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Sexism in politics

IN October, I had posted on my blog my thoughts on Datuk Chamil Wariya’s despicable short story based on a character very similar to DAP Member of Parliament (MP) for Seputeh, Teresa Kok. I had wondered aloud whether there was a sexist element to recent incidents involving opposition MPs. Most of my commenters opined that there was nothing sexist about it, just the same old politics, and that indeed I was imagining things.

Still, I have to wonder. Since when have firebombs been thrown into anybody’s garden in this country, regardless of their political beliefs? If this is a new phenomenon, how is it that in both cases they were aimed at women — Datuk Ambiga Sreenivasan, Chair of the Bar Council (albeit they got her address wrong), and Kok?

Has there ever been a case where a short story based on a character, so closely resembling a real-life person that there is no mistaking who she is, ended so violently? I don’t recall any in recent memory. Would it have attracted the same attention had the lead protagonist been a man?

Even more recently, Datuk Tan Lian Hoe, Gerakan Wanita chief, was attacked by male MPs for some remarks she made about the New Economic Policy (NEP). The substance of her remarks aside, the attacks upon her seemed particularly vicious, as evidenced by the televised proceedings of Parliament that day. The man doing the attacking looked like he was ready to physically attack her, not just to dress her down verbally.

Not really an apology

Not that attacks on female MPs are anything new in Parliament. Most people can vividly recall the lewd remarks made by some male MPs aimed at their female counterparts. After public outcry, the male MPs only grudgingly apologised, if their utterances could even be called an “apology”. Few other male MPs said much in defense of their female counterparts. The impression is that Parliament is full of braying hounds, laughing at women who squirm in a space the men obviously think of as only theirs.

Perhaps that is the core of the issue — men still think that politics is not really the place for women. If they have to be there at all, female politicians should be seen and not heard, and even then, only spouting sweet flatteries to their male leaders.

Exclusive boys’ club

Crude jokes and leery one-liners are thus a form of sexual harassment. They are aimed at making the work environment so uncomfortable and hostile that women will be deterred from any ambitions to participate, or will be forced to quit. Thus will the boys’ club of politics remain exclusively testosterone-powered.

Not only is the form of politics sexist in nature — it could be argued that even when politics does not relate directly to women, an element of machismo alien to female discourse is evident. It is surely no coincidence that incidences of keris-waving and other supremacist postures occur in male-dominated fora.

The person who called non-Malays pendatang and who then launched a whole chain of unsavoury events was certainly a strutting rooster of the worst kind. The fact that two of the “beneficiaries” of his strutting were a young female reporter and Kok is not coincidental.

Neither was the paternalistic excuse given by the minister in charge of arresting them under the Internal Security Act (ISA) that it was “for their protection”. The protection excuse had never been used when men were arrested under the ISA. Whether it is merely a slip of the tongue in the case of the arrested women or underlying patriarchy at work is up for discussion.

But it must be said that within female political circles, supremacist talk is minimal, if it exists at all. Perhaps women are by necessity more concerned with the difficulties of gaining even the slightest smidgen of power — a result of male supremacy — that talking about racial supremacies seems irrelevant.

When women succumb

It is worthwhile to note, however, the case of the Perak state assemblywoman who caught people’s attention by making a racist joke about Indians. Women will succumb to the temptations of race-baiting when in the company of men. One could postulate that this is merely to gain the attention of the men in order to advance one’s own position. To join the braying hounds, one needs to bray as well.

Which leads us to muse on whether our political environment would be different if women ruled the roost. Trying to imagine the Malaysian political scene differently is hard — it is so dominated by both men and racial politics.

Unfortunately women in politics have only kowtowed to the system and have steadfastly refused to buck it. In the recent MCA elections, Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen was elected the party’s first female vice-president in its history. It was undoubtedly a remarkable achievement.

(© Stephen Stacey /
Nevertheless, in the early days of nominations, Ng still felt the need to talk about canvassing the grassroots membership for their views on having a woman leader. Men never feel the need to ask if their sex matters because they know that being male is what gives them political currency.

But then Malaysia is not alone in this. In the recent US elections, the question in people’s minds was whether Americans had any problem electing a black or a woman as president. We know the answer now but some people still feel that they would rather elect a man of any colour than a woman.

