Malaysia's First Female Islamic Judges Get Equal Powers

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia's first women Islamic court judges are starting to hear cases this month after Shariah legal authorities empowered them with the same authority as their male colleagues, an official said Wednesday.

The two female judges were appointed in May to combat perceptions that Islamic courts unfairly favor men. But one senior judge said Shariah law provisions in this Muslim-majority country barred them from presiding over cases involving divorce and matters involving morality crimes, such as drinking and gambling.

However, a panel of top Malaysian Islamic judges subsequently decided the two women would have the same jurisdiction as male judges "in light of Shariah principles" to uphold justice, said Mohamad Na'im Mokhtar, an official in Malaysia's government-run department for the Islamic judiciary.

"Whatever powers are provided to the male judges ... the same applies to these two women judges," Mohamad Na'im said, adding authorities hope to appoint more female judges in the near future.

Judge Surayah Ramlee, 31, will start hearing cases Thursday in a court in Putrajaya, Malaysia's administrative capital, Mohamad Na'im said. Her first is expected to be an application for documents to claim an inheritance.

The other judge, Rafidah Abdul Razak, 39, began hearing inheritance and family law cases last week.

Both judges have stressed they hope to ensure fairness for everyone, not based simply on gender.

Malaysia has a two-tier court system: Secular courts handle most criminal and civil cases, but on some issues, such as family disputes and so-called morality crimes, Muslims are subject to Shariah courts instead. Muslims make up nearly two-thirds of the country's 28 million people, while the rest of the population are mainly Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.

Women judges are common in Malaysia's secular courts. But in the Shariah courts, some Muslim women claim the dominance of male judges causes them to suffer regular discrimination.

Women's rights activists have said they are inundated with complaints that Islamic courts are slow to penalize ex-husbands who fail to pay child support. Men are also known to find it relatively easy to divorce their wives while taking a greater share of the couple's property.