Domestic helpers and stories of war

by Esther R. Suter last modified 13 March 2017 12:13 PM

13 March 2017

More than thirty local women as well as women from other Muslim-majority countries, including some from other faith communities, gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early February. This interfaith seminar was organized by the local Muslim non-governmental organization IMAN, which once was headed by the current president of the International Association of Liberal Religious Women (IALRW), Prof. Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman.

Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman, deputy director of the Centre for Muslim World Affairs at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) is the first Muslim president of the IALRW. The IALRW, founded in 1910, is one of the oldest interfaith women’s organizations in the world. It is a branch of the International Association for Religious Freedom, founded in 1900.

The seminar offered two public sessions, discussing the “Plight of Domestic Helpers: Interfaith Perspectives” and “Conflict and War: Direct Accounts.”

Domestic helpers is a crucial topic in Malaysia with mainly women (“maids”) coming from Indonesia, often immigrants without a legal status or documents. Faith communities such as Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Christian (Roman-Catholic) Sikh and Taoist exposed the situation and presented their approach on a spiritual as well as social, moral and communitarian level.

Although the women gathered in Kuala Lumpur had a variety of approaches, presented separately, they managed to formulate firm recommendations to be addressed to the government, for training, support and protection of workers; regulation of agencies providing staff; and fostering right relationships with workers within families, respecting them as human beings.

The topic “Conflict and War: direct accounts” was presented by four IIUM students. They came from Burma, Yemen, Kashmir and Syria. With the exception of the student from Kashmir, they all presented conflict situations involving Muslims and another faith group and exposed the political conflict as an intentionally created religious conflict, which exploits religions for political and power strategies.

In Burma, the seminar participants learned, a Buddhist monk and his followers created hatred against the Muslim Rohingyahs, instigated by the military regime, portraying Rohingyas as a foreign ethnic group. “This is a crime against humanity. This is ethnic cleansing by torture, rape, prostitution; this is war. This all happens under impunity and with the reason to stop the growth of the Rohingya population which is now only allowed to have two children” said the 31year-old Rohingya.

In Yemen the conflict caused the large Sunni majority and the Shia minority to perceive each other as enemies in ways which did not exist before. The 26-year-old Yemeni, who studies law and political science at IIUM, sees her studies as groundwork for acting later in her country. She now lives in safety and is welcome in Malaysia, but is rather looking forward to returning to Yemen. “Formerly we lived together in a diversity of religious communities and never had religious conflicts in such an extent as today.”

Hatred between Sunnis and Shias is triggered intentionally. Once the war is finished, she explains, these anti-Shia sentiments will be a problem when it comes to building up the nation again.

The IALRW had invited Rev. Dr Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia (CCM) and a young Malaysian woman, Victoria Cheng to speak at the seminar. Shastri raised the question how the IALRW understands the word “liberal” that is part of its name. The explanation was that the origins of the IALRW go back to the 20th century. It has been created in 1910 as a women’s branch of the Council of Unitarian and other Liberal Thinkers and Workers, which had been founded 1900 in Boston. Today’s name of this council is IARF – International Association for Religious Freedom.

For some current IALRW members "liberal" is indeed a difficult label to carry.

Referring to the situation in Malaysia as a secular state with Islam as state religion, Shastri explained how being “liberal”– as in: defending the separation of religion and state guaranteed by the Malaysian constitution of 1957 – is a challenge.

Cheng, 25, coming from a Christian background, represents a new generation who questions many issues. She explained that after her studies of international relations at a private university with a rather liberal climate, she got a job as a human rights activist, although she plans to continue gender and Islam studies in future. She assists the program manager of the small non-governmental organization ProjekDialog and is involved in interfaith dialogue, although this is very controversial. “We should simply find and establish contacts among us. If possible to be critical and open up space. This is possible if we cultivate a dialogue among us”. Cheng is an example of young people who claim their freedom and question standards.