Islam and Family Legal Contests in Malaysia: Hegemonizing Ethnic Over Gender and Civil Rights

23 Pages Posted: 20 Jul 2010

See all articles by Maznah Mohamad

Maznah Mohamad

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: Dec 1, 2008


The family narrative is a rich site where feminist, ethnic and nationalist politics can be projected and advocated. In the Malaysian case, the discourse of feminism, cultural relativism and liberalism, vis-à-vis family litigation has been used to assert and bargain for specific political interests. The politicization of litigation involving Muslim-non-Muslim family cases has proved to be an effective means of drawing attention to the transformational potential of law in society. On the surface the unfolding of these events, especially when posed as a human rights concern can be reduced to a struggle between the Islamists and the secularists. However, there is a more complex process at work involving multiple contestations around middle-class competition, leadership struggles, and legitimacy of rule, rather than just an assertion of ideologies (particularly religious ideologies). What I will show in this paper is that the family as an economic and social unit, and even as metaphor, has become a terrain where acute power struggles can take place. By looking at the background and outcomes of several landmark inter-religious court cases in Malaysia the paper analyzes the wider socio-political implication of these contestations, especially how the representation of the family and its fragmentation has situated it within a critical interstitial domain lodged between the struggle for group affinity on the one hand and nation-state membership on the other. That this battle of wills is fought at the expense of families largely escapes the attention of those who are in this competition. It would seem that one of the costs of asserting or re-defining the rules of nation and belonging had been the undermining of the sacredness of family and the autonomy of private choice.

Keywords: Malaysia, Islamization, inter-religious conflict, Syariah law, family litigation, ethnicity, identity politics

Suggested Citation

Mohamad, Maznah, Islam and Family Legal Contests in Malaysia: Hegemonizing Ethnic Over Gender and Civil Rights (Dec 1, 2008). Asia Research Institute Working Paper No. 109, Available at SSRN: or

Maznah Mohamad (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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