Out of 222 Malaysian Parliament seats contested in GE13, women were elected only to 24 seats. That positioned us at the second lowest in rank of women’s representation in parliament in South East Asia. Timor-Leste is the highest with 38.5% followed by Laos at 25.0%, Vietnam 24.4&, Singapore 24.2%, Philippines 22.9%, Cambodia 20.3%, Indonesia 18.6% and Thailand 15.8%. Then there is Malaysia at 10.81%, slightly above Myanmar which have mere 6% of women in Parliament.
Being one of the most developed countries in the region when it comes to economic and infrastructure progression, it is kind of baffling the mind to find Malaysia at the second lowest rank in regards to women’s political participation. It is therefore very crucial to ask this question – why are we at where we are?
To answer that question, we must look at the political and cultural barriers in Malaysia that can be a hindrance for women to be actively involved in politics. To start with, we do not have a quota system as a temporary measure to ensure a minimum of 30% women in the electoral process, in political parties and in our Parliaments. And as long as our cultural institutions – such as education, religious and media – continue to communicate gender stereotype language, the struggle to have and to implement the quota system would be rather impossible.
Let’s first take a look at our education system. Generally, girl-children have equal access as boy-children to education. In fact, in most cases you would see more girls in university compared to boys – it is only when it comes to employment that mostly women would opt out of work, usually after having children. This is a good example of how the patriarchal system is controlling our lives tightly – the construction of gender roles that require men to be the bread-winner and women as the nurturer, the carer.
Gender stereotypes in school structure and education curriculum are also still significant. Usually male students would be elected as head prefect or head of societies and clubs in the school, embedding the culture that man is a leader and women are followers. Female students are given opportunities only to head societies and clubs that are seen as more female-centric according to the norm of heteronormativity. Even in the administration of schools, we can see there are more male head-teacher and principals compare to females, except if it is a all-girls schools.
When we come to what being taught to Malaysian children, there are a lot that can and should be criticised. Education syllabus in the schools entrenched the stereotyping of gender roles further with stories and examples given by teachers and textbooks. Ali is always allowed to go out playing football with his friends while his sister, Aminah has to stay at home helping mother cooking lunch. Father is, of course, busy reading his weekend newspapers while having the TV on so he can peek at it once in a while when there is something interesting on. That is the example of a usual story we can read from Malaysian school textbooks
Therefore, when it comes to political world that demands women to be the leader, the one who makes decision – it is not an easy thing for many. Women politicians are expected to be like super-women. She is expected to be almost-perfect, must be ever-ready to serve her constituency and also able to balance her family life. If she is lacking in any aspects, there would be many people who are also ever-ready to throw destructive criticisms.
Then you have the media. Gender stereotyping in the media is still prevalent. Women are usually portrayed as the weaker gender and hardly a leader. And if she is the leader, the outspoken one, the one who act according to her heart – she is evil, wild and self-centric. Good women are those who obey the husband no matter what he is doing to her and even if she is working as hard as her husband, hence also contributing financially towards the family – she is still the one responsible to keep the house sparkling clean and the children in order. Marriage is romanticised to be more like slavery than partnership as it should be.
There are many dramas and movies on TV that shows women in this light. A good Muslim wives are those who would always be patient though the husband beats her up or take another women. A good mother must always be there at home to feed the children with healthy scrumptious breakfast, pack their lunch and tie their shoe-laces before giving sending them off to school. Media is portraying a good woman in a certain ways and even if the woman politician is nothing like what being portrayed, she will turn herself into one. This is the expectation and to be accepted, you need to fulfill the expectation.
The lack of women’s representation in politic could also be a consequence of politicisation of religion in Malaysia. This notion of Islamisation or some may want to refer to it as Arabisation – of society, state and laws – in Malaysia started in the early 1980s during Mahathir’s era. UMNO and PAS are forever bidding to out-Islamised each other for political legitimacy and are competing for the Malay-Muslim electoral bank. UMNO’s Islamisation agenda is promoting a state-defined Islam and Islamism that promotes ethnicisation of Malaysian politics. This creates greater social distance and a plural society that is increasingly compartmentalised and culturally polarised.
How does this influence women’s political participation, you may ask? Well, basically everything. All cultural barriers that were mentioned above stemmed from this one particular aspect – the twisted interpretation of religion. In Malaysia, religion is not a private affair but matters of concern for the state. Islam is a source of public policy and the state regulate how Islam should be practiced. Hence, we have the ideas of Islam that must be obeyed and unfortunately for us, there are some who bought the ideas that women can never be a leader. This influenced on how they view and treat women. Equality is given but in their definition, which is mostly of the protectionist approach.
After identifying all these cultural barriers, it is also important to point out the political barrier in Malaysia. We may be the economically strong but when it comes to democratic system, we are regressive and backwards. Barisan Nasional (BN) has been the only governing party since Independent. BN used to enjoy 2/3 majority in Parliament however the political climate has chance dramatically since the 2008 political-tsunami. As a nation, Malaysian became more politically aware of our right of good governance and is speaking out against the corrupt ruling government. Therefore in the aim towards overthrowing the current government and eventually see change in this country, gender apportionment and representation of women are taking the backseat.
The selection system in political parties is geared to ensure victory, not just about giving opportunity. What needed is a winnable candidate and to be winnable, you should be popular and generally accepted by the society. Women politician who breaks the mould of what is norm in the society, obviously are not easily acceptable thus not winnable. This system subsequently brought negative outcome of the action, reaction and non-action of women representatives in Parliament or State Assembly. There are not much vocal voices speaking out for women or upholding the principles of women’s rights. Many are more inclined to go along with their party position and choose to keep quiet. They may be reluctant because do not want to burn bridges with the party leaders, who are mostly males, because of the fear of not being selected again for seats in the future.
Malaysia has a long way to go and the journey to a nation that is democratic as well as gender-sensitised is not going to be an easy one. With the burden of a patriarchal interpretation of culture and religion, we are sure to face many unnecessary challenges and barriers. However, we must remember that gender stereotypes are a construction of society and whatever that can be constructed, can always be de-construct and re-construct. And to do that, it is not just the responsibility of women but also men, who must work together to create a new egalitarian Malaysia.