The first thing I notice about Ratna Osman – the Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a Muslim women’s NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – is her hijab, or tudung in Malay. It’s not quite a hijab in the traditional sense where only her face is left uncovered. Rather, her hair is covered in a wrap leaving her whole neck visible. Ratna has worn the headscarf since the age of 15. “I used to say that once I reach 50, I’ll take it off because then I would be considered an old woman,” she recalls to me, “but now that I’m approaching 50, I still think I’m quite young!” she giggles. Her beaming smile is the second thing I notice. It’s broad, complemented by dimples, on a face that exhibits much warmth and hospitality. “I’m not sure if I’ll ever take it off,” she reflects. “It’s become part of my identity.”
The headscarf remains a controversial issue in Muslim majority Malaysia, where it is not compulsory. In her youth, Ratna felt ostracized from her peers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for covering her hair. “I was part of a small minority wearing it at that time,” she explained. “I was laughed at, jeered at, made uncomfortable. A teacher told me to take it off because it was an obstruction. Most of my close friends stayed away from me. It was quite a lonely world,” she says. “Now, it’s the other way around.” She refers to cases where Muslim girls at school have been harassed for exposing their hair. “And I feel for those who are not covered. They have the right to dress as they are because I believe in the freedom of choice, and that nobody needs to dictate to another human being. Only God can do that.”
Choice of dress is one of the many issues that SIS campaigns on. They are opposed to any type of restriction on dress, whether it’s the ban on the hijab or on uncovered hair. In a press statement on the issue, they note that “…the Qur’an infers that modesty can be achieved in different forms of dress suitable to different cultures, times and places. Thus, to legislate or regulate on women’s dress based on a perceived single ‘Islamic’ standard is a misguided attempt at representing the breadth of thought and scholarship in Islam.” Even the way a woman wears the headscarf “should not be regarded as a reflection of their degree of piety.”
SIS was created by a small group of women in 1987 in response to the adverse effects the new Islamic Family Laws were having on Muslim women. They examined the short-comings of the law and as a consequence, began to question generally why Islamic law and policy in Malaysia seemed unjust. They re-read the Qur’an meticulously, as well as engaging in Islamic scholarship, and concluded that it was “male-centric interpretations influenced by cultural practices and values of a patriarchal society” that were oppressing women, not Islam. SIS has since evolved into an organization which provides legal advice. It campaigns against issues such as polygamy, child marriage, and violence against women and educates the public. It has also launched an international movement, Musawah, for family law reform across the Muslim world.
Despite their ground-breaking work, Ratna wasn’t so sure about them at first. “SIS wanted an expert in Islamic family law. I had studied Sharia and thought it was good to make use of it. I hesitated whether to apply because I thought there was something not right about them,” she laughs. “I thought that they were really westernized. But my current boss at the time, who is non-Muslim and knew more about SIS than I did, encouraged me to apply as she thought I would fit in.”
By then Ratna had experienced a spiritual awakening of her own. Before wearing the tudung she described herself as a typical city girl, wearing short skirts and going out with friends. She had received basic religious education, but she did not observe the daily prayers. The practice of Islam in her family was more about spiritual guidance than a way of life. She was not sure what being a Muslim entailed. But a two-day course organized by her school’s Muslim students’ society radically changed her.
“I attended a lecture on what it means to be a pious child. The religious teacher warned us that if we didn’t cover our hair, our parents would go to hell. I was horrified! I thought, ‘What?! They are talking about sending my parents to hell?!’ I never heard of this kind of Islam before,” she exclaims. “So, I said to myself, ‘I need to change!’ And I cried so much that night, scolding myself for being a bad daughter.”
From that moment, Ratna covered her hair and vowed to be a good Muslim. She immersed herself in works by conservative Muslim scholars and attended more courses organized by the society. As a result, she shunned watching television and listening to music, regarding them as sinful. She gave up sports, distanced herself from non-Muslims and of course, boys: “I could only talk to them about serious matters. My voice could not be soft nor friendly – no giggles or laughter – otherwise they would desire me and I’d be sending them to hell,” she pauses. “My views were pretty extreme.”
