(Scroll by ba1969 / sxc.hu) 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)
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: perakbn.gov.my)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.