KUALA LUMPUR, June 14 — Batu Kawan MP Kasthuriraani Patto is angry. Very angry.

The ardent abolitionist as well as advocate for human rights and women and children’s rights is dismayed by the government’s feet dragging over the much-anticipated Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill 2021.

Especially when the 43-year-old two-time MP is a victim of such harassment herself.

Kasthuri is often the subject of attacks targeting her gender and her skin colour, with her fellow parliamentarian, Baling MP Datuk Seri Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim, responsible for perhaps what is the most notorious example.

Abdul Azeez had, in July 2020, during a Dewan Rakyat sitting, told Kasthuri that she was gelap tak nampak (too dark, cannot see) and to pakai bedak (use facial powder).

In his own defence, Abdul Azeez insisted that the remark was not directed at Kasthuri or any other MP. Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Azhar Azizan Harun later ordered him to apologise, after reviewing the hansard.

“The law is even more crucial, when MPs themselves, shamelessly, daringly, make offensive slurs, which are laced with sexual innuendo in the august house, where we are supposed to make policies that protect the people. As we all know, I am not the first MP to be targeted. My party women have faced it too.

“Imagine the regular, everyday people whose ordeals are not made public or televised like us MPs,” she said during an interview with Malay Mail recently.

Kasthuri is the only ethnic Indian female MP in the Dewan Rakyat at present.

Recently, after her marriage to Frenchman Alain Morvan, a journalist based in France, several internet trolls started targeting her with sexually explicit comments.

“I think the language used against a fellow MP, whether it is me or anyone else, that is uncouth, that is sexist, that is racist, it is very disturbing to the institution of parliamentary democracy itself. The language used in the Dewan Rakyat... it is embarrassing.

“At first, I used to feel very insulted, very hurt by it. I remember the first few times that I spoke in Parliament, I would hear these lone voices saying; ‘Who let this girl into the Dewan? Just get married and go back lah!’ It was always male voices. I used to be called pendek: Oi pendek, duduk lah! All these were not recorded because they said it without the mic on,” she said, adding that she would react to such slurs reflexively.

She said she has since learnt to ignore and “choose her battles” in the interest of the people.

However, Kasthuri admitted that Abdul Azeez’s remark made her feel terrible.

“It was terrible because I felt that an MP thought he could say that and get away with it.

“I think it is a whole culture firstly when you do not have enough female MPs in Parliament and male MPs are not used to a female presence and having that many voices challenging them. They take it very personally and they react to you,” she said, adding that the onus is on the Speaker of the House to drain the toxic “ecosystem”.

She said a heavy penalty must be imposed on MPs who resort to such taunts, expressing disappointment that it is not the practice at present.

On the back burner

In February, several women’s advocacy groups called for the Parliamentary Special Select Committee on Women and Children Affairs and Social Development to urgently review the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill.

At the same time, civil society organisations Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), Engender Consultancy and Young Women Making Change handed over a memorandum to the government with recommended amendments to the Bill.

Among the suggestions was to make it an organisation’s duty to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace.

The group said that the definition of sexual harassment must include instances where the harassment is not directed at a particular individual, but creates an offensive, hostile, or intimidating environment.

The passing of the Bill, however, has been deferred to the next parliamentary sitting in July, to allow for a revision.

“I think, as you may already know, the Bill is more than 20 years old, pending and waiting to be tabled in Parliament. Attorneys general have come and gone, ministers of women, family and community development have also come and gone, but the Bill remained stagnant until Pakatan Harapan (PH) placed it at the top of the agenda. This is low-hanging fruit. It shouldn’t be opposed by any party.

“If there is opposition at all, it could be due to the legal language, whether the law can be abused or not. I think that is a fair concern but given that we have already come up with quite a robust draft, and prior to that, held engagements with civil societies and stakeholders, and discussions in Parliament, which I attended as did many MPs.

“I think the important thing is to table the first reading of the Bill, and then we can clean that up. If the government is not happy with that, we can refer it to the Special Select Committee on Women, Children and Social Development.

“But it looks like nothing is moving today, except an announcement by minister, Datuk Seri Rina Harun, that it is going to be tabled,” she added.

Kasthuri said that she had also requested Rina to engage with Opposition women leaders and stakeholders to ensure that the Bill is foolproof with no loopholes, but noted that no such effort had been forthcoming.

“I mean photoshoots aside, just do your job, you know,” she added.

Toxic politics

The lack of female MPs in parliamentary selection committees must also be addressed to fix the problem, she said. Kasthuri also said that before Abdul Azeez’s disparaging remark about her appearance, she was trying to highlight the lack of women in said committees, which are very powerful.

“They select MPs who sit in standing committees, select committees, special select committees and ad hoc select committees. So these committees are very powerful as are the party leaders who sit in them.

“However, I believe, because the Speaker is the chair of all these select committees, and he has a veto vote, he can say, ‘We can extend the membership. We need female representation.’ Yes, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was at that time a member because he represented the Opposition. But the Speaker could have said that we need one female. and perhaps placed Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in there or Teresa Kok. Somebody senior,” she added.

Kasthuri added that at a time when gender equality is stressed by government leaders, it still does not translate into action, questioning what sort of an example Parliament is intending to set.

“The language and toxic politics can be a deterrent to women who want to be in politics,” she said, adding that Malaysia is still far behind when it comes to addressing the gender perspective.

Kasthuri added that only after a change of government in Penang in 2008, and the setting up of the Penang Women Development Corporation, was there a huge move to educate the public on gender responsive budgeting.

“If I give RM50,000 to the joint management body (JMB) of a housing board, a certain percentage of that amount must go towards gender purposes and they must have a consultation with women to say: If you have RM50,000, how would you use it? I can tell you women will have an entirely different view of how the money should be spent.

“It probably would be for safety, childcare, and children’s safety. It would be for CCTVs and better lighting. If you gave RM50,000 to a man, he would probably say, ‘Maybe we could put up a futsal area here or some stalls for men and women to do business.’ While both are correct, we have neglected to listen to this huge population of women who are stakeholders as well.

“We do not listen to them enough. When you have this sort of a lacuna, not just in the law, but also in policies, government decisions, even the angle that the government takes, you have to constantly remind them, and over the years, you have a built-in gender lens already. Everything you look at, you will look at it from a gender perspective,” she added.

Kasthuri, however, stressed that the aim was not to create a quota or “buy a seat or buy a place because you are female”, but about the quality of the type of women needed and the quality of life to give to the women.

She expressed disappointment again with male and female MPs alike who allow such sexist language in Parliament, which then grab the headlines, and eat up the time for more pertinent issues to be discussed.

She questioned how the Malaysian Parliament can be first-class, when MPs with uncouth behaviour court bad publicity.

“Over the years, when potty-mouthed MPs do not get the sort of reaction that they had hoped for in Parliament, they push the boundaries. This is where the Speaker has to say this is enough and you better stop,” she added.