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In the mostly Muslim country of Malaysia, controversy has swirled around a local women's group preaching polygamy and the obedience of wives to their husbands. The group claims these practices have helped create harmonious families and prevented social problems. Critics say they're not sure whether to treat the group as a joke or a threat.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Kuala Lumpur. And just a note to parents: This story contains some references to sex.

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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: A handful of customers eat and drink at the Global Ikhwan Cafe in the Malaysian capital. Ikhwan is Arabic for brotherhood. Global Ikhwan owns businesses in several countries. Last June, its employees established the Obedient Wives Club. Since then, it's been castigated for what Muslim and non-Muslim critics call a medieval and oppressive interpretation of Islam.

The controversy surprised club organizer Dr. Azlina Jamaluddin. She says that her group is merely suggesting a way to deal with social problems in Malaysia, such as the rising divorce rate.

DR. AZLINA JAMALUDDIN: The idea was actually just to invite the Muslim community to go back and follow the Quran and the Sunnah. Because through the years, I think people have actually gone astray a little bit, you know. We have all these social ills because of that.

KUHN: Dr. Azlina quotes a part of the Quran as the basis for her belief.

JAMALUDDIN: Chapter An-Nisa, Verse 34: "Men are the leaders of women, because God has made one of them to excel over the other, and because they spend to support the women from their means."

KUHN: The group appears to have toned down its rhetoric since last year, when media quoted members as saying that wives should satisfy the sexual desires of their husbands like prostitutes.

Club member Hajiera Hartley explains that the group is simply giving its members the basic information they request about sex and marriage.

HAJIERA HARTLEY: Simple things like, how do people kiss. Honestly, the Malays do not know how to kiss. They're flattening their noses more and more by kissing with the nose.

KUHN: Last October, the group published a book instructing its members about what it called Islamic Sex. The volume was promptly banned by the government.

Ivy Josiah is executive director of Malaysia's Women's Aid Group, which advocates for women's rights. She says that banning the book was unnecessary, as critics like herself have already thoroughly refuted its ideas.

IVY JOSIAH: The Obedient Wives Club went rather extreme, you know, by saying that you need to behave like a prostitute. So that kind of triggered a very negative reaction, but it was a great debate while it lasted. It's hard to ignore them, you know. They're good for a laugh, actually, I think.

KUHN: Josiah adds that the Obedient Wives Club is basically using religion to reinforce messages that already exist in every culture about why women should obey men.

JOSIAH: What they're saying here is that your religion - in this case, Islam - is also saying this is what you should do, that God is saying if you're going to enter the gates of Heaven, you also have to obey your husband.

KUHN: Other critics point out that the club was founded by members of the Al-Arqam sect, which Malaysian religious authorities banned for its unorthodox teachings. The club says that's ancient history. It has expanded overseas and now boasts some 3,000 members worldwide. The club's branches in places like Britain and Indonesia have drawn fire from local critics.

The former first lady of Indonesia, Sinta Nuriyah Wahid, rejects the group's interpretation of the Quran that places men above women.

SINTA NURIYAH WAHID: (Through translator) We believe that Islam bestows blessings on all of humankind. Any interpretation that does not fit in with this or is unjust must not be allowed. In my opinion, as a feminist, I would say the Obedient Wives Club should be banned.

KUHN: The Quran itself never changes, Sinta notes. It's just people's interpretations that change. And while people are free to interpret the Quran as they please, she adds, not all interpretations hold water.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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