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Women can’t become menteri besar?

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ON 29 Jan 2010, Perak’s Barisan Nasional state executive councillor Datuk Hamidah Osman said female politicians cannot become menteri besar. Her reason: a menteri besar “has to meet the [monarch], where protocol is involved, and one has to meet religious officers … in such situations it is not possible for a woman to become the head of a state government.”

She did not elaborate on exactly what these protocols were that would be difficult for women to perform if they were menteri besar. It’s possible that she was referring to some legality that could prohibit women from becoming state premiers. However, this argument holds no water, say constitutional law experts. And personally, I do not think the law is behind Hamidah’s reasoning.

But I can think of at least two reasons for Hamadah’s claim. One, she is worried that women’s bodily functions might get in the way of performing such duties. Two, she assumes that women are not good enough, either in qualifications or intelligence, to perform menteri besar duties. This, in turn, brings about the age-old debate on whether men have superior intelligence and abilities, and that they are natural leaders while women are followers.

Biology vs religion

Women’s bodily functions are related to many cultural taboos. Let’s not be shy here: I am talking about the menstrual cycle, or the period. Many people don’t mention the word itself, but use euphemisms to refer to it — for example: “My aunty has come to visit”, or “My monthly friend is here”.

It is not uncommon in the various cultures in Malaysia for a woman to be restricted from religious rites when she is menstruating. Not being allowed to attend religious rites or holding religious paraphernalia are just some of the restrictions placed on women for three to five days a month, every month. This is because menstruation is considered a time when women’s bodies are unclean.

Since religion and its related activities are seen to be pure, a woman would defile it if she participated while she was having her period. So, is Hamidah saying that this monthly state of “impurity” prevents any woman from potentially becoming a menteri besar? Or could it be the belief that women are weak during menstruation? Make no mistake — hundreds of thousands of women continue to work on farms, in rice fields, factories, surgical wards and in the home while having their periods.

Throughout history, women’s periods have been used to sideline and restrict their participation in the public sphere. Women were not even allowed to leave the house when they were menstruating. Many cultures would practise keeping women away from the rest of the family during this time. They were not allowed to enter places of worship, which then were cultural and intellectual centres where important decisions were made by community leaders regarding rules and laws. By invoking menstrual taboos, men effectively left women out of this process.

Should menstruation stop a woman from working?  (Pic by nromagna @ Flickr)

Hamidah’s inconsistencies

Leaving the culturally entrenched notion of menstrual taboos for now, let’s focus on a more basic issue with Hamidah’s claim. I’m assuming that Hamidah was chosen by her party as a candidate, had won the election, and was then appointed state exco based on her skills or abilities. If I am right, then Hamidah has shot herself in the foot. She has raised questions about her own abilities, and that of about 50% of her constituents: women. This is something that Perak voters will have to bear in mind if Hamidah is to stand for re-election.

Whatever Hamidah’s reasons are for dismissing women’s chances at leadership, they are deep and difficult to discard, and are based on stereotypes about women. I am sure Hamidah is not the only one to have such beliefs. But to assume that women are inferior to men, or that their bodily functions make them less able, is discrimination. Also, such beliefs are archaic — very much out of date, considering the numbers of women leaders from around the world.

Bringing about change

Hamidah (Source:
To ensure equal access to political leadership for all citizens, what needs to be done? Amending the Federal Constitution or ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is not enough to bring about change in our society. And sure, some political parties have put in place gender quotas.This is a step forward in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

Political parties must make a committed effort to provide gender training to all their members to inculcate a better environment for men and women to lead together, regardless of cultural or religious beliefs. This environment must come with the belief that women are not inferior because of their biological makeup.

Also, women’s wings in political parties should be a space where women become politically empowered and their voices allowed to grow with confidence. They are not the party’s section that complements or compliments the work of the male party leadership.  

The time to act is now. I would like to see women, including the likes of Hamidah, strive to have a fair chance to become menteri besar. It is the 21st century — we should not be held back by antiquated beliefs about women’s bodies and capabilities.

Vizla Kumaresan is a feminist activist and clinical psychologist who works at a local Kuala Lumpur-based non-governmental organisation. She is a member of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), an alumni of the All Women Action Society (Awam)’s Writers for Women’s Rights Programme. She does not believe that women throw temper tantrums just because they have PMS.

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16 Responses to “Women can’t become menteri besar?”

  1. Jal says:

    Isn’t she the same [person] who said in [the Perak state assembly] that if you see an Indian and a snake, kill the Indian? Or at least somethg to that effect?


    Here is an excerpt from a news report of this incident:

    “Hamidah was reported to have asked Speaker V. Sivakumar if he agreed to disagree with the well-known fable of whether a snake or a man from a certain racial community should be killed first.

    However, she retracted her words when Barisan whip Datuk Seri Mohamad Tajol Rosli Ghazali (BN – Pengkalan Hulu) asked her to do so.”

