JUNE 19 — The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is appalled and disturbed by the recent social media attacks against Nurul Izzah.
Political affiliations aside, every representative of the government must condemn toxic tactics such as the sexualisation, objectification, and harassment of female politicians as a means of attacking opposing viewpoints or garnering political support.
In light of the recent attacks, JAG also calls on the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to play a more proactive role in preventing and addressing online gender-based violence (GBV), including against female politicians.
Online GBV, like the social media attacks targeting Nurul, directly impacts the ability of women to participate in all spheres of life, from professional, to educational, to social.
When targeting female politicians, online GBV directly impedes women’s ability to participate publicly and politically, and further hinders Malaysia’s progress in achieving gender equality in the public sphere.
The attacks against Nurul not only threaten female political participation, they threaten our democracy.
The recent Facebook attacks of Nurul have been vile and personal. Not only have they contained explicit content sexualising YB Nurul, they have also encouraged and incited further threats and violence against her by purporting to share her personal contact information.
Attacks on female politicians that resort to objectification and sexualisation are rooted in patriarchal structures and attitudes that continue to plague every aspect of our society. Such attacks demonstrate a serious lack of political will in ensuring our country’s progression towards more gender equal institutions and structures, which will redistribute the power that has traditionally been concentrated in the hands of men.
Such attacks — whether in the form of physical violence, explicit sexual threats, or flippant comments about a woman’s dress — are harmful and calculated, made with the intent of preserving power and discouraging women from participating in the public sphere, expressing their lived realities, and exerting influence over the decisions that shape the course of the country at the village, city, state, and federal level.
Not only do the attacks on Nurul and other attacks on female politicians and women in general dissuade women from entering or remaining in the public and political sphere, they also serve to threaten our democracy.
As Dubravka Simonovic, United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, wrote, “The scourge of widespread and systematic gender-based violence against women is deeply rooted in discrimination against women and continues to shape the lives of female politicians, activists, and voters around the world, with devastating impact not only on the victims, but also on democracy itself.”
Gender-based violence and discrimination — both against female politicians and against women exercising their right to public and political participation — is counter to the democratic ideals of freedom of expression, participation, and choice, in that it quashes these freedoms for women, who make up a significant portion of the rakyat.
The political environment in Malaysia continues to be hostile towards women.
Unfortunately, attacks on female politicians and women who are critical of the politics in Malaysia are not new developments.
From the stereotyping of women political candidates, to sexist remarks in Parliament against female MPs, to threats made via Facebook and other platforms against women who hold a critical political view, the political environment in Malaysia has consistently been and continues to be hostile towards women.
It is both this explicit hostility towards women as well as the more insidious and systemic discrimination that prevents women from participating in the political sphere. This insidious discrimination manifests in forms as diverse as the portrayal of women in media and the gender roles that are forced on boys and girls from a young age both in school and at home.
These manifestations shape everything from the perception of women as capable leaders, to voting preferences, and are self-perpetuating: the less women are in the public sphere, the more hostile the environment will continue to be, and the fewer women and girls will see political participation as a viable path.
Malaysia has failed to heed recommendations of the Cedaw Committee to address violence and discrimination against women in the political sphere.
As recently as in its 2018 review of Malaysia, the Cedaw Committee flagged its concerns to the government about the under-representation of women in political and public life.
In its March 2018 Concluding Observations, the Cedaw Committee recommended to Malaysia to take measures — including temporary special measures — to “accelerate the full and equal participation at all levels, including in legislative bodies, ministerial posts and local government, the judiciary, and the diplomatic service.”
The Committee also recommended to the government that Members of Parliament be held accountable for sexist and condescending remarks about women, and adopt a comprehensive strategy aimed at eliminating discriminatory stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes around the roles and responsibilities of women at all levels of society.
Every level and agency of the government — including the MCMC — must take concrete measures to combat violence and discrimination against female politicians and all women, whether in the form of verbal assaults, vulgar social media attacks, or acts or threats of physical violence.
Without decisive and concrete action against the perpetrators of the social media attacks and of other such acts of violence against Nurul, not only will women be forced out of the public and political spheres and their right to public and political participation violated, the democratic ideals that are designed to protect the interests and needs of all Malaysians will be eroded.
We must act to stop online GBV that undermines and discourages women’s public and political participation. Attacks against women politicians and women’s voices are attacks on our democracy.
This statement is endorsed by the following JAG member organisations:
All Women’s Action Society (AWAM)
Association of Women Lawyers (AWL)
Justice for Sisters
Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER)
Sabah Women's Action-Resource Group (SAWO)
Sisters in Islam (SIS)
Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO)
Women’s Centre for Change (WCC)
* The Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) is a coalition of 14 women’s rights organisations in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.