Posted by: leahok | January 10, 2013

The flashmob, the Women’s Rights Advocate and the Polygamist

I arrived at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal in KL, which is like arriving at Avalon. It doesn’t have an exciting airport- it’s just a converted shed. As I lined up for immigration, a Malaysian pop song played over and over on the TV and the film clip re-created an airport flash-mob. This made me smile. They even had Malaysian Airlines flights attendants walk by, look surprised, and then join in the dancing. I was in Malaysia!

On the flight I had realised that while I had flown by myself before, this was the first time that I was going live and travel by myself. So far it hasn’t posed any problems, but it is different to have plans to meet friends, or back-packing. I stayed in a hostel in China-town for the first couple of nights, bustling my way through the night-market, knocking into people and fake Louis Vuitton bags in order to find my way to the hostel.Image

I’m now settled in Bangsar- a central suburb in KL and close to International Women’s Rights Action Watch- Asia Pacific‘s office (its quite the mouthful- so they just say IWRAW). I started work on the 2nd and have just begun my second week. Last week many of the staff were still on holidays for New Years Eve and the office was relatively quiet. This gave me the opportunity to take my time, do lots of reading and become familiar with IWRAW.

Broadly, the organisation is focused on the International Women’s rights treaty- the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  Rather than undertaking grass-roots activities, IWRAW advocates and assists local NGO’s in the region. Thus, IWRAW’s work is centred on enabling National Non-Government Organisations (NGO’s) to mobilise and utilise CEDAW in their work. The project I am working on connects with, assists and trains National NGO’s to make submissions and oral statements to the CEDAW Committee in Geneva when their country is being reviewed. This provides the global community and the CEDAW Committee with an alternative view of women’s rights in a particular country. In February, the CEDAW Committee will be reviewing Pakistan, Angola, Macedonia, Greece, Cyrpus, the Solomon Islands, Austria and Hungary. I am slowly becoming acquainted with the women’s rights issues in these countries and am reading and learning as quickly as possible!

Today I attended a symposium on polygamy in Malaysia, run by a women’s rights organisations called ‘Sisters in Islam’. The women who run that organisation use academic research and Islamic interpretations to argue that the Quar’an says that men and women are equal. Further, the group asserts that practices, like polygamy that are frequently justified by Islam, are the result of Patriarchal societies and interpretations. The symposium is presenting findings from Sisters in Islam’s research having interviewed over 1200 wives, husbands and children from Polygamous marriages in Malaysia. The workshop will run over 3 days, but already some interesting discussions have emerged.


Outside the office, Malaysia provides a very interesting political situation. An election is thought to be imminent, but has not yet been called. The disenfranchisement with the mainstream political commentary and current focus of political debate tends to be the topic of many conversations. I’m hoping to follow the debates while I’m here – with the assistance of some more independent online media forums!

I’ll be sure to keep you updated about preparation for Geneva, the polygamy symposium and Malaysia’s political situation!



  1. Fascinating opportunity Leah! Is the number of polygamous marriages different amongst different Islamic communities? Do they fit into Malaysian culture well? Are they arranged by consenting adult women or by families and go betweens? What’s the community opinion on them? Looking forward to hearing more about your different perspectives during your time there!

    • Hi Anna! The polygamy issue is a very interesting one. It appears that polygamy is on the rise in Malaysia- for reasons unknown, but perhaps in part due to the ‘Arabisation’ of Islam in Malaysia. Interestingly, the respondents in the research were mostly from low income or middle-low income families and thus struggling financially to support two families. In terms of the fit between polygamy and Malaysian culture, there is an acceptance in society. As a practice justified by Islam, in a country where Muslim and Malay identifies are almost inseparable, it becomes difficult to oppose a practice that is so concretely embedded in religion. There is a long history of polygamy in Malaysia, but historically it was confined to the elite, rich and powerful.

      Generally, the marriage to the second wife comes about because she does not know about the first marriage- at least initially, or is told that divorce is under way etc. Similarly, many first wives often do not know of the polygamous marriage- sometimes until the death of their husband. Under Muslim family law, it is very difficult for a woman to instigate a divorce, so even where she does know of the second marriage, she has very little ‘bargaining power’ to prevent it or to seek a divorce if it proceeds.
      However, there is a ‘group’ called ‘The Polygamy Club’ which operates like a closed community where the ‘leader’ chooses who can enter the group, which families are to be polygamous, recruits wives and chooses which family they are married into. The community also has a socialist economic system and essentially operates as a cult.

      Community opinion is also very interesting as many Muslim Malays are likely to indicate that they don’t see polygamy as a positive situation, but concede that it is a mans ‘right’ provided for by the Quar’an. It is this argument- that polygamy is a divine right- that Sisters in Islam seeks to challenge through critical analysis of the discourse and interpreting the Quar-an, the history and the context. Over 90% of the children of polygamous families that took part in the research said that they would not recommend polygamy. Thanks for your questions- It’s a very interest and complicated issue!

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