Women To The Fore
Selangor made strides recently when it appointed two female syariah high court judges. The two women speak to Sunday Star about the challenges they face.
NENNEY Shuhaidah Shamsuddin couldn’t bring herself to smile when she heard she was being appointed a Syariah High Court judge. She was in shock because no woman in the country had been appointed to that post before.
“People kept asking me ‘Why is your face like that?’ I was just terrified. I didn’t see the appointment as something glamorous.
Previously, women were only appointed to the lower courts. And even that was a relatively recent development, starting only in 2010.
Nenney, who has never been a judge before, didn’t even have time to ease into her new job: One day after her appointment she was already slated to hear a case!
She is able to laugh about it now as she shares that one of the things she noticed very quickly in her appointment letter was a line stating that any appeal against the appointment would not be entertained.
“So no matter what, I would still have to do it. Then I started thinking that if the boss has confidence in the two of us and selected us out of the lot, it is because he thinks we are capable, so we better step up and take up the challenge.
“And we must have confidence in ourselves too, that we’d be able to do our job in a just manner.
“Friends and family were excited. They are rooting for us, telling us that we can do it. That also helped. ’’
Nenney graduated with a BA in Islamic Studies, a diploma in the Administration of Islamic Judiciary and Syariah, and went on to do an MA in Psychology (counselling) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).
“I was never a judge. I thought I’d have a month to learn the ropes but I was given a case the very next day that I was appointed! So you can imagine how I felt!
“But I worked as a lawyer in the Selangor Syariah Legal Aid Bureau for four years, so I could draw from that experience of being in court. And I read up on the various enactments so that when I sat on the bench from the first day, I’d be totally ‘on’.”
Nenney takes her job as a judge very seriously.
“We are talking about punishing or sentencing someone for an offence or about giving someone his or her due rights and fair share. It is a God-given trust. If I am unjust I’ll go to hell,” she says.
Nenney also worked for three years at the Syariah Judiciary Department in Putrajaya.
And she is good friends with Suraya Ramli and Rafidah Abdul Razak, the two women who also made history back in 2010 as the first two women in the country to be appointed syariah court judges (although that was at the syariah subordinate court).
“There are not many women in the field so I know them well. I asked them what it was like, how they felt and they gave me advice.
“Like me, they too had no experience on the bench when they were appointed judges.
“The only difference is that they were appointed to the lower court while my appointment is to the high court.
“They told me what is important on the job is both physical and mental strength. They reassured me that I could do it and helped calm my nerves,’’ she says.
Suraya and Rafidah are no longer judges in the syariah court. Nenney says the two heard cases as judges for a few years but because syariah department jobs are rotated, they were subsequently moved to different posts. Suraya is a Syariah Court Registrar now while Rafidah is a prosecutor.
Since 2010, a total of 27 women have been appointed as syariah court judges, including Nenney and Noor Huda.
More women studying law
Noor Huda was a speaker at the recent seminar on “Women As Judges And Leaders” at the International Institute of Advanced Studies in Kuala Lumpur.
She says women judges are actually not something new in Islam because during the Holy Prophet’s time, He had appointed a woman in Mecca, Samra Nuhaik al-Asadiah, as a muhtasibah which is part of the judiciary system. And that during Caliph Umar’s rule, another woman, Al Syifa Abi Sulaiman, was appointed as a muhtasibah in the souq in Medina.
While there are different schools of thought about whether women can be appointed as judges, Noor Huda notes that Muslim countries like Sudan and Pakistan (which follow the Hanafi school of thought) and Indonesia (which, like Malaysia, adheres to the Shafie school) already have them.
For Malaysia, the National Fatwa Council decided in 2006 that a woman can be appointed as a syariah court judge except in cases involving hudud (Islamic penal code) and qisas (law of retaliation).
But this doesn’t impact on the work of the women syariah judges because the scope of the syariah courts here is limited – the country’s law does not allow for hudud or qisas, anyway.
Noor Huda says women are highly educated these days and many are going to university. Just like for other courses, there are now more and more women studying law and Islamic studies now.
She points out that of the 400 syariah officers in the country, 129 are female. That is about one third, so their numbers are pretty significant.
The 40-year-old Noor Huda graduated in Islamic Studies from UKM. She went on to do her masters in International and Comparative Legal Studies at the renowned School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Speaking to Sunday Star after the seminar, Noor Huda says she had always known she wanted to work with the syariah judiciary and legal system.
In fact, she had been given a different course at university but appealed to change to the syariah course because that was her interest.
“There were no female syariah judges when I graduated in 1999 but there were already female syariah lawyers so I wanted to be one.”
