Mak Bedah on the cover of Options, 10 March 2008
(Courtesy of Options / The Edge)ONE of the highlights for me during the 12th general election campaign period was Mak Bedah. The personification of the everyday Malaysian woman shopping for a real candidate to represent her issues was inspiring and thought-provoking. I eagerly looked for online videos and reports of her “grilling” candidates about their thoughts on equality and women’s rights.
One particularly interesting video was of Mak Bedah’s encounter with former minister for women Datuk Seri Sharizat Abdul Jalil. Mak Bedah asked her why so little effort was being made to increase the number of women in politics. The former minister retorted that opportunities are plenty, but where are the women?
I had to wonder about this myself. Women make up half the population, yet we had only three female ministers in the former cabinet. We now have two: the minister of tourism and the minister for women.
Is this because women in Malaysia are a cause for concern? Apparently we are causing serious damage to the future of our country since we outnumber men in universities. And apparently we are also causing damage to the future of Malaysia by not fulfilling our duties as mothers. Thus the nation’s population growth, or lack of, is a reason to worry.
Grandiose dream or achievable vision?
As a young woman, I have many ambitions, and one of them is to one day become the prime minister.
Many laugh when I say this. Apparently that is a dream you are supposed to outgrow when you are six years old. Then I am reminded of the fact that I am of an ethnic minority. And I am a woman.
What’s wrong with that? I ask. I often get incredulous stares in response.
I do know what’s wrong, though. Ever notice how powerful women are always asked how they balance their career and family, but a man is never questioned? This tells me I am a woman first, and my main priority is supposed to be my family. Women are heading universities and banks in this country, but it is still assumed that they are responsible to make sure the toilets at home are cleaned.
Somewhat related to this notion is that women are not supposed to be ambitious. Any young woman who has consciously chosen to stall her personal life for the sake of career advancement will tell you the amount of pressure she faces to settle down. Everywhere she turns, someone is bound to remind her that her biological clock is ticking away.
Impressions from popular media do not help much, either. Apparently there are two types of women in politics. If you are strong and powerful, you are a bitch. If you are not strong, then you are weak and not worthy of being in politics.
These portrayals do injustice to the complexities of leadership in politics. Not to mention the horrible name-calling that awaits women who want to prove their mettle.
And of course, women in Malaysia are reminded to cover up, stop wearing high heels, short skirts and lipstick in order to uphold the moral dignity of society. On the other hand, they are told to put on more make up and not put on weight to make sure their husbands don’t stray. Confused yet?
The matter of misogyny
Let’s take a look at local politics to see why women are staying away. Two male MPs decide to make a joke in Parliament about menstruation in order to stop a line of questioning from a female MP. The MPs then blame the public for overreacting when an apology is demanded. After issuing a half-hearted apology, they continue to claim they represent half their constituency — women.
Leaky toilets have been compared with new brides. An aging building is compared to an aging woman. Misogyny is sadly accepted as the norm in Malaysian politics, right up to the level of parliamentary debate.
The results of the 12th general elections give me some hope, though. At least two MPs with a consistent track record of making sexist comments were not re-elected.
There are now more — albeit a small increase in — women MPs, state assembly representatives and local councillors. Also, that Malaysians could see past race when they voted gives some hope for people from ethnic minorities who, like me, may harbour dreams of national leadership.
The United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) was ratified by the Malaysian government about 10 years ago. Upon signing this treaty, Malaysia made a pledge to the international community that it would take steps to ensure that its women did not face any discrimination because of their sex.
Cedaw called for the implementation of temporary special measures to increase women’s participation in politics and public life in general. I think when Malaysia starts fulfilling its pledges, women will start stepping up to the many opportunities that are now allegedly available.
Mak Bedah, in shawl, is the everywoman. Here she and her supporters paint the town purple
during the March 2008 election period (Pic by Julian CH Lee)
Changing policies and perceptions
So, now, going back to the question of where are the women. We are here, just raring to go, but want some changes in the way things work against us.
We want the government to provide affordable childcare services, and to ensure that private companies make allocations for creches in the workplace so parents will not have to worry about childcare while at work.
Also, how about equal periods of maternity and paternity leave to drive home the fact that childcare is not just women’s responsibility?
We want the government, people, politicians and political parties to send a message loud and clear that sexism will not be tolerated. No more lewd jokes degrading women. Standing orders in Parliament must have allocations to punish MPs who continue to humiliate women. A sexual harassment bill that upholds the safety and dignity of women in public spaces will demonstrate to the public that this kind of degrading and humiliating behaviour will not be accepted.
The Election Commission also has a role to play. It can ensure more opportunities for women by allocating certain seats for women only. Or it can penalise political parties for not fielding sufficient women candidates.
Left: Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany (Public domain)
Right: Helen Clark, prime minister of New Zealand (© New
These, and many other techniques, have been successfully used in other countries to increase the representation of women in politics. Bangladesh and Pakistan are examples of countries using special measures to increase women’s participation in politics.
Finally, the Malaysian public must start changing its views on women. That there are already many women leaders should show that women are capable of running countries. Angela Merkel is the German Chancellor; Helen Clark is the prime minister of New Zealand. Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Christina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina are elected presidents of their countries. Mary Robinson was the prime minister of Ireland; Tansu Ciller was president of Turkey; Kim Campbell of Canada. Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Chandrika Kumaratunge, criticisms notwithstanding, were formidable heads of government in their own right. If anything, these women show that misgivings about women leaders are unfounded.
If these women can do it, why can’t we Malaysian women? Come on lah. Malaysia boleh, right?
Vizla Kumaresan is a feminist activist and is currently pursuing her postgraduate studies. She is an alumni of the All Women Action Society (Awam)’s Writers for Women’s Rights Programme.