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Girls & Women

Malaysia's Book Investigation Prompts Outrage Among Muslim Women's Rights Activists

By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Malaysia's religious authorities on Wednesday said they were investigating a book about Muslim women who choose not to wear a hijab, prompting a backlash among women's rights groups.

The probe is the latest in a series of incidents that have led to women's rights activists accusing authorities of acting like "fashion police" by trying to control women's attire in the Muslim-majority nation.

It came after a government minister called for a probe into the launch of the book Unveiling Choice last weekend, which featured Muslim women who discussed why they had stopped wearing a headscarf.

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"It's just a sharing of experience, nothing more than that," said Maryam Lee, author of the book, which she hopes will show that the hijab can be "both liberating and oppressive."

"[Some] say this is something to promote 'de-hijabbing' — that's not true. It's a book about experience," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, referring to the removing of the headscarf.

Lee said officers from the Islamic affairs department in the central state of Selangor had obtained copies of the book from the publisher's office on Tuesday.

A spokeswoman from the department when contacted said it was "looking into the matter" but declined to give further details. Its director Haris Kasim did not respond to requests for comment.

Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa said in a statement that he viewed the matter seriously and called for a "fair" investigation.

It was unclear what offenses or laws the book was being investigated over.

Muslim women who do not wear the headscarf are a common sight in Malaysia, and include notable figures like the wife and daughter of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

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Other prominent personalities such as former trade minister Rafidah Aziz and ex-central bank governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz also do not wear the hijab.

More than 60% of Malaysia's 32 million population are Muslims, but it is also home to a large number of ethnic and religious minorities who openly practice their religion.

"It's really disappointing," said Sumitra Visvanathan, executive director of the nonprofit Women's Aid Organisation.

"I would tell the government to butt out of our private lives and how we choose to dress is our business. There is no law in Malaysia that stipulates a woman should or should not wear the headscarf."

Last year, Mujahid said that the government was planning to introduce a dress code for Muslim women in the workplace, sparking a large public outcry.

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi. Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)