KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 — The country may be experiencing political upheaval at the moment, but women’s rights advocates say this has not stopped Women's March Malaysia 2020 in conjunction with the International Women’s Day (IWD) from taking place today.
But many may remember what happened last year, and that is how participants and organisers were criticised after the march simply because there were members of the LGBT community among a 300-odd women crowd who marched the streets of Kuala Lumpur city centre.
Should participants be worried about a similar backlash that may greet them at the end of the march this year?
Women’s rights advocate Juana Jaafar hopes that the march, similar to the one last year, will be peaceful unless there is provocation.
“The march last year started and ended peacefully. Nothing untoward happened during the march.
“Despite whatever opposition happened after the march, we felt safe. But the safety was sacrificed after that space dispersed,” she said when contacted by Malay Mail.
Although the backlash over last year’s march had created a negative impression of the Women’s Day celebration in the eyes of some, Juana said it was important to note that the IWD March over the years (since 2017) has attracted many participants who are not the ‘usual suspects’.
“This is very encouraging as there was a lot of participation from young people. It shows that this type of event resonates with them. It serves as a platform for them to voice their concerns.
“The young people are emboldened to speak for themselves. They came bringing their own messages written on placards and these are very specific issues which were highlighted. It is undeniable that the IWD March is a wonderful platform for expressing themselves,” said Juana.
While demands related to women’s rights change year by year, Juana said, an activity organised with children saw two issues stand out: The environment and child marriage.
“At one of the programmes organised, children were asked to pick a demand they felt was closest to them, and they picked child marriage and the environment.
“Although we saw the former Pakatan Harapan (PH) government celebrating women politicians, against that backdrop, young girls were saying they don’t see the government’s action on the environment.
“As for underaged or child marriage, these children, they are not satisfied with what has been done. They still see loopholes which allow child marriage to happen. They are asking if the adults are listening,” she said.
Unfortunately, those under 16 are not allowed to join the women’s march but Juana said she is hoping that these children have older friends or allies to help them bring forward the message.
All in all, Juana hopes that law enforcers on the ground will be professional. At the same time, she also called for fairness when it comes to how activists are treated.
“What is unfair is that, they don’t disturb you during the march, but they question you after.
“That is quite deceitful. They don’t disturb you when you are in a group, but they single you out later. That is something troubling, and we hope this will not happen this time,” she said.
She added that, while they are hoping for a peaceful event, organisers are definitely anticipating gender-based insults (or violence) at the march.
“This is consistent every year. But the difference is, will the police act on this form of violence?” she said.
Fellow women’s rights advocate, Angela Kuga Thas, said she hopes law enforcers will facilitate the march instead of intimidating those who will be participating today.
“It is not those who are participating that we are worried about; it is those whom we can’t stop, the bystanders who may try to disrupt the march.
“I hope the police can help to protect the participants from any violence,” said Angela when contacted.
Echoing similar sentiments, veteran women’s rights advocate Ivy Josiah said Malaysia has seen fast-tracked progress in the last two years.
“I have been doing this (activist work) for 30 years. We have definitely picked up the pace in the last two years when it comes to issues related to women’s rights,” she said, indicating the change of government in 2018 as part of the steps towards progress.
To note some positive changes, Ivy cited laws such as the sexual harassment and anti-stalking legislation that is supposed to be tabled in Parliament this year.
She also said that over the years, there are more platforms for women to voice concerns and seek help when it comes to rights issues.
“But one thing we still need to work on is the maturity of our society in understanding gender-based issues.
“You still see slurs being hurled at women in public, or insults directed at women.
“In this area, I think Malaysians need to work to improve,” she added.
In anticipation of insults or possible violence targeted at participants, organisers of the IWD march have advised those who will be present on March 8 to come wearing masks to protect their identity.
The women’s march last year was victimised by “unethical” media coverage which had prompted hate speeches, privacy violations, targeted property damage, as well as online harassment of those who had participated in the march.
It was also last year that the police dropped a sedition investigation against the organisers of the IWD march, who held a peaceful assembly in March.
The IWD march was ridiculed by various quarters who had mischaracterised it as an “illegal LGBT assembly”, which had caused much backlash and shifted the focus away from the five demands made on the day.
The participants of the gathering held in Kuala Lumpur had included members of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Sisters in Islam (SIS), activists, students and Malaysians from all walks of life.
Bernama previously reported Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was then home minister, as saying that no permit was issued by the authorities to allow the IWD organisers to hold its event.
He reportedly said that the government strongly rejects any move to organise an assembly without a permit, as it would be in violation of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.