Fighting for gender equality and women’s rights, Ratna Osman is an inspiration to many.

Compassionate and focused, Ratna Osman is the executive director of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a non-profit organisation ensuring that Muslim women’s rights are upheld within the new Islamic family laws implemented. Several women consisting of lawyers, journalists, analysts, activists and academics established the organisation in 1987, when women were not receiving proper access to courts and were confronted with injustice. 

Many women confided in the organisation about their marital problems and the difficulties they faced when seeking legal redress from religious authorities. “You are a Muslim woman; you need to be a good wife. Only then will your husband not beat you and will not have the need for another wife. So you need to change and do this and that,” is the usual response that these Muslim women are given. 

Today, SIS promotes the rights of Muslim women in Islam and believes in Islam that recognises human dignity and democratic values and principles. Their work comprises a legal service, which is called Telenisa. It is a free hotline service for the public through emails, calls and even walk-in appointments. The cases that they handle are usually on marriage, divorce, male guardianship, on maintenance for wives and children, matrimonial assets and cases on polygamy. They also advise non-Muslims who want to marry a Muslim on their rights.

Prior to her role at SIS, Ratna was handling the professional insurance scheme at an international brokering house. The intelligent and caring law graduate then took a break from the corporate world to spend more time with her three sons. When she decided to get back into work and applied for a managerial position at SIS, it was one of the best decisions she had ever made.


Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir with Ratna Osman at a Sisters in Islam (SIS) fundraiser


Ratna grew up with a very traditional understanding of Islam where men have to be the leader and they should benefit with all the special positions in terms of family, inheritance and jobs. Surprisingly, the very first feminist she met was her late father, who told her that if she dresses like an Arab woman, it doesn’t make her a better Muslim. He explained that they had to dress like that because they were living in the desert. At the time, Ratna was outraged by her father’s words. However, after all the reading and research, it all makes sense to her now. 

Working at SIS has provided her with a better understanding of the Quran and how it should really be applied in today’s society. “You cannot gel the traditional classical Quran with today’s modern world,” Ratna explains. “If you look at the whole verse of polygamy in the Quran, it talks about the protection of orphans and a condition. That means there was a war back then where a lot of men were martyred, so the society had an imbalance of men, creating a need for the practice of polygamy. However, today we don’t really have that need.”

When she first worked with SIS, there were a lot of challenges such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and female genital mutilation. However, what really broke her heart was in 2010, when she had to give a presentation at the parliament about child marriage. This happened when the child marriage case in Kelantan broke out and the public found out that a father was able to marry off his 10-year-old daughter. 

Together with SIS, Ratna continues advocacy work to push for a minimum marrying age of 18 in Islamic law. She doesn’t want people to think Islam is a bad religion because of what the extremists do. Specifically under Islamic law, she wants the law to recognise gender equality and that women contribute to a family just as much as men do. With her passion and tenacity, there is no doubt that this lady will make positive changes for the future of Muslim women. 

This article originally appeared in Malaysia Tatler's January 2014 issue; subscribe to the digital copy here.

Photography: Bonnie Yap; Styling and make-up: Azza Arif

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