I’m all for equality, even though I skirt on things such as whether or not men should still be considered breadwinner numero uno (I obviously fall along with the 1% of Chinese men who think it’s okay not to do anything bread-winning — I don’t know how to bake). Non-populist sentiments aside, Malaysian politics doesn’t have an Iron Lady with the “girth” of a Thatcher (where are you now, Rafidah?).
Here’s a bit of food for thought — happy eating.
Time to leave the kitchen — and still take the heat
THE year 2011 ended on a low note for women in Malaysia as the Minister for Women, Family and Community Development, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, got herself entangled in controversy involving members of her family and the National Feedlot Centre.
The only other woman minister, Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen, did not fare any better. Ng spent much of the year under pressure over her ministry’s exorbitant disbursement for a Facebook campaign to promote tourism.
In Pakatan Rakyat, Malaysia’s sole woman political party president, Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail continued to be overshadowed by her male contemporaries and husband, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. In fact, in 2008 she resigned from her parliamentary seat and post as the country’s first ever woman opposition leader to make way for Anwar’s re-entry into politics.
Dr Wan Azizah’s position was an important one for women. Had Pakatan Rakyat won majority seats in Parliament in March 2008, Malaysia could have seen her first woman prime minister. Whatever the result in the upcoming general elections, it seems highly unlikely now that any woman politician would stand a chance at the premiership.
What shall we make of this then, when the upper echelons of women political leadership in Malaysia (that is, women in the position to shift national policies) fail to inspire the nation, much less bring radical change in national leadership? Perhaps we should look to civil society instead.
Bersih 2.0, whatever one’s views may be, was one movement that saw active women participation and leadership last year. Led by Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, the movement managed to force the formation of a parliamentary select committee to study the country’s electoral system, following a massive rally in Kuala Lumpur calling for electoral reform endorsed by more than 60 civil society organisations including several prominent women’s groups.
Nevertheless, Ambiga — and fellow Bersih 2.0 committee member, Maria Chin Abdullah — took a lot of heat for the event. Their secretariat based at the Empower office (an organisation that promotes women’s political participation) was raided by the police, and they too were eventually arrested.
This kind of harassment is not new as the women in Sisters in Islam would testify.
Alicia Izharuddin, a Malaysian post-graduate student in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said harassment is one of the main reasons women feel discouraged from participating in public discourse.
While this may be true, one might want to ask. At what cost to Malaysia?
Well, until and unless the average Malaysian woman participates in national discourse, child and forced marriages will continue to be sanctioned by the state. Our office space will continue to be unfriendly to working mothers and the trend of mass exodus among young professional women will persist at the expense of our economy and Wawasan 2020.
These are among the many outstanding issues that need to be addressed urgently in Malaysia. Organised women’s groups are doing all they can to affect change in an environment that continues to be resistant, despite all political talk of national transformation and calls to jom ubah (let’s change). They need help.
To put all our hopes for change in the hands of women politicians has proven to be futile. They seem so easily whipped as we have seen within their own parties and in federal and state legislative bodies. It is evident now more than ever that the average Malaysian woman must rise and take ownership of issues that concern them directly and the nation as a whole.
Malaysian women must be brave and actively join, if not initiate, positive discourse at their workplace, home, online and in the media. Ya, that also means possibly taking the heat and harassment that comes with it.
It is already 2012. The time to engage is now.