In loving memory of Khatijun Nissa Siraj, who passed away on 7 March at the age of 97.
Khatijun was a pioneer Muslim women’s rights activist who devoted her life to the community and social work.
She became the first woman counsellor at the Syariah Court and co-founded the non-profit organisations Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS) and Muslim Women’s Welfare Council.
Khatijun was one of the inaugural inductees of the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
In the 1950s, Khatijun Nissa Siraj was involved in community and social work and sat on the management committees of organisations such as the Singapore Children’s Society and the Family Planning Association. She noticed that there were no other Muslim women on these committees, and she decided something needed to be done. There were issues concerning Muslim women that needed attention.
Khatijun discussed the matter with some friends and in 1952 the Young Women’s Muslim Association (now known as PPIS) was started. They spread the word and tried to get more women to join them. They got mixed reactions.
“Women then were afraid of their husbands, and some were told by their husbands that if they joined us, they would divorce them. We told them that if they were afraid, then they wouldn’t be able to do many things. Some of the women were not scared and said that even if they were thrown out of their homes, they would still fight,” Khatijun later said.
A major concern was the lax Muslim laws. Husbands could divorce their wives without their consent or knowledge. They simply had to declare the divorce and pay alimony of $30 for three months. There was no protection or recourse for the women.
The group met with legislators and pressed for laws to better protect Muslim women. These efforts led eventually to the formation of the Syariah Court in 1958. In 1960 Khatijun became the first woman counsellor at the Syariah Court.
The daughter of a wealthy Indian businessman, Khatijun had enjoyed a privileged life with no need to look for a job. When the position of Syariah Court counsellor was advertised, she applied for it because she wanted to be in a position to help bring about real change.
It was, she later said, “real hard work because we were the pioneers”. And it was “a horrible experience because there were many women who came to the court because of problems with their husbands. Mostly these were money issues – their husbands would marry other women and leave them alone without financial support”.
In the first year, she handled hundreds of cases. Her exposure to the problems faced by her clients led Khatijun in 1964 to start the Muslim Women’s Welfare Council, which provided charity, welfare, legal and medical advice to Muslim women.
When she left the Syariah Court, Khatijun went to the Social Welfare Department to help out in the Women and Girls section, and later served for three years with the Singapore Council of Social Services.