Malaysia: concerns for writer summoned for questioning

1 November 2019 – PEN Malaysia and PEN International are deeply concerned by news that writer Maryam Lee has received a summons for questioning by JAIS – (Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor), the State of Selangor’s religious authority – under Section 58 (1) of the Syariah Criminal Procedure Enactment (Selangor) 2003.

As Lee wrote on her blog on 24 October, she received a formal letter requiring her to give a statement on the investigation under Section 10 (a) of the Syariah Criminal Enactment (Selangor) 1995, which criminalises “any person who by words which are capable of being heard or read or by drawings, marks or other forms of representation which are visible or capable of being visible or in any other manner: (a) insults or brings into contempt the religion of Islam”. If charged and found guilty, Lee could face a fine of RM5,000.00 (USD1,200.00) or 3 years in prison or both. Failure to comply with the order will give justifiable grounds for JAIS to request an arrest warrant, as stipulated in Section 58 (2) of the Syariah Criminal Procedure Enactment (Selangor) 2003.

“Laws on blasphemy are often applied arbitrarily, their intent being to intimidate dissenting voices which challenge social practices or ideas. Peaceful expression of dissenting voices is at the heart of a democratic society. Placing restrictions on critical voices, even if their views may hurt the devout, is wrong. Criticism of ideas should be challenged with counterviews, and not through legal proceedings that may carry penalties under the criminal law. Maryam Lee is raising legitimate questions about the role of women in society; those opposed to her views should join the debate, rather than harass her or attempt to suppress her views,” said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

PEN Malaysia and PEN International view the instruction as continued harassment against writer Maryam Lee and as a threat to freedom of expression in Malaysia.

While JAIS failed to provide a reason for the order, Lee believes that it is connected to her book Unveiling Choice, which was published by Gerakbudaya Enterprise and launched on 13 April. The book argues that Malay Muslim women should have the right to decide if they wish to wear a headscarf, known as tudung, a controversial proposition in a country where cultural practices require Malay Muslim women to wear the headscarf. The discussion at the launch of the book garnered backlash on social media from individuals who had not attended the session, including the Minister for the Department for Religious Affairs. According to media reports, this backlash prompted JAIS to launch an investigation.

According to Lee, “The book Unveiling Choice tackles the historical, economic and political impacts of the hijab on women and their status in the public sphere. It is about confronting the social conditions that lead women to choose or not choose the hijab”.

Bernice Chauly, director of PEN Malaysia said, “We are extremely concerned about JAIS’s action, which aims to curtail a legitimate debate and discourse, and the unclear reasons for which the writer is being investigated.”

PEN Malaysia and PEN International are monitoring the situation closely and stand in solidarity with Maryam Lee.

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