Sabrina continues to enlighten us on the need for feminism in Malaysia.
In part 1, I described how the image of feminism has been ruined by popular but misleading stereotypes. Part 2 is a follow up to the stereotypes – the myth that feminist or women’s rights groups are no longer relevant in today’s world, and most of all, greeted with much suspicion in Malaysia.
Last April, we made history when our own Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, took up the post of acting Women, Family and Community Development Minister. A post vacated by Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil following much controversy over certain sums of money.
Now, I do not actually think that he being a man and taking up the post is an issue, especially if he is a feminist himself (I did write that feminism is not restricted to women, right?) and genuinely concerned about the issues faced by women in Malaysia. As a Prime Minister, he is in a plum position to push through policies favourable to the well-being of the nation’s women.
However, such a thing did not happen.
Six months after he took up the post, he made the infamous statement that there was no need for women’s rights groups in Malaysia, stating that equality had been given from the start and that we were way ahead other countries (possibly in Asia) especially in terms of women’s rights. In fact, during an interview early this year with Al-Jazeera in a segment called ‘Leaders of Change’ on their programme South 2 North, he repeated himself. Completely ignoring the uproar by women’s groups in Malaysia caused by his pronouncements the first time round.
With all due respect to him, I cannot believe he made such a statement without first properly examining the issues at hand and asking for input from stakeholders – in this case, Malaysian women. It was short-sighted to say the least. Do Malaysian women truly have objective and strong, feministic women leaders representing them in government? Or creating policies that will protect, empower and improve their lives as stay-at-home mothers, working mothers, single mothers, career women, battered women, victims of rape, harassment and discrimination, etc? Or are the ones that we do have mere puppets, only willing to please and bow to the pressures of the parties to which they are attached?
If our Minister of Women’s Affairs does not think that we have issues, how can we expect any good policies to emerge from his department? How can we allow him to rationalise that feminism is irrelevant in Malaysia when so much still needs to be done?
[However, there might still be hope yet, as a couple of days ago, our Prime Minister announced that pro-women legislation will be given due attention. He also said that there will not be a repeat of waiting at least seven years for a Bill to be passed like what had happened with the Domestic Violence Act. (Very interesting, indeed. Do you remember how long it took for the Peaceful Assembly Bill to be passed?)]
The following statements may sound familiar to you:
1. “There are so many projects centering on women (like bazaars and beauty or craft workshops) by various groups including government departments. Like, is that not enough?”
2, “Women are already equal. A majority of them work, they can vote, and some hold high positions in the board of directors. So what is the problem?”
3. “Feminists are a confused lot. First they say they want equal rights, but then they want men to act like gentlemen and open doors for them.”
These presumptions never fail to annoy me. They trivialise the real problems faced by women in our country. And they fail to look beyond empowered women living in urban areas. They also fail to look closely enough, to learn to recognise the symptoms of the ‘ailments’ that burden our women.
Feminism is defined as:
1. The theory of the political economic and social equality of the sexes
2. Organised activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests
The keyword here is ‘social equality’, which is about bringing women up to speed in terms of their rights and not about insisting that women can do what men can. Therefore, I can hardly consider some of those so-called women-oriented projects to be moving us towards a new era of better rights for women. Sure, they are targeted at women and attractive to them but do not get down to solving any women’s issues. Note the difference?
It is like holding a forum on ‘How To Be Safe Online: Identify and Avoid Casanovas’ instead of addressing the root of the problem directly – which is actually down to the self-esteem of the victims of online harassment and date rape. (Something around the theme of ‘Happiness Is In My Hands’ would be a more apt solution in my opinion.)
Do I need to point out more reasons why we do need feminism in Malaysia? I have 7:
1. Not enough legal address for sexual harassment
There is only one law in existence that comes close to dealing with the issue of sexual harassment in Malaysia – the Penal Code, section 509, which carries a penalty of 5 years, with or without fine. This law, however, deals more with physical aspects and does not cover mental and emotional aspects. The only other place you will find whatever little protection women have in this area, is in the Employment (Amendment) Act 2012 that came into force on 1 April 2012. But it really only tackles sexual harassment within the employer-employee relationship. What if you are sexually harassed out of the workplace? What protection do you have?
There is also no immunity from an unfair dismissal claim by the wrongdoer, where he or she can be terminated from employment under this clause; something that gives very little protection to the employer who is helping the victim.
2. Very narrow definition of rape under law
According to the Malaysian Penal Code, rape is defined as the penetration of the male sexual organ into the female sexual organ without the consent of the woman. But what if the offender used a foreign object to penetrate the female sexual organ without her consent, or forced her to perform oral sex? These scenarios do not fall under the current classification of rape and seems to suggest that such offenders have the opportunity to get off scot-free.
