Marina Mahathir Is on the Front Lines of Malaysia's Culture Wars

"There’s this idea that the more like Arabs you are, the better Muslim you are. That’s the very real obliteration of our cultural heritage."
November 14, 2017, 10:00am
Illustration by Dini Lestari

Marina Mahathir is tired of seeing her country change. Marina, the founder of the organization Sisters in Islam and the daughter of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, has spent decades fighting what she calls the "Arabization of Malaysia."

"Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia," Marina told a crowd at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October 2017. "There’s a lot of money in there. The Saudis are funding the big cost of it. This is another form of colonization—the McDonalds-ization of Islam. Malay culture is being lost."


In the West, this kind of complaint could come across Islamophobic, or a just downright racist, but Marina isn't talking about an influx of Arab immigrants here. She's concerned with the eroding foundations of her own local Malay Muslim culture in favor of the more conservative Wahhabis strains of Islam found in Saudi Arabia. She believes that Malaysia's centuries-old culture, and with it the country's ideals of pluralism and women's rights, is losing ground in a wider culture war being waged throughout Muslim communities in Southeast Asia.

In Malaysia, Middle Eastern garb like kaftan robes are replacing local attire like the kebaya and the sarong. Child marriages on the rise and more and more young women are choosing the full-face veil—the niqab—over wearing a hijab or no veil at all.

The conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is now pushing for the institution of what would become the strictest form of Shariah law in the region, one that critics say could open the door to draconian punishments like stoning adulterers and amputating the hands of thieves. The law, if implemented, would mean that there would be "separate laws for Muslims and non-Muslims," she said. "That would be the end. That would be apartheid.”

"These types of interpretations are less about religion and more about power,” Marina said. “The way to control people is to have the strictest kind of rules… Anyone who talks outside the box is harassed and hounded."


Indonesia is in the midst of a similar cultural battle, one where the country's Islamic leaders in the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) are trying to repopularize a more open, indigenous version of the religion during a time when imported conservative strains of Islam are spreading in popularity.

VICE sat down with Marina on the sidelines of the Ubud Writers and Reader's Festival to figure out whether there was any hope for the future of Malaysia, and what a swing toward hardline conservatism means for Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia.

VICE: I wanted to ask you about what you've called the ‘Arabization’ of Malaysia. Where is it coming from? The politicians, the religious figures, or the people themselves?
Marina Mahathir: It’s not particularly driven by the politicians, but it’s kind of a fairly organic thing that’s been going on for a long while. It started in the '70s, I think, after the Iranian Revolution, people started to take on a more Muslim identity, which usually translated into headscarves. And it’s been gaining ground, and I think now there’s a lot of—maybe with social media and you can see what people wear and all that—there’s more of a trend of wearing abaya and more elaborate scarves. Of course, they conflate everything, because Iranians are not Arabs. And they don’t really know the difference between one Arab and the next, but it is different from our culture.

There isn’t much attempt to localize it—unlike how it's been done in Indonesia. I think Indonesia attempts to localize it more with you know, batik kaftans or whatever. In Malaysia, it’s more taking on the sort of black stuff. It’s not completely everywhere, like you’re not going to see lots of people in black everywhere. But I noticed it particularly because one Eid, I just could not find any of our traditional clothes anywhere.


Everything was a kaftan! I thought, ‘What is happening?’ And that’s when I started to talk about it. Of course, people push back and say, ‘What’s wrong with that? You’re wearing Western clothes, anyway’. But I think what we are afraid of, it’s not just a matter of the dress—you know you can go to functions, and somebody will get up and speak in Arabic without translating. What’s that about? It’s rude for one thing, but there’s this idea that the more like Arabs you are, the better Muslim you are. That’s the very real obliteration of our cultural heritage, like the performances and things in [the conservative state of] Kelantan, because they are deemed un-Islamic, and to me, that culture is part of your soul. Eventually, how are you going to call yourself Malay?

You mentioned Indonesia briefly. There’s been a big shift here toward these rising strains of conservatism in Indonesia as well. Do you see any similarities between Indonesia and Malaysia?
Oh yes. But in fact, I think my Indonesian friends think that we’re far more conservative in Malaysia. You do see more hijabs in Malaysia than you do in on a normal day in Indonesia, and also in Malaysia I think I’ve seen a more worrying trend for me—among young women, particularly—of wearing niqab. And that’s not even Islamic, you know? So they’re taking on these things, and there’s also other things that people worry about. Regressive trends, like FGM (female genital mutilation), which was always considered not mandatory but now they’re putting it as though you have to do it. Family planning, child marriage, all these things are very worrying because they are regressive, particularly for women. And it’s always the so-called religious excuse that comes out.


What's the response been like when you are trying to get some of these things, like child marriage or FGM, banned by the courts?
Well, Indonesia signed CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of Violence Against Women) with no reservations. We signed with a lot of reservations, one of which was the age of marriage. So I think we have a harder time of it, but lately I think there’s been a real push because we’ve suddenly seen an uptick in child marriages. And I mean real child marriages—10, 12 years old, so the debate has come out. Cases where a 40-year-old man rapes a 14-year-old and tries to get around it by marrying her, that sort of thing. So this has become very big. We’ve had several forums on child marriage, trying to show that nowadays we don’t need it. But there’s this whole nostalgic thing about, ‘Oh but my grandmother married at 15 and she’s okay,’ you know?

Is there a lot of social pressure on getting married young? Is it something that might, say be forced on a teenaged couple if they were caught being a bit 'too close' to each other?
Yeah. There is something like that, but not very widespread, but still there is this fear of zina (illicit sex). Just get them married. And sometimes it is on suspicion. We had this case of a 14-year-old girl who was forced to marry this 15-year-old boy because she’d been spending time at his house. Of course, they don’t say that she always goes there with her aunt! They were forced to get married, but you know, these are children. Not even a year later, they were divorced. This is the thing that nobody thinks about: the more child marriages you have, you also have an increase in child divorces and widows. What do you do with these kids? People don’t like us because we’re trying to talk about very real problems, there’s so much being swept under the carpet.

You once said that if Malaysia was to implement hudud (strict Islamic) law, you would leave. Do you still feel that way?
[Laughs] Well, you know I think that has been… I had a lot of people panicking. What I said was I don’t want to live in a country that has hudud law. Which means I will fight to not let it happen. It doesn’t mean I will give up, that I will go, you know? That was a click-baiting headline, it drives me crazy. You can’t just leave everyone else. But it is a very real threat that they use against us. And it’s going to be miserable. I won’t stop my children from leaving if they want.

So you see it as your personal responsibility to fight against it?
Yeah. I think all of us should. The reason I think that is this: in 1995, I went to the Beijing Women’s Conference, and we did a session. It was one of the first sessions that Sisters in Islam did, and we were talking about our approach of going through religion. A whole bunch of Iranian women exiles turned up, and they all lived in New York, and were really vehemently against our approach. I just thought, ‘You know what? You left, you’re living in exile in New York, and you’re free to do what you want, and you have no thought for your sisters back home who do not have those opportunities, who were suffering and still are. And you’re so bitter, you’re not even happy!’ And I thought, I never want to be like that.

This interview has been condensed and edited for content and clarity.