Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Feminism and the Women's Movement in Malaysia : A Review

by Carmen Nge

Barisan Nasional MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin must be simmering. The old adage, “loose lips sink ships” has never before proven so metaphorically true. His slip of tongue has resulted in an unstoppable torrent of public criticism from women and men alike. The DPM’s pathetic attempt at salvaging Bung’s rear end by claiming the remark was innocuous only smacked of complicity. I suppose this is what members of the old boys’ club do: they back each other up, they forgive and forget, and return to the task of running the country. What’s a little crass ribbing among MPs? Women should be more thick-skinned.

What the op ed pieces and newspaper reports don’t tell us is that Bung’s callous remark is a hardly an anomaly. Witness Datuk Seri Samy Vellu’s comment a few days after the infamous “bocor” incident: “A woman 50 years ago, she looks beautiful, but today she won’t look so beautiful.” He said this when referring to the RM90 million renovation work done on the Parliament House. Clearly, the old boys cannot stem the tide of their patriarchal lingo and prevent another sexist screw-up.

To surmise that all our MPs are sexist or male chauvinists would be an overgeneralization, but there is no denying that retorts against women are nothing new. Comments during Parliamentary debates about menstruation, sexy clothes, unmarried divorcees and outspoken women, in some ways reflect the limited influence that the women’s movement in this country has had on men in power. The fact that the female MPs from BN failed to publicly take Bung to task during Parliamentary debates also showed that partisan politics will always trump gender issues.

Perhaps the problem lies in how women are perceived by the ruling apparatus—not as equal and legitimate partners in the political process but merely as a voting bloc to be swayed for electoral purposes. This supposition is amplified and well-supported by historical research in a ground-breaking book entitled, Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia, published by heavyweight academic UK publisher, Routledge, and authored by three Malaysians: Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad and tan beng hui.

Ng, Maznah and tan make a formidable trio; all of them are active in various women organizations and have research expertise in the area of women’s studies. Maznah and Ng are both academics, having taught at University Sains Malaysia and University Putra Malaysia, respectively. The former is currently Associate Professor and has a string of publications to her name. Tan is a member of the Women’s Development Collective (WDC) and the All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), which Ng helped found. Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia is a result of their collective effort to document the existence of a movement that does not consider documentation high on their priority list.

The strength of their book lies in a careful parsing of various strands of the women’s movement from socio-political and historical standpoints. Rather than focus on urban NGOs who are most vocal about issues such as violence against women and often take up concerns of the secular middle-class, the authors also scrutinize governmental bodies, namely the Ministry of Women and Family Development; mainstream Malay-Muslim women organizations such as Wanita and Puteri UMNO; and the women’s wing of Islamic NGOs such as Helwa ABIM and Wanita JIM. A chapter of the book on women and political Islam also covers the internal politics and complexities of women’s role in PAS, which is often stereotyped as a party unfriendly to the women’s movement. PAS Dewan Muslimat (Women’s Assembly) was established as early as 1953 and well-educated women do hold leadership positions, although these are numerically few and with marginal influence.

The depth and diversity of the book chapters in Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia are proof of the variegated nature of the women’s movement in Malaysia. The writers are, however, careful to point out the omission of East Malaysia in their project, citing the different relationship that women’s groups have with the states of Sabah and Sarawak due to different contexts and the federal-state government structure. Nevertheless, despite such limitations, the book manages to contextualize and critically analyze the scope and nature of women’s activism in the country.

In a fascinating chapter titled, “An unholy alliance?”, the co-optation of women’s NGOs’ concerns by the Ministry of Women and Family Development is carefully delineated. In a self-interested move, the Ministry used the Violence against Women (VAW) campaign—renamed WAVE (Women Against Violence) or OMBAK in Malay—to publicize itself and to dilute the issue rather than to sharpen its focus. Women’s NGOs boycotted the launch of OMBAK in July 2001 and the controversy was amplified in the press. In order to soften this public relations blow, Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil sponsored a proposal to amend the Federal Constitution, Article 8(2) in a politically expedient move.

This anti-gender discrimination amendment had already been put forward by the Women’s Agenda for Change (WAC) as early as 1998 but due to lack of political leverage and connections, was not passed, gazetted or enforced. The tireless and thankless work of women’s NGOs over the past 20 years went largely unnoticed as the Ministry of Women and Family Development stole the media limelight. This event also highlighted the fact that women’s issues could win votes; as such, political parties are liable to play the gender card simply to garner votes rather than to genuinely fight for gender equality and women’s rights.

According to 1999 statistics, women voters make up 55.6% of the population and since the mid-1990s, women voters have tended to outnumber men. With the rising number of women university students, it is likely that this percentage will increase in the upcoming elections. Mainstream women’s organizations such as Puteri UMNO has successfully penetrated rural enclaves, utilizing young women of the party to register potential UMNO voters and to raise the public profile of UMNO in general. But such attempts to curry voters are not commensurate with a similar rise in the number of women MPs in the country.

According to United Nations 2005 statistics, the percentage of women MPs in Malaysia is only 9.6%, still below the Asian average of 10% and well below that of Vietnam, which stands at 26% and is ranked 11th in the world for women MP representation. Even our immediate neighbour, Singapore, has 16% female representation in Parliament. It is no wonder MPs Bung and Mohd Said are unapologetic; after all, women are such a minority in Parliament, it seems pointless to care what they think.

Nonetheless, for us to chastise Bung for his remark and to get upset with those members of Parliament who took it lightly is only the tip of the iceberg for what needs to be done. The fact remains that MPs such as Bung exemplify the absence of intelligent thought in Parliament. To equate the leak in the Parliament House roof with the menstrual cycle is to commit a commonplace logical fallacy—false analogy—that any student of critical thinking can point out. A woman’s menstruation is as natural and God-given as a leaky ceiling is man-made. To menstruate is part and parcel of being a woman (and even then, with a few medical exceptions) but for a million ringgit construction and upgrading effort to spring a leak? What else can it be but an effect of corruption?

Rather than throw red herrings into the august halls of Parliament, perhaps some of our MPs should pick up a book to sharpen their critical thinking skills, to cultivate rational logic, and to expand their sorely limited knowledge of the struggle and gains made by women in the past 50 years. It would certainly behoove our MPs—male and female alike—to give Feminism and the Women’s Movement in Malaysia a read. Merdeka is around the corner—it’s the least they can do.


This review was first published in Off The Edge magazine, Dec 2007 issue.


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