Zainah Anwar lived in the United States for five years, earning Master's degrees in Journalism and International Affairs at Tufts. But her interest in women's rights began at home.
Zainah Anwar: This is a picture of my parents, my father, my mother. He was a man of integrity, of incredible principals, honesty, loyalty, but I think at the same time, it's because of him, too, that I became a feminist, partly, maybe a lot! Because he was such a patriarch of the family. He was a very old fashioned man, where he expects the woman in the house to do everything, to serve him on hand and foot. That had a great influence, I think, you know, in that growing sense of this is not right, this is not fair.
Back in Malaysia in 1988, Zainah helped establish a controversial research and advocacy group, called "Sisters in Islam." Through letters to newspapers and memoranda to government officials, these Muslim women are challenging traditional understandings of Islam.
Zainah Anwar: ...as we went on we felt that working with law alone was not enough. Because so much of the gender bias that informs the law comes from an understanding of religion that discriminates against women. We felt we had to go back to the Qur'an. We had to go back to the revealed text of the religion to find out whether the text actually supports the ill treatment and oppression of women.
The problem is these interpretations are only, merely, human efforts at understanding the Word of God. And just as the context of that time influenced how these men interpreted the Word of God, the changing circumstances of our lives today have to influence the way we interpret the text today.
Anwar is currently serving as an advocate in a divorce case for a woman whose husband married another woman soon after Anwar's client gave birth. The husband became abusive when Anwar's client asked for money for the nursery.
Zainah Anwar: The question that we raise, is how come one part of the verse that says marry up to four, is universally known, has been codified into law, is practiced in much of the Muslim world, and the other part of the verse, that says if you feel you cannot do justice marry only one is forgotten, pushed aside, and most Muslims do not know that part of the verse?