KUALA LUMPUR – A prominent Malaysian women’s group won the right to keep the word “Islam” in its name Friday after a court ruled against religious activists critical of the group’s opinions on women’s rights.
The High Court struck out an application by the Malaysian Assembly of Muslim Youths, which demanded that Sisters in Islam change its name because it was allegedly misleading people to believe that the group speaks for all Muslims, said Ratna Osman, program manager of the women’s group.
The court sided with Sisters in Islam’s argument that the activists had no legal standing to challenge the name.
Sisters in Islam, one of this Muslim-majority country’s most well-known nongovernment groups, has often upset conservative Muslims by questioning the enforcement of Malaysian Islamic Shariah laws, including those that allow the caning of women for offenses such as consuming alcohol.
Many Muslim groups say Sisters in Islam misinterprets religious principles, highlighting a divide between Muslims who demand strict enforcement of Islamic morality laws and others who worry about religious intolerance.
The High Court’s decision Friday was “a positive step toward ensuring that freedom of expression as guaranteed under the federal Constitution is upheld,” Ratna of Sisters in Islam said in a statement.
“If Malaysia truly wants to take the global leadership in promoting moderation in Islam, then the first steps must be taken at home to protect the democratic space for debate and differences of opinion,” Ratna said.
Representatives for the Malaysian Assembly of Mosque Youths could not immediately be reached Friday. Its leader claimed in March that Sisters in Islam often contradicted Muslim beliefs and that its name “causes confusion among Muslims who might think that the group represents Islam.”
Established in 1988, Sisters in Islam has advocated reforms of Muslim laws that allegedly fail to protect women’s rights in matters such as polygamy and child marriages. Its official name is SIS Forum (Malaysia), but it uses “Sisters in Islam” in publications.
Sisters in Islam tried last year to stop the caning of a woman sentenced by an Islamic court for publicly drinking beer. The sentence was commuted to community service after a public outcry. But several other Muslim women have since been caned for having extramarital sex, the first time the punishment has been carried out on Malaysian women.