If rape is viewed as a serious crime against women, then any conduct perceived to be violative towards women should be classified as rape.
3. Child marriages
Statutory rape is sex (with or without consent) involving underaged women, i.e. below the age of 16. Yet, underaged marriage is allowed under Syariah law without harsh penalties, a situation counter to the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of a Child, of which Malaysia is a signatory. Abuses that occur within such a marriage can go undetected and unreported simply because it is ‘legit’.
4. Poor access to medical services outside of town
I am restricted in my knowledge of medical services provided in Sabah where hospitals are ill-equipped – treatment and personnel wise – to improve the health of its people. But I have had an experience in an emergency where the ambulance never arrived even after 30 minutes of waiting. And we were not very far from the city area either.
I have also noted that women in the outskirts of town travel to give birth at city hospitals because they either feel unsafe with the level of medical services offered in their districts, or there no services provided there.
5. Sexist advertising
Have you ever turned on the radio and heard some female voice whining to their ‘husband’ for money to go shopping? Or seen advertisements selling products for women to ‘please the man’? Or flipped through a car magazine to see a sexily clad girl draped over a sports car as an accessory because ‘sex sells’?
The feminist in me was quite offended to see an online advertisement by a lingerie company that featured a very beautiful woman in a tight-fitting dress. The commercial started with a description by her of how her skin felt smoother and her figure looked better after wearing a certain piece of lingerie. This unabashed expression of self-confidence, however, was spoiled by the last sentence in the commercial which went along these lines: “We have received information that her husband was very pleased as well”.
Yes, that last sentence changed the whole message of the commercial – from one of a confident and happy woman making a purchase that benefits her, to one of a woman who bought it with the hope of getting her husband’s approval. It also hints too much at the fact that she possibly did not feel good enough about herself before.
This is 2013; women now earn their own shopping money and do not necessarily need a partner to feel good about themselves.
6. Too much emphasis on physical beauty, too little on self-esteem
I am sorry if I am offending my friends in the beauty industry, but there are just too many beauty pageants around that objectify women. Why do women need to have their self-worth validated by others and subscribe to a skewed idea of true beauty? We should recognise women who are doing real groundwork and making transformative changes in society, not just the ones who are put up on the pedestal for being physically attractive.
7. Portrayal of women in the local film industry
I happened to watch a Malay language film one night at a hotel, something I usually do not voluntarily do, but did, since there was nothing else to watch on telly. It was obviously a romantic movie, but sadly, I was not touched by the story. Inflamed with indignation was more like it. Why? Well, the movie was all about (typically too, I have to say) pretentiously rich snobs and unrealistic corporate fantasies; it had the director of the company take his impressionable assistant (a physically attractive and submissive woman) on a long business trip to an exotic location overseas where they frolicked shamelessly, fell in love and got married.
But what really dredged up my disappointment was how the climax and ending of the story were written. Imagine this: man fights with woman over some trivial matter. Man leaves her in a huff. Woman cries her eyes out as if there is nothing left worth living for but later picks herself up. Woman then gets an unrealistically good job overseas where employers are just salivating all over their desks waiting for her to come work for them. Man then suddenly realises his folly and searches for her. He finds her finally and says in a macho manner, “Never leave me again!” (err, who left who again?). Woman – shock horror – agrees and they live happily ever after. The end.
I think my IQ dropped 10 points after watching that movie. If a feminist had written that script, I am sure the story would have ended completely differently. This kind of storyline is unfortunately typical in locally made movies.
It is also appalling that the main female characters in such films are portrayed as weaklings, waiting at the beck and call of men, and often too willing to do anything they can for some male gratification. When will we ever have movies that carry strong messages about women or portray female characters who respect themselves and subscribe to healthier notions of love?
The points above are not in any way an exhaustive list of why we need feminism. There are probably tons more, but I will not rant on.
“The word feminism has become synonymous with man-hating when in fact it has more to do with women than men.” – Aysha Taryam
There is something to be said about women helping themselves in this department too. But the sad fact is, a lot of women are not rising up from these issues to solve them; they are simply allowing them to happen, either under the pre-text of religion or traditional/social expectations of them. By doing so, they perpetuate the fallacy that women are useful as tools for male gratification or disposable like second-class citizens, that their role is to serve. (That is right, I am not solely blaming men here.)
Feminism is about how women see themselves rather than how men perceive women to be. As long as women continue to see feminism as a dirty, man-hating word, and do not set standards for themselves, I cannot see ourselves progressing as a gender-equal country.
(Featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Gia Ciccone, source: http://bit.ly/UORpyp)