Over the past few decades, Malaysia's economy and infrastructure have developed rapidly, contributing to the growth of a broad middle class. Yet the political system has stagnated, and the state competes with Islamists to implement an agenda of Islamization, particularly in the legal system. One of the most important voices opposing this agenda and struggling for gender equality is Sisters in Islam (SIS), an organization founded in 1993. SIS has gradually transformed from a small, relatively elite group of friends to one of the country's most prominent women's rights NGOs. It was one of the first organizations to advocate for women's rights from within an Islamic framework, an idea that seemed heretical to many feminists and Muslims at the time. But since then, SIS has developed a global reputation, influenced countless others with its strategy of egalitarian reinterpretations of Muslim texts, and helped to build a global network of progressive Muslim women's rights activists.

Azza Basarudin tells the story of SIS in this finely detailed feminist ethnography. She meticulously explores the personal backgrounds of SIS members and the collective history of the organization, taking us through the crucial years in the 1990s when the nascent group was studying under the guidance of Amina Wadud, one of the pioneers of feminist Islamic interpretation. Basarudin argues that together with Wadud, SIS developed an “ethical egalitarian” (p. 94) Islam that is grounded in ideas of social justice and equality, and which it sees as fully compatible with modern conceptions of human rights and constitutional law. For Basarudin, this was a key step, as it meant that unlike most feminists, who are grounded in more secular frameworks, SIS members refused to let Islam be claimed by conservatives and extremists. Rather than accepting the conventional dichotomy of feminism and religion, they have woven them together. Basarudin then traces how SIS's activism shifted from a focus on domestic violence and polygamy to contesting Islamic family law, challenging the institutionalization of conservative versions of Shariah law in some Malaysian states, and working for greater religious freedom in Malaysia. Most recently, SIS helped to found the transnational network Musawah, which has chapters around the world working for progressive reforms to Islamic family law. The book's final chapter, “The Local and the Transnational,” highlights the significance of this new network of Muslim women activists around the world, but also points to concerns that too much focus on transnational activism will erode SIS's more local commitments.

In my view, it would be a shame if that occurred, for SIS has emerged during an era of deepening social conservatism in parts of Malaysia, as well as increasing politicization of Islam and hardening of the borders of Malay and Muslim identity. Much like the Muslim women's rights activists who have emerged in places like Iran and Indonesia, SIS activists make claims for gender justice based on egalitarian interpretations of Islamic texts, and combine these with more conventional claims drawn from human rights frameworks. It is an activism that marries tradition with social change. Yet SIS has two significant challenges. First and foremost is the credibility gap. In Malaysia, the ulamas (Muslim teachers and scholars) have traditionally had a monopoly on Muslim religious knowledge, and in recent years, as Basarudin explains, many have been coopted into the service of the state, while others have sided with the Islamist opposition. Most ulamas have been very hostile to SIS, and many Malaysian Muslims therefore do not consider SIS's Islamic interpretations to be legitimate. Lacking formal Islamic theology credentials, it is an uphill battle for SIS activists to be heard in the public sphere. Indeed, Basarudin's emphasis on this problem made me wonder why more SIS activists have not sought such credentials. In my research on Muslim women's rights activists in Indonesia, it has been clear to me that such activism has benefited enormously from the increasing number of women who have attended Islamic universities and received formal training in Islamic jurisprudence and theology. Such activists also tend to have connections to reformist-minded ulamas who can help to bolster their cause.

The second major challenge that Basarudin sees for SIS is cultural imperialism. SIS is funded mostly by Western sources and increasingly makes arguments with reference to Western liberal norms. In Malaysia's polarized context, the group's activism for religious freedom has alienated some supporters, and this highlights the fine line many Muslim women's rights activists must walk in order not to be viewed as doing the work of Western imperialism. While Basarudin suggests that SIS's close identification with Western liberal norms has pitfalls, I imagine that many SIS activists would argue that such norms are not necessarily Western.

While Basarudin occasionally discusses Muslim women's rights activists elsewhere in the world, I was hoping for more systematic comparisons in order to get a better sense of what the case of SIS shows us about Muslim women's rights activism and Global South feminism more generally. Nevertheless, this comprehensive study of SIS will certainly be of interest to scholars of Southeast Asia and anyone interested in Muslim women's movements.