Don’t use custom, tradition or religion as excuse to undermine human rights, ICJ tells govt after SIS court decision

Jerry Choong
The High Court had earlier ruled that secular courts do not have jurisdiction over matters pertaining to Islam, in relation to Sisters in Islam' case. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 10 ― The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has called upon the Malaysian government to ensure that custom, tradition, and religion are not used as a justification to undermine human rights.

Its senior international legal advisor Emerlynne Gil said that in light of the Kuala Lumpur High Court's decision on August 27 to refer progressive feminist Islamic NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) to the Shariah Court, states have an obligation under international law to protect people who are prevented from exercising their religious freedom by private actors, such as their own religious communities.

“The Malaysian government, including the judiciary, has the obligation to protect groups like Sisters in Islam when they face persecution from within their religious communities for propounding alternative views about their religion,” she said in a statement on ICJ's website.

Gil added that for women to fully exercise their religious freedom, they must be able to retain or adopt the religion of their choice, and they must be able to continue belonging to this religion without being discriminated against within the religion.

In a 2019 briefing paper on the challenges to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Malaysia, the ICJ had previously underscored the tensions emerging from jurisdictional disputes between civil courts, which apply federal and state laws, and Shariah courts, which use Islamic laws.

In 2018, when reviewing Malaysia's performance, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women voiced its own concern over the existence of a parallel legal system of civil law and multiple versions of Shariah law, which have not been harmonised in accordance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

The CEDAW Committee concluded that this 'leads to a gap in the protection of women against discrimination, including on the basis of their religion.'

The Selangor Fatwa Council decreed in 2014 that SIS is a deviant organisation, with the High Court subsequently making its decision per Article 121 (1A) of the Federal Constitution, which states that secular courts do not have jurisdiction over matters pertaining to Islam.

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