She practised law for two years, then moved on to work at the Syariah Judiciary Department Malaysia and the Attorney-General’s Chambers for seven years.
“I never aspired to be a syariah judge because we are trained to believe that being a judge is not a post that you can ask for.”
When Noor Huda was appointed as a judge in late June, she was holding the post of Chief Registrar of the Selangor Syariah Judiciary Department, a post she still holds today. Although she is not sure whether she will continue as Chief Registrar while also serving as a judge.
“It all depends on the head of my department. For now I am carrying out the responsibilities I have been given.”
Noor Huda hasn’t started hearing cases yet. What she is doing for now is disposing of as many mediation cases as she can; these are cases in which the two parties have come to an agreement and bring it to the court to get a consent judgement – “I sit in the chambers and record the settled agreement,” she explains.
Rising above their critics
Counting Noor Huda and Nenney, Selangor has five Syariah High Court judges (see graphic above for nationwide figures). That is not a big number, which is why there is a backlog of cases.
Syariah Chief Judge of Selangor Datuk Dr Mohd Naim Mokhtar says they will be starting night court this week to clear the backlog.
Both women are ready to work at night if there is a need.
For Noor Huda and Nenney, there is no difference between a male and female syariah judge when it comes to administering the law.
But don’t some Islamic scholars argue that women shouldn’t be judges because they are by nature emotional?
Noor Huda says that might have been the case a long time ago when women were not exposed to the world and not very highly educated.
She notes that today, women are highly educated, they do very well at university and are well qualified to understand the law. All this, she says, has changed the landscape of syariah judiciary in the country.
Nenney believes that it may well be the intrinsic nature of a woman to be emotional and sympathetic “but when you sit on the bench as a judge, you have to forget that you are a woman”.
“When I hear a case, I forget I am a woman. I put emotions aside and make a decision based on the facts of the case.
“Maybe it is difficult at first but the work teaches us to do that and after a while it becomes second nature for us.”
For her, there is no difference between a male or female judge in terms of qualifications, and they should be evaluated on their capability, performance and achievements at work, she believes.
“A judge has to be transparent when handling a case. He or she must be sincere and trustworthy and listen to both sides.
“Don’t think that because I am female I will side with the women. I can’t do that because this is a duty entrusted by Allah. If we are not just, then we will end up in hell. I always bear that in mind.”
Nenney says it is also important for a judge to read a lot and always enhance his or her knowledge on cases and judgements so that they are able to make better decisions.
And she is quick to spring to the defence of the male syariah judges over criticism that their judgements are biased against women.
“Women get their rights even under the male judges. It is just that when they lose, they make noise.
“But there are many cases where the women get their rights under the male judges and they are satisfied so they keep quiet and go about their business. So you don’t hear of those cases.”’
Nenney also says that, personally, she supports PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang’s Private Member’s Bill to amend the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act to enhance the powers of the court.
“At present the maximum sentence for a syariah offence is three years’ jail, a RM5,000 fine and/or six strokes of the rotan, so some people dismiss the court because RM5,000 is a small amount to them. So there is no fear of committing an offence unlike in cases brought before the civil court.
“I think if we had more powers and are able to mete out harsher sentences, people would respect the syariah court more.”
On cases of conversion and the fight for custody of children between a converted Muslim and a non-Muslim spouse, Nenney acknowledges that there is no middle ground yet between the civil and syariah courts on such cases.
“The Government has been making an effort to find some meeting point on such issues. I pray that someday that we will find a resolution that is fair and will satisfy both sides.”’
She says there are also other areas between civil and syariah law that need to harmonised.
“My hope is that someday non-Muslims too would feel they can go to the syariah court to get a fair and just decision.”
Both Nenney and Noor Huda have heard critics question the need for female syariah judges. And there are some critics who say that with female judges, the men are now going to have a tough time getting permission from the court to take on another wife and practise polygamy! There are even those who say women judges are a sign that the end of the world is near.
“Such criticisms don’t bother me. They only make me more determined to do my best,” says Noor Huda.
Nenney too brushes aside such negative comments: “I take it as a challenge to perform. And I want prove to critics that women can make excellent judges.”
After three weeks on the job, Nenney is starting to feel a bit more comfortable and is finding her footing, she says.
“I am less nervous compared to when I first started. I am getting the hang of it. And I am starting to smile again.”
“I was thinking of the duty and heavy responsibility that I would now have to bear, and that frightened me,” the 41-year-old confesses.
Nenney and Noor Huda Roslan made history in the country on June 27 when they were appointed Syariah High Court judges for Selangor.
Source: The Star Online