Where do women go in the Muhyiddin administration?

MARCH 8 — This morning at 10am, thousands will brave the Covid-19 outbreak and the even more dangerous demonisation by the patriarchy, to march from the Sogo mall at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman in an annual reminder that women nationwide are still owed their rights.

This year’s Women’s March Malaysia has listed down seven demands, and topping the list is an end to all violence based on gender and sexual orientation.

Other demands include a ban on all child marriages, for authorities to ensure their rights and freedom to make choices over their own bodies and lives, for equal pay for work of equal value, and for the Gender Equality Act to be legislated.

In addition, they are also asking for a climate crisis to be declared and a national plan to mitigate the crisis be formulated, and for equal public and political participation.

This year’s rally is bound to carry with it an additional layer of anger.

Last year, participants of the march were harassed and vilified, not only by random people offline and online, but also by some media outlets through biased coverage.

During the march, several participants were heckled, some had their placards snatched by men who threatened that to lodge a police report against them and the march.

Afterwards, many continued to be harassed on social media, especially after sharing photos documenting their participation with the hashtag #WomensMarchMY. 

People take part in the Women’s March Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur March 10, 2018. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
People take part in the Women’s March Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur March 10, 2018. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

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Online bullies and trolls flooded the hashtag with vile and violent sexist remarks, with abuse ranging from fat-shaming to transphobic comments.

Some Malay dailies then decided to zoom in on LGBT participants of the march, leading to condemnation by then minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and accusation that the rally had been “hijacked” by the queer community — even when everybody was rallying in solidarity with each other.

The organisers would later be investigated for alleged illegal assembly and sedition. Then-Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin would later tell Parliament in a written reply that investigations had been dropped with no further action, indicating that the whole act may have simply been intimidation and harassment against the march.

Now, Muhyiddin himself has been sworn in as prime minister and there is only more anger to be had.

Following the political manoeuvring that saw the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government fall, several female activists were investigated on similar claims of illegal assembly and sedition for protesting against the move: from vocal lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri to long-time activists Ambiga Sreenevasan and Marina Mahathir.

“[The] attacks are clearly gendered, because I’m a woman and [the police] have not done anything to address [the attacks],” Fadiah told the press recently, referring to violent threats made against female activists on social media.

This included concerted harassment against another female activist following a viral video of her narrating her anger — with the attackers again resorting to fat-shaming and ad hominem remarks.

Much of the dissatisfaction by men still revolve around the fury, and the tone of such female activists. To them, women should not resort to “uncouth” speech and behaviour, as it goes against their perception of a feminine, demure gender or rather submissive, docile and meek.

Under the PH government, progress was slow — but now there is a chance that even this may be scuppered.

We were on the verge of tabling a Bill on laws against sexual harassment. It was only in January that the Women’s Ministry managed to launch the National Strategic Plan on Handling the Cause of Child Marriage following months of backlash against the lack of political will. Putrajaya was supposed to seek the Malay rulers’ decree to push for all states to ban child marriage.

We can only hope that these plans, including other initiatives already launched such as the i-Suri fund for housewives and sexual harassment education for pre-schoolers, will continue under Putrajaya rather than being treated as a political football.

By Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s own admission, his administration had failed to appoint enough women to fulfil the 30 per cent quota vowed by PH in the election. But he also touted the many women appointed to top posts, from the Chief Justice to Bank Negara Malaysia governor.

But now, one has already resigned following the change of government: Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief Latheefa Koya.

Will we see women represented as much as they were in the previous administration?

As it is, female journalists, politicians, political observers have already been sidelined or just ignored in the various forums and discussions on government change.

There will likely not be another female deputy prime minister, with no female MP ranking very high in Bersatu, Umno and PAS.

In Bersatu, the highest-ranking woman is Rina Mohd Harun (Titiwangsa MP) who is the Srikandi, or women’s wing, chief. There are two other women out of its 18-person Supreme Council, none of them MPs.

In Umno, the highest-ranking, Noraini Ahmad (Parit Sulong) and Zahida Zarik Khan (not an MP), are both chiefs of the Wanita and Puteri female wings. Out of its 35-member Supreme Council, seven are women — only Azalina Othman is an MP (Pengerang).

In PAS, the highest-ranking woman is also chief of its women’s wing, Muslimat — Nuridah Mohd Salleh. Four out of its 24 Central Working Committee are women, only Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff is an MP (Rantau Panjang).

There is no female MP from MCA or MIC.

That is to say, if the Muhyiddin administration wishes to have more women in its Cabinet, it must appoint senators from these top three Malay parties.

Or it could just appoint female MPs from Gabungan Parti Sarawak that supported this Perikatan Nasional alliance. After all, there are Nancy Shukri (Batang Sadong), Rohani Abdul Karim (Batang Lupar), Hanifah Hajar Taib (Mukah), and Rubiah Wang (Kota Samarahan).

Otherwise, there may be more reasons for women to continue marching next year.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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