Others may point to the elevation of an unknown woman candidate for vice-president as proof that Americans, even Republicans, are making progress. But nothing could be further from the truth. Sarah Palin got her chance because she was a man’s ideal female candidate — good looking, motherly, and untainted by modern feminist ideas.

When she became more assertive and therefore veered from the feminine, the carpet was pulled from under her. If Senator John McCain’s campaign still thought Palin could offer a winning chance, women refused to fall for it, seeing the whole charade for what it was.

Maybe the sexism in Malaysian politics is all in my head. Maybe I am just imagining it. But I prefer to call it intuition.

Marina Mahathir is an activist, writer, and blogger who constantly needs more outlets to vent because there is never a shortage of issues to vent about.

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10 Responses to “Sexism in politics”

  1. Melissa says:

    I heartily agree that the Malaysian “democracy” is fraught with sexism. As a new visitor to the Parliament for work-related duties, I was horrified to find myself bring harassed from the moment I stepped out of my car. This was not confined to the security people or even the political assistants, but there were ministers making passes at me, too! It was despicable and completely erased any shred of hope that was left for this country. Ugh, I shudder just thinking about it.

    So I couldn’t agree more with this, “Parliament is full of braying hounds, laughing at women who squirm in a space the men obviously think of as only theirs.”

    I was asked repeatedly what I was doing there and every time my response was greeted with condescension and surprise – perhaps they’d be more comfortable if I was there to pour tea or open a door.

    p/s: For the record, I was dressed in a turtleneck, long-sleeved jacket and pants – just in case anyone wants to suggest I “provoked” them.

    Malaysia Boleh.


  2. charis14 says:

    A most timely article – noting another issue today involving the Perak state assemblywoman (refer

    Makes one wonder whether such “Yang Berhormats” are there to serve or embarass “Bangsa, agama dan negara”.

  3. charis14 says:

    Oops, did I make typo error (due to cut & paste) of “Perak state assemblywoman”? If so, it should be “Perak MP”.

  4. Wan Kimm says:

    The sheer machismo and blatant misogyny in our politics is at an all-time high. Regardless of whether a female politician in Parliament deserved her seat or not, there seems to be no end to all this arrogance, leering and harrassment – sexual, verbal, or otherwise.

    There seems to be little, if any, respect at all for a woman in this field, given several of their male counterparts’ unabashed and completely shameful behaviour when it comes to trying to put them down at every opportunity.

    Sexist jokes, chauvinistic remarks, the constant crowing and insinuation on how women have no place in politics… It’s to be expected from our country, seeing how some of these politicians are complete bigots and choose to target the women because they know they’ll have a whole number of people backing them up when they attack politicians of “the fairer sex”.

    So much for equal opportunities! Those men should be ashamed of themselves and their innate desires to relegate the women in politics to a lesser position and being of the opinion that women should only be seen and not heard in a male-dominated environment.

  5. py says:

    Hi Marina,

    I really salute you. We need more women activists!

  6. Jimbo says:

    Dear Marina,

    I am a male but I will vote for you if you stand for prime minister anytime! You stand head and shoulders above all those male chauvinist MPs.

  7. Madeline says:

    You are SO right. The male politicians are almost barbaric in their treatment of women. No respect whatsoever – it’s as if they have a right to say anything they want. It is shocking that people with this sort of mentality become politicians and are “running” our country.

  8. mike says:

    Good write up . . .guess they are sore loser and since they can’t win, they stoop lower to provoke others. Well, let’s see what the RAKYAT will do if they continue to behave that way.

  9. Malaysianabroad says:

    While I completely agree with the fact that sexism exists in politics, I do not think that the latest results of the US election were necessarily the best indication of people’s choice in choosing a male vs female as president. Obama was an outstanding candidate and maybe if Palin had been a candidate in the same league, there would in fact be a more equal point of comparison. It would have been a shame if the whole point of the election was merely to prove that we could put a female in the White House at the end of the day – after all, it should be about who is most capable for the job. While it would be a huge breakthrough for it to happen, I’m sure the ideal situation is that it should also be a job well-done and the work will start once the new President starts the term. Success in an election does not indicate success in presidency – as we would have seen not so long ago…

  10. johnathan tan says:

    Denying women their powers and also contributions to the creation of our society is only denying our girlfriends, sisters, wives, mothers, grandmothers and also great grannies. Cheers…for you and me.

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