Her change of behaviour and lifestyle caused conflict in her family, particularly with her father. At the beginning, he thought that the headscarf was just a phase. But as Ratna continued to wear it, he raised the issue. “He asked me for how long was I planning to wear it,” she recalls. “I looked at him, thinking, ‘How dare you ask such a question! And I replied, ‘Until the day I die!’” she exclaims, mimicking a voice of rage. Her father, worrying she was following the extremist path, tried to put things in context. One such example relates to the Prophet Muhammed’s love of the colour green. He reasoned that the Prophet loved green because it was the colour of plants, which, unlike in Malaysia, are so rare and precious in the desert. Another example was the preference of Arabic dress amongst conservative Muslims, deemed to be more pious. “The Prophet wore that type of dress because he was an Arab. We don’t have to,” he advised her. “We stick to our own culture.”
“I was so angry with my father for saying these things,” she admits. “I thought he was being blasphemous. I would pray to God, asking Him to guide my father, who has sinned.” She now sees where he was coming from. “He was trying to understand Islam in a way that made sense to him.” With hindsight, she remarks at the similarity of her father’s views to those of SIS today.
Studying Sharia law at the International Islamic University in Pakistan opened Ratna’s eyes to the diversity of Islamic thought and opinion, where such differences were celebrated. ”Funnily enough, studying Sharia law made me a more open-minded Muslim.” As she began to challenge her own fundamentalist beliefs, she began to question the injustices towards Muslim women. For instance, why does the daughter receive less inheritance than the son? The frustrating response of her lecturer, “there is wisdom in God’s words”, only seared this sense of injustice even more.
By the time she joined SIS, Ratna had taken a different path to what was originally envisaged: divorced, raising three sons and working long hours in the corporate world. Yet with such independence of mind and important responsibilities to bear, the view that men were superior to women was entrenched in her. In her youth, she thought that the practice of polygamy was the man’s absolute right, that a wife was subservient to her husband, and that he had the right to hit her if she misbehaved. “I believed that this was the last resort for a wife who was really, really bad. I had this naïve, romantic notion that marriage was supposed to be blissful; so why would a wife ever misbehave?”
It was only at SIS that Ratna began to read the Qur’an with a different perspective. “When it comes to the verse on wife beating, there are many contrasting interpretations as to whether the word in question actually means to beat your wife or whether it means to leave her. In other parts of the Qur’an, that word means to travel or to leave.” It finally sunk in that the long-held, male-centred interpretation of a Muslim woman’s position in relation to a man has nothing to do with protecting her dignity or honour, instead it’s about control. “This has really affected how men view women, and how women view themselves,” she sighs. “That no matter how good I am, nor how clever I am, men are the leaders.”
SIS has provided many epiphanies. She realizes that the Qur’an is a living book: it provides guidance on how to live in the 21st century. But to properly understand it, one must appreciate the context of when it was revealed, as well as distinguish between its messages of universalism and those specific to 7th century Arabia. SIS has confirmed her instincts of one’s duty to strive to overcome the injustices facing Muslim women. She is also assured that the Qur’an does not coerce nor compel, and that women and men are equal. Finally, she is convinced that the practice of Islam today has become highly politicized.
“A Muslim is someone who is comfortable with their faith in God, loves God and wants to live a good life. They do not harm others, nor pass judgment. They can live peacefully with both Muslims and non-Muslims.” Peace plays a big part in a Muslim’s life. “I believe that one practices Islam in the way that one feels at peace. The word ‘Islam’ has the same root as the word salaam, peace in Arabic. That is the core identity of what being a Muslim is.”
I notice Ratna’s beaming smile once more, on a face, at peace.