    The full story can be found here:

    Shanon Shah
    Columns and Comments Editor

  2. Fatimah says:

    Hello Hamidah…what about Benazir Bhutto?

    [What] utter nonsense!

  3. Sean says:

    I don’t know – I’m not equipped. It seems to me that having the painters in once a month might be a boon to long term productivity compared to dreaming about sex every few minutes. Maybe it’s only me. … what were you saying?

    I think it might be better to focus on demonstrated aptitude than conjectured handicaps.

  4. Nadia Ali says:

    Apa? Wanita nak jadi menteri besar? Tak payahlah kita bincang pasal Benazir Butto…Kalau kita tengok di sekolah-sekolah kita sendiri… ketua darjah/tingkatan, ketua pengawas, presiden kelab etc. semuanya lelaki, bukan? Murid perempuan selalunya diberi jawatan penolong sahaja. Di universiti pun sama, lebih-lebih lagi IPTA. Lihatlah pilihanraya kampus baru-baru ni, ada tak siswi yang merebut jawatan presiden MPP? Semuanya lelaki! Kalau ada pun pelajar wanita yang menang, selalunya mereka akan menyandang jawatan seperti Biro Kebajikan, Kebudayaan…samalah seperti menteri-menteri kita.

  5. nadia :-) says:

    Perempuan tidak boleh menyandang jawatan ketua, perdana menteri, imam…itukan tanggungjawab yang telah dianugerahikan oleh Tuhan kepada kaum lelaki? Lagipun Tuhan telah menjadikan perempuan emosional..sebab itulah perempuan lebih sesuai membesarkan anak…- my former secondary school Ustazah.

  6. semuanya OK kot says:

    How convenient. Traditionally, women must not only continue to work in the fields – while the men “hunt” – but cook. The moment they do something important in society, they are unclean.

  7. thokiat says:

    Women in other Muslim country such as Bangladesh can become PM. Women in Malaysia can not be MB. Malaysia Boleh always has [an] isolated set of rules.

  8. tee says:

    She meant that women cannot shake hands for example, with the sultans and other men because the religion Islam prohibits that unless the woman is related to the man.

  9. Sarita Sharma says:

    It’s women like her that make men think it’s ok to be male chauvinists. It’s people like her that make non-Muslims think it’s ok to be racist against Muslims because they are from a “discriminating religion”. It’s citizens like her that make the world think it’s ok to laugh at Malaysians because they have views that no sane person will have. She is a disgrace to her fellow women, Muslims and Malaysians. I say it’s high time the citizens of this country stop voting for ludicrous politicians like her.

  10. harisa says:

    @tee – re: handshaking between non-mahrams – but that’s not for all mazhabs. Maybe so in a strict interpretation of Shafie school that is predominant here. But so what? It’s not like we don’t have a govt-approved non-contact greeting as espoused by the Tourism Ministry. Nak seribu daya; tak hendak seribu dalih.

  11. Ida Bakar says:

    So Hamidah dismisses women as leadership material based on some warped understanding of her religion. Here are some historical facts the good lady might like to ponder:

    1. Khadijah Al-Kubra, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, was a business[person] whose wealth and intellect played a vital role in the early propagation of Islam. If God and his Prophet can entrust a woman with this grand undertaking, menstruating or not, surely a lady MB can approach the Sultan on state matters wherever she is in her menstrual cycle.

    2. Aishah Al-Kubra was the Prophet’s wife who survived him. She was a keeper of many of the Prophet’s sayings (hadiths) and directed battles after the Prophet’s death. Surely, her menstrual cycle was not an issue then.

    3. Nusaibah bint Kab al-Ansariyah, leader of an army (of men) during the Battle of Uhud. Surely the battle wasn’t timed to her menstrual cycle.

    4. Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah. Already known for public health administration (there is an Ash-Shifa hospital in Gaza), Caliph Umar appointed her wali (guardian) of the administration of the marketplace. Well, the good Caliph didn’t worry that her menstrual cycle might get in the way of high office, did he?

  12. Z00L says:

    It’s all about political correctness and scientific fact. try reading “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps” by the Peases (I can’t remember the spouses’ names).

  13. Li says:

    Back in my days in public university, I was organising an event and needed to invite the deputy vice chancellor, who happened to be a lady. I was wondering whether to shake her hand when I entered the room. To my surprise, she offered her hand first, and so I shook it. This is called being professional.

  14. PenDatang says:

    We should take away the vote from women.

  15. leyla says:

    And i believe SHE is also a Perak’s Barisan Nasional state executive councillor, and a Datuk? And as the person SHE is now, SHE has to meet the [monarch], where protocol is involved, and one has to meet religious officers … in such situations it is not possible for a woman to become the head or representative of a state government?

  16. Sunsunlit Tom-bo-log says:

    I love the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. The first woman British PM. She is tougher than Mr Clean. Malaysian women?? None of them have proven [themselves] so far! They certainly cannot lead yet.

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