Women’s groups: Guarantee ‘democratic space’ for everyone, not just those you agree with

Demonstrators take part in a march in conjunction with International Women's Day in Kuala Lumpur March 9, 2018. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Demonstrators take part in a march in conjunction with International Women's Day in Kuala Lumpur March 9, 2018. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, March 10 — A coalition of women’s rights groups has urged Pakatan Harapan (PH) today to ensure “democratic space” for every Malaysian regardless of how Putrajaya or the majority feel about them, following backlash against a Women’s Day march.

The groups said this includes, among others, persons of various sexual orientations, gender identities, survivors of gender-based violence, women with disabilities, indigenous women, working-class women, and women demanding better healthcare.

“In a democracy, every person must be able to peacefully express their interests — to have a say in policies affecting them. This is one reason democracies must guarantee constitutional rights of individuals (democracies are not just majoritarian), including the right to peaceful assembly and expression, and equality before the law.

“If we do not uphold the rights of certain group of persons — to the extent that individuals cannot peacefully express their interests — our credibility as a democracy is diminished,” the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) said in a statement.

“The government must guarantee ‘democratic space’ for everyone. Not just for people the government — or even the majority — agrees with,” it added.

The groups said they are disappointed with the backlash from Putrajaya and others from PH, which they said raised question over PH’s definition of “democratic space”, and the pact’s commitment to democracy itself.

Yesterday, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Mujahid Yusof Rawa accused LGBT supporters of allegedly abusing the democratic space offered to the Women’s March Malaysia.

The march, which was aimed at pushing for the protection of the rights of women and minorities, went beyond the championing of issues such as the defence of the LGBT community’s rights.

The five official demands of the march are for the end of violence based on gender and sexual orientation; end of child marriages; the protection of the rights and freedom of women to make choices over their own body and lives; a minimum wage of RM1,800; and the destruction of patriarchy.

“We urge the government to stop harassing women human rights activists and peaceful protestors. Instead, we urge the government to reaffirm the rights of all Malaysians to peaceful assembly and expression, and to state how it plans to address the rally’s five demands,” said the groups.

The statement was endorsed by among others All Women’s Action Society (Awam), Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), Sisters in Islam (SIS), and Justice for Sisters (JFS).

Formed in 1985, JAG is a coalition of 12 women’s rights organisations in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak advocating gender equality and social justice in Malaysia within a feminist framework.

* A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.