Malaysia's Islamic Shariah courts have appointed their first female judges a move which was praised by women's rights activists on Thursday as a boost for a judicial system often accused of favoring men.
Suraya Ramli and Rafidah Abdul Razak, formerly officials at the government's Islamic judicial department, were named Shariah court judges for Kuala Lumpur and the administrative capital of Putrajaya in May, but the appointment was only announced in the past week by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Najib said the step was meant to "enhance justice in cases involving families and women's rights" in Malaysia, where nearly two-thirds of the country's 28 million people are Muslims. Women have long complained they face discrimination in cases involving divorce, child custody rights, inheritance, polygamy and other disputes in Islamic courts, which handle matters involving family and morality for Malaysian Muslims.
Rights activists have said they receive hundreds of complaints each year from women because Shariah courts are slow to penalize ex-husbands who fail to pay child support. Men are also known to find it relatively easy to divorce their wives while taking a greater share of the couple's property.
Norhayati Kaprawi, a prominent Malaysian Muslim women's activist, said the appointments were long over due.
"What they must focus on is ensuring that they deliver justice and take into consideration the realities of Muslim women's lives," Norhayati said. Meera Samanther, president of Malaysian group Women's Aid Organization, said fair representation within the justice system was "a necessity."
Suraya, 31, could not immediately be contacted on Thursday, and Rafidah, 39, declined to immediately comment. Court officials could not be reached to elaborate on what cases the judges have handled so far.
Female judges are common in Malaysia's secular courts, though most top posts are held by men.