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Zainah was born in Johor, to her father, Tan Sri Haji Anwar bin Abdul Malik and mother, Saodah bte Abdullah, a housewife. Her father was credited as the man who gave the United Malays National Organisation or UMNO its name – initially United Malays Organisation. This was at a meeting in Batu Pahat when seven Umno founders from Johor Baru met Datuk Onn Jaafar to call for a unification of all the disparate Malay nationalist groups at the time. He later became Onn's private secretary when Onn became Johor's Mentri Besar.
In 1997, her father died two weeks before his 100th birthday followed by her mother a year later.
Zainah was educated in Sultan Ibrahim Girls' School in Johor Bahru. Her favourite subjects were English and English literature. She told the Star in an interview that she was not a born leader, she was a born rebel.
One day, she discovered on a chance visit to the school staff room that, against her name, a frowning teacher had scribbled: “Too high spirited, too playful, too talkative, too naughty.” With these four strikes against her, she never made prefect.
I was always asking questions that they could not answer. Like why (Stamford) Raffles was considered the founder of Singapore when there were people (already living) there before." The traits that today serve her so well were already there.
I was not scared at all. I was a non-conformist, a disobedient child. I knew I wanted to be a journalist since Form One. I was single-minded about that. I wanted to quit school and work in a newsroom right after Form Five.
After making a name for herself as a hard-nosed journalist at the New Straits Times, Zainah went on to do her Masters at Boston University in the United States in 1978 and read International Law and Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, Tufts University (also in the US), until 1986.
Upon her return, she joined the Institute of Strategic and International Studies think-tank from 1986 to 1991, before becoming chief programme officer with the Political Affairs division of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, where she launched her global networking and enhanced her political maturity. She rejoined ISIS from 1994–1996, left, and freelanced for two years.
Sisters in Islam
Zainah was involved with Sisters in Islam for two decades as its leader. She was responsible for building the NGO from a small organisation to a global one and is invited to give talks all over the world.
In 1987, a clutch of women lawyers and a journalist friend including Zainah jointly founded a fledgling movement to look into the problems Muslim women had with the courts. In 1990, the movement formally became known as SIS. Its focus was to challenge laws and policy made in the name of Islam that discriminate against women. Eventually, SIS areas of work expanded to encompass larger issues of democracy, human rights and constitutionalism.
Said Zainah in an interview with The Star:
It's as if in Islam, women don't have any rights at all. One woman asked, if the house were on fire, would she then have to seek her husband's permission to flee! Women cannot even use their common sense to save their (own) lives. This cannot be Islam. God is just. Islam is just.
Aghast at what was being taught in the ceramahs, the founding sisters turned to the Quran to find out for themselves what the verses say, as opposed to various interpretations. What they discovered was a revelation. On polygamy, the Quran says: “If you cannot treat them the same, then marry just the one.”
That was a moment of epiphany. It was that kind of questioning that made us want to read the Quran with a new lens. It was a liberating process understanding that the Quran speaks to women and is lifting and empowering.
Zainah is most proud that SIS has opened public space for debate and given a public voice to women to air their concerns about their rights under Syariah law. Through its fora and education programmes, SIS has shown that the concerns of Muslim women are "not the monopoly of religious scholars. Everyone has the right to speak".
SIS has been at the forefront of NGOs influencing amendments to Islamic Family Law. It has espoused equality and justice for women, discussed dress and modesty, the right to guardianship, women as judges, fundamental liberties in Islam, and apostasy and freedom of religion.
The organisation has exposed the diversity of interpretations of Islam, and through its research and discussions with local and international authorities, sifted through these to determine "which opinions we want to follow and codify".
Through the years, Zainah drew barbs because she is atypical of the image of the "good Malay-Muslim lady". Being single did not help.
She stood her ground when the voices of Muslim officialdom, from the Islamic Development Department (Jakim) to state religious bodies to PAS, berated her organisation's lack of formal Islamic credentials. On the plus side, some of the more liberal mufti (chief clergy in respective states) have addressed SIS seminars.
At one point, SIS was taken more seriously abroad than at home in Malaysia. Purdah-clad women from Iran who listened incredulously to Malaysian Muslim officialdom defend polygamy, found common ground with SIS on this issue.
Though Zainah has stepped down as head of SIS, she remains on the board of directors. She concurrently serves as project director for the SIS-initiated global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.
Zainah was criticised by state religious government bodies such the Majlis Agama Islam Johore for SIS' view about Islamic punishment in the Kartika case, whereby a Muslim woman was sentenced to be caned for the consumption of alcohol. Zainah was also questioned by the legal prosecution division of the Criminal Investigations Department on SIS' stand on the issue.
Zainah has addressed prestigious overseas forums such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy annual lecture series in Singapore. She has delivered the keynote address on Islam, Human Rights, and Activism at Harvard University on 8 April 2008. She has also given an address discussing "What Islam, Whose Islam? From Misogyny to Equality" at The College of William & Mary.
- A sister steps out, The Star, 30 March 2008.
- Muslim Women Demand End to Oppressive Laws
- A sister steps out by Suhani Aznam for The Star (Malaysia) 30 March 2008