“Malaysia doesn’t need women’s movement,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak recently, which resulted in outbursts from feminists across and outside the country.
But what Najib wanted to communicate was sort of valid– albeit phrased so poorly that his entire statement was made into a controversial sound byte. What he intended to say was that women in Malaysia are doing well in terms of social status; they’re on the receiving end of a significant amount of government aid, equal pay is in practice almost across the board, and education is available for all. And if you’re a Muslim, you will be likely to be protected by the Syariaah law when it comes to ownership and physical abuse. The policies that do exist are generally respectful towards women. Equality is supposed to be practised on the societal level, and women are encouraged with education to work due to the country’s rapid move towards economic growth. However, women’s participation in the labour force is only slightly over 47%, which is still considerably low for a country with a rising economy.
Despite the social benefits women have, the general attitude towards women in Malaysia has always been frustrating to see. There’s no way to paint it nicer: Malaysia is an extremely patriarchal society. The government is made up mostly of men, and women’s presence decreases as you move further up in the hierarchy. The current Ministerial position are made up of thirty people, only one of whom is a woman. Meanwhile, out of 39 Deputy Minister positions, only 7 are held by women, a massive disparity in representation. It is a country moving towards the ideals of democracy, especially as demands for electoral reforms are made by urban dwellers. However, that isn’t reflected in its treatment of women. Recently, when a female Minister for Women, Family and Community Development was involved in corruption– which most Malaysian politicians have a reputation for behind closed doors– she was demonised for several months before finally being forced to step down from her post. She was harshly shamed despite the fact that the owner of the company involved in the case was her husband and son’s, not hers. She was repeatedly referred to as a ‘cow’ due to the company’s beef and livestock speciality, while others came out with general statements indicating that women should not be taking high positions like hers.
Women in leadership were further subjected to this sexist treatment when the Health Ministry released a guideline on Facebook on how to be a good female boss, which includes insisting women to “relax”, to communicate regularly with subordinates especially men, not to be egoistic especially when giving instructions, amongst other patronising instructions. The guidelines can all be applied to male bosses too. Instead, the Health Ministry decided that women should be the main focus of this, insinuating that women in power need more supervision to handle their responsibility. This is a reflection of the fact that the society is having a hard time accepting women as heads of organisations. The Health Ministry had since apologised and claimed that it is not an official policy, but the fact that it even exists shows that it is something that has been considered and be taken seriously by the decision makers. Did I mention that a Ministry released this, therefore making it into an official document?
Although implemented policies indicate a fairness between genders, this is not fully reflected on the ground. Rape is a controversial matter in Malaysia and has become a subject of jest. If a woman asks that rape jokes be stopped during a conversation, men would not hesitate to threaten rape towards them. Syariaah law is supposed to favour women in cases of rape, but there have been a lot of cases where those regulations are ignored. Women are often blamed for being raped, with people saying “how it was her fault”, “she was asking for it due to the state of her clothes”, or “how dare she go out alone at night!” It is an even more terrible subject in a recent case whereby a sportsman raped a 13-year-old girl in 2009 was let go with minimal punishment because he “has a promising future” in tenpin bowling and may therefore bring honour to the country. “Malaysia Can!” is one of the sports chant in the country, and damn it to hell, it definitely can overlook justice for the sake of sportmanship! Here you go, Malaysian judiciary system. Here is a gold medal in awfulness!
While the rapist runs free, the young victim was ignored in this disgusting statutory rape case. If we’re talking about promising future, what of her future? Rape cases often lead to societal shame not just for the women, but for the family as a whole. Parents often take their daughters out of school because of rape, which limits opportunities in her future job prospects. That’s how a big deal being a victim of rape is to the country and its populace. Aside from the social and moral end of things, by invalidating survivors’s experiences, victim blaming, and taking daughters out of school because of rape, the further expansion of Malaysia’s labour force is minimised, which may undermine its economic prosperity as the workforce becomes smaller and the country is more unsafe.
Meanwhile, slut shaming is taken to a whole new level in Malaysia. Not only do people assume that women are having sex, but it is also assumed that they have been raped. Wearing tight clothes? Wearing a dress? Is that a short skirt? Well, you’ve possibly been raped as a child. Nope, it’s not just about revealing clothes being seen as sexual; it’s an indicator of the prevalence of rape in the society. Sexy clothes? You were raped as a child! Tight shirt? Raped! Anything even considerably sexual leads to ‘rape’ as an assumed solution, and this idea is exclusively reserved for women. A recent trending topic on Twitter titled “#TipsElakDirogol” (trigger warning for rape and victim blaming if you click that link) which translates to “Tips to Avoid Rape” did not shed a better light on the issue and instead showcase ignorance on the subject with a slew of tweets focusing on victim blaming.
“Gender equality!” the government chants, insisting that people should be grateful for what the government has done for women. But the forced rhetoric of equality is worse if you’re gay. The government insists that a progressive reformation is happening and that it is more inclusive of everyone in the society, but a brochure that came out in August is the opposite of that.
Released by the Ministry of Education, the brochure warned parents of the “symptoms” of children who are moving towards homosexuality. For male, it includes wearing of bright coloured clothes, V-neck tops, and carrying a handbag. For females, it listed constant hanging out with other women while having little to no affection for men. These are all absurd and are clearly an attempt to unfairly label and ostracize people who fall outside of the sexuality norm. The stereotype towards women also discourages women from spending time with each other, which seems to me to be another way to pin us against each other. The Ministry of Education has come forward to say that this was not meant to attack children who are gay but indicates measures that can be taken to help them. None of these measures have been released publicly. If anything, this enhances the bullying of children who are going through sexual discovery at an early age– or who simply want to carry a bag or hang out with their friends!
Every single thing that a woman does out of the norm leads to ridicule. Even women who use the hijab in a non-traditional and stylistic way are seen as a threat to society. People often whip out the religious doctrine card and criticise these women by saying that the way they use the hijab is incorrect or sexual. Men are allowed to run free from the doctrine they use against women, however. Transgender Malaysians are often not just bullied verbally but receive physical beatings and are actively in danger for being who they are. Anything out of the norm is seen as wrong, including having the decision to not get married, or being sexually active. The path for women in Malaysia is expected to be linear: go to school, stay out of trouble, be demure, get married, buy a house, have children, and die. These are the expectations in Malaysia (and a lot of societies). If you’re outside of it, well then clearly there must be something wrong with you, not with the society or the country or the government, right?
Several female based organisations have come forward in protest of the government and society’s view on women and LGBTQ people including Sisters in Islam and Seksualiti Merdeka (Independent Sexuality). But Malaysia is not going to change any time soon, not when even women themselves have so much internalized misogyny that they too are convinced that their position is inferior to their male counterparts. The system professes to encourage equality, but individual attitudes towards women in a majority of the population show a resistance to that idea, especially with the current state of politics; many Malaysian politicians are making decision for their own interest as oppose to the interest of the whole country. Moreover, organisations such as Seksualiti Merdeka has been banned by the government because they goes against religious doctrine. Their underlying aim is to discuss and create awareness on LGBT, but they have instead been seen as a “free sex party”. (Incidentally, that’s a party that I, if I’m honest, would love to be a part of, but regardless!)
Social media has become a tool to give more modern thinking individuals a place to voice out their anger and to ridicule government policies and decision on gender rights, but those who disagree with women’s movement are speaking just as loud and are more likely to be heard by the decision making bodies in the country due to pressure in general elections. It is a challenge for Malaysia, but the hope is that the liberals will fight on for what is rightfully theirs– and that their vote matters too.
Submitted by an anonymous reader
Header image courtesy of Reuters