These Malaysian Women Are Claiming Their Place In Court
"When I'm on the bench, I'm not a woman, I'm not a man. I'm a judge.”
Nenney Shushaidah Binti Shamsuddin made history last year when she became one of two women appointed as Syariah (Sharia) High Court judges.
The announcement of her appointment follows the 2006 edict of Malaysian religious authorities that, like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sudan, they would allow women to serve as Syariah judges.
Nenney hopes that as more women take the judge’s bench, public perception regarding a woman’s ability to serve in the position will change.
She says that many people believe male judges rule harshly in women’s cases, but that they also think female judges will be too lenient. On the bench, Nenney wants to prove that gender is irrelevant.
"When I'm on the bench, I'm not a woman, I'm not a man,” she said. “I'm a judge.”
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Malaysia’s court system is comprised of a two tiers. The one in which Nenney serves as judge presides over cases dealing with Islamic law, while the other handles secular issues.
Although Nenney is one of two women serving as High Court judges of Islamic law, 27 of Malaysia's 120 Islamic court judges, including lower court judges, are women.
Shareena Sheriff, from Sisters in Islam, a Muslim women's advocacy group in Kuala Lumpur, said that although allowing female judges is definite progress, it does not necessarily mean the treatment of women in court will change.
"Even though the numbers [of female judges] have risen, the numbers relative to men are still very low," she told Al Jazeera. “It's extremely important for the courts to have a balance in terms of gender because a lot of the issues involve women. So we need some level of balance in the way in which they deliver justice and also gender sensitisation of the justice system."
Malaysian women are not only entering the court system as judges, they also are beginning to dominate Islamic law schools.
Judge Mohd Na'im Mokhtar, the former chief judge in the state of Selangor, reported that women earn the highest marks in her law classes.
The Syariah Lawyers Association has had an increase of 200 women members within the last five years; meaning women make up more than 40% of the group’s demographics.
Nur Farhana, a 22 law student interning at the Selangor Syariah Court, says that in the past gender was a major determining factor in not only graduating from law school, but finding a job after graduation.
Now, with the gender disparity shifting as women earn their places as lawyers and judges, she says that academic performance and legal abilities outweigh everything.
“It's not about gender now,” she said. “It's about your qualification."