Malaysian writer Maryam Lee is under investigation by religious authorities after the publication of a book that tells her decision to stop using the hijab or scarf that many Muslims use to cover her head.
Maryam wrote in her blog that in October 2019 she received a call from Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor (JAIS) in which they requested that she cooperate in an investigation for a possible violation of article 10 (a) of the Chermic Criminal Law (Selangor), which criminalizes “any person who insults or despises the religion of Islam with words that can be heard or read, or by drawings, marks or other forms of representation that are visible may be visible or in any other way.”
If they were to accuse her and convict her, Maryam could receive a fine of 5000 ringgit (US $ 1200), three years in jail or both.
Maryam believes that the appearance is related to her book, “Unveiling choice”, which was published in early 2019, and explores the idea of “dehyabitation”. The launch of the book caused great controversy after the Prime Minister's Department of Religious Affairs ordered an investigation into the case.
The majority of Malaysia's population is Muslim and is known to promote a moderate view of Islam backed by laws guided by the principles of racial and religious harmony. But in recent years, some radicals have been pushing for a strict application of Islamic teachings in governance. The reduction of space for religious expression is also reflected in the Supreme Court ruling of August 2019 that recognized the jurisdiction of the Islamic Court to issue a fatwa against the Sisters in Islam, a group of women who advocate for gender equality.
Maryam has asked for solidarity while facing the investigation:
In situations like this, it is important for us to remind the government that freedom of expression is not a crime and freedom of religious beliefs is not an insult to Islam, and that the protection of these freedoms is essential to uphold human rights for all.
In situations like this, it is important that we remind the Government that freedom of expression is not a crime and freedom of religious beliefs is not an insult to Islam, and that the protection of these freedoms is essential to defend human rights for all .
Several groups of women, human rights activists, artists and scholars responded to the call with declarations of solidarity:
The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, a coalition of 13 women's rights organizations in Malaysia, argues that Maryam's book promotes the empowerment of women:
The book neither promotes nor discourages readers from exemplifying her actions, but in fact, explores the tenets of the decision from one person’s experiences and point of view.
Stories that reflect the varied realities of women are important, as they contribute to the diversity of experiences and discussions around how women are affected by social structures and pressures.
The book does not promote or discourage readers to exemplify their actions, but explores the moral principles of a person to reach a decision, from their experiences and points of view.
The stories that reflect the different realities of women are important, as they contribute to the diversity of experiences and debates about how women are affected by social structures and pressures.
The Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity states that it is JAIS who is insulting Islam:
It portrays Islam as being a religion of ‘force’ and not one of choice. Islam is not a religion of force, neither is it a religion that enforces. Islam is a religion of discernment, and permits differences of thinking – which is what makes it the great religion that it is. This action by JAIS demeans and insults the very essence of what Islam is.
JAIS portrays Islam as a religion of “force” and not of free choice. Islam is not a religion of force, nor is it a religion that requires. Islam is a religion of discernment and allows differences of thought, which is what makes it the great religion it is. This JAIS action lowers and insults the true essence of what Islam is.
New Naratif, an independent news website that reports on Southeast Asia, defends Maryam's right to free expression:
As a movement that stands for democracy, freedom of expression, and freedom of inquiry, New Naratif believes in the need to have space for important discussions, even if they might be sensitive or controversial.
The choice of where or not to don a hijab is a very personal one, and it is important that people have the opportunity to tell their stories, share their experiences, and engage in good-faith conversations, regardless of their ultimate decisions.
As a movement that defends democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of investigation, New Naratif believes in the need to have space for important discussions, although they may be sensitive or controversial.
The choice of wearing or not wearing a hijab is very personal, and it is important that people have the opportunity to tell their stories, share their experiences and participate in conversations in good faith, regardless of their final decisions.
Several civil society leaders in the region have also signed a statement expressing concern about the accusations against Maryam:
We view this as an attempt to interfere with women’s choices and their bodily autonomy and specifically their internationally guaranteed right to express themselves. In an increasingly restrictive society, women face numerous challenges and have little space to make decisions for themselves.
The rights to free expression and religious freedoms include the right to express our personal views and the right to make choices about our bodies, which includes deciding whether to wear the hijab or not.
In our opinion, this is an attempt to interfere in the choices women take and their autonomy in regards to their body and, especially towards the internationally granted right to express themselves. In a society that is increasingly prone to restraint, women face numerous challenges and have very little room to make decisions for themselves.
The rights of free expression and religious freedom include the right to express our personal views and the right to make our own decisions about our bodies, which also includes the decision to wear or not the hijab.
And finally, this drawing reflects the current situation of Maryam:
As a mom, it disturbs me that author, muslim Maryam Lee, is now being targeted and accussed unjustly of anti-Islam sentiment simply for writing and sharing about her personal choice to be hijab-free.Hijab-free does not mean anti-Islam ! Hiijab that isnt a choice, is oppression. pic.twitter.com/xOkY18FUpT
– Sarah Joan Mokhtar (@madmissmokhtar) October 31, 2019
As a mother, it bothers me that Muslim author Maryam Lee is being attacked and unjustly accused of going against Islam simply because of writing and sharing her decision to stop using the hijab. Not wearing a hijab does not mean you stop being Muslim! When the hijab is not a decision, it becomes oppression!