begin with the schooling process.

The counterpart of Helwa ABIM is Wanita JIM (Women’s Division of JIM). It was formed in 1993, and functions as an important component of the central organization, JIM. It claims to take an “umma-centric” rather than an ethnicized “group-centric” approach. The emphasis is on the role of women as an “integrating” force within families. JIM advocates say they are called to build, nurture, and create an alternative community based on the principles of Islam. The organization is very formal, with branches at the central, state, and local levels. A large proportion of its women leaders consists of professionals trained in the medical sciences and engineering. A prime goal is to advocate an Islamic way of life that simultaneously accommodates modern, progressive values, without upsetting the different and unequal, but ostensibly complementary, gender roles of men and women in Islam.

Rights-Based Religious Feminists.

A Malay-Muslim NGO that stands in contrast to all of the groups described above is Sisters in Islam (SIS). It came into being in 1988 as a reaction to the escalating climate of Islamic intolerance and closed-mindedness of Islam’s spokespersons. It aims to reconcile Islam with the tenets of gender equality, human rights, and democracy. Zainah Anwar, a founding member, described the reason for coming together as being initially spurred by the group’s “deep concerns over the injustice women suffered under the implementation of syariah law.” The legitimacy of the middle ground claimed by Sisters in Islam is based on the critical re-examination and reinterpretation of Islamic texts so that an Islamic tradition advocating a progressive view of women can be promoted.

Sisters in Islam has played an important role in projecting a democratic Islam by challenging the numerous laws that impinge upon the status of women. Among the more controversial laws that the group challenged were the hudud laws, which would implement capital punishment based on Quranic stipulations, for offences ranging from adultery to theft Although a constitutional quagmire, these laws were passed by two states, namely the PAS-led Kelantan government in 1993 and the Terengganu government in 2002.

Attitudes towards SIS among other Islamic movements range from reticent disapproval to open disdain, if not persecution. The resentment can be quite vehement. For example. at its fifty-fifth general assembly in 2009, PAS passed a resolution calling for the banning of SIS. The resolution, adopted without any debate, called for the group to be investigated and outlawed if it was found to be going against Islam. This move cost PAS much of its support among liberals and human-rights advocates who had previously backed the party during the 2008 general election. Yet another example of a show of intolerance towards SIS was when one of its books was banned by the government in 2008. The official reason was that the book had gone too far in questioning Malaysia’s existing Islamic family laws as discriminatory against women, especially in issues such as polygamy and divorce. This was construed as a disruption of national security and a threat to public order. The organization’s challenge against the ban was deliberated by the High Court, which overturned the government ban in January 2010. Yet another onslaught against the organization occurred when a non-governmental organization, the Assembly of Mosque Youth, sought a court order in March 2010 to prohibit the organization from using “Islam” in its name and identity. But in October 2010, the court rejected this application and allowed the group to continue calling itself “Sisters in Islam,” on the grounds that the complainant had no legal standing to pursue the case.

SIS has remained the only Muslim women’s organization in the country to function autonomously (not attached to or directed by a parent organization) and to take up the issue of women’s human rights within the Islamic context. It is internationally renowned as one of the leading movements in the advocacy of Muslim women’s rights to equality and fair treatment.

Notion of Islamic Women’s Rights Remains Contested.

Muslim women in Malaysia participate in a diverse range of social movements. Although all of the groups discussed above profess to advance the causes of Islam and women in society, they are at variance in terms of their perspectives on women’s rights. They also differ in terms of their degree of autonomy in being able to chart an agenda for women. Most are directed by a larger parent organization, while one is not. The former flexibly adjust their strategies and activities to fit in with the larger goals of their main organization. The latter is governed autonomously and is driven by the rights-based approach of achieving democracy, human rights, and equality. This sense of organizational diversity makes Muslim women’s groups a vital component of societal reforms as they demonstrate the experience of agency and empowerment among women of all ideological orientations. Nevertheless, the roles and status of Muslim women in Malaysian society remain contested notions, as the women themselves are not bound by common perspectives and ideals.


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Websites of organizations

  • On PAS Women: www.muslimat.pas.org.my/v2
  • On Wanita Keadilan: wanitakeadilan.wordpress.com
  • On Helwa ABIM helwa-abim.blogspot.com
  • On Wanita JIM www.jim.org.my/v1/index.php/kenali-jim/wanita-jim
  • On Sisters in Islam: www.sistersinislam.org.my
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