In pursuit of our own Jacindas — Aira Azhari

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OCTOBER 23 — The world has found a source of hope and light in a time of tragedy and loss in the form of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, recently victorious in elections where her party won a decisive mandate to steer the remote nation’s path to recovery.

Praise for Ardern’s conflict management skills is not new, she already won accolades for her compassionate yet firm handling of the Christchurch mosque shootings and the Whakaari volcano eruption in 2019.

Her refreshing take on politics, frequently emphasising that political leaders can be both empathetic and strong, has not only been effective in combating Covid-19, but has been a standard-bearer for women and decency in politics.

In Malaysia, we are facing the double whammy of a frightening surge in Covid-19 infections as well as a political crisis that has become worse since it began at the end of February. Malaysians are worried about the health of their loved ones, their children’s education and their livelihoods, all made worse by the scheming of old, male politicians hungry for power.

Jacinda Ardern’s leadership is a stark contrast to the vindictive, self-serving, incompetent brand of politics we have become so accustomed to — and not just because she is a woman, but because she dares to use empathy as a pillar of her politics. I say “dare” because in Malaysia and many parts of the world today, politics is anything but empathetic.

In fact, politics has become completely devoid of trust, decency and humility, and oftentimes celebrates elitism, lies, incompetence and absurdity.

Ardern’s success has led to questions of when and how can Malaysia also elect leaders like her? The answer to this question is not so straightforward. While Malaysia is not alone in having an abysmal record of women in politics, multiple factors contribute to why it is so difficult for women to occupy Malaysia’s highest political office.

We need to ask ourselves — do we not have women with capabilities like Jacinda? Or do we already have the Jacindas in our midst, but we are not electing them? Or is it actually a matter of our institutions not being mature enough to allow a Jacinda among us to even have a chance of succeeding in politics?

The answer to these three questions is interrelated. It is a fact that capable women exist across the different fields in our society but raising them takes a village. More often than not, opportunities for women begin in the home, and it is the family that cultivates an atmosphere where the opinion of girls is valued equally as boys.

Culture then of course comes into play, even today, it is common to see a “segregation” between men and women during family gatherings.

Upon arrival at the host relative’s home, women “automatically” tend to gravitate towards the kitchen to help in food preparation whilst the men congregate in the living room. It is the conversations that happen in these two settings that matter — men tend to talk about current

issues, which will inevitably lead to politics, while women are excluded from these discussions as they update each other on more familial matters.

As a woman, there is a risk of irking your elders if you stay to converse with the men rather than help in the kitchen — and the cycle continues. The conversations we have from a very young age within the societal unit that is closest to us — family — matters greatly in cultivating interest, and ultimately capability, in politics.

If not enough girls are included in conversations about politics, how can we expect women to be interested enough to participate in the political process?

There is then the question of Jacindas existing in our midst, but somehow, they are not being elected into office. In other words, this is the proverbial glass ceiling that every aspiring female politician will encounter.

Many factors exist to prevent women leaders from rising to the very top, but one that is less often talked about is the structure of political parties themselves. In Malaysia, most of the established political parties have women’s wings (some of them even have young women’s wings), undoubtedly intended to serve as a stepping stone for women to enter politics.

Those who support the existence of these wings would argue that since the playing field between men and women in politics are too uneven, these wings serve to lower those barriers and give opportunities for women to set foot in politics.

However, women’s wings also become a deterrence for women to hold top leadership positions within the party, as they usually end up only being the leader of the women’s wing while the presidents, deputy presidents and secretaries general in these parties continue to be men.

Furthermore, women’s wings also strengthen gender stereotypes by reducing female politicians to discussing “women’s issues” and performing “women’s roles” during party events and campaigns, while discussions about the economy and policy-making remain in the arena of men.

With some parties, women play an integral role in electoral campaigns, especially in mobilising grassroot support, but once again, there is doubt on how much these women contribute to shaping the party’s overall policy direction.

The third question touches upon the role of our democratic institutions in enabling more well-intentioned individuals, regardless of gender, to succeed in politics. I am a believer that politics is not inherently good or bad.

It is institutions that determine whether or not politics can be a platform in which good things can be done. Institutions such as parliament must be strengthened to allow all MPs to meaningfully contribute towards genuine policymaking through parliamentary select committees (PSCs) and constituency allocations must be given equally to opposition MPs to enable them to service their constituents without the constant pressure to obtain money from questionable sources.

Bipartisanship and consensus are not self-evident, there must be measures in place that enable MPs from across the divide to put aside political differences and work together for the rakyat’s wellbeing.

Jacinda Ardern’s success must first be attributed to her own extraordinary capabilities and courage in dealing with multiple crises with both strength and compassion. As Malaysia watches in envy at the Kiwis’ triumph in defeating the pandemic and the victory of decent, common sense politics, it is worth asking ourselves why we have been left so far behind.

In our pursuit of our own Jacindas, remember that empowered women are a result of choices that a society makes. If we do want our own Jacindas over here, we must make conscious choices to advance women’s contributions in all aspects of public life.

* Aira Nur Ariana Azhari is manager of the Democracy and Governance Unit of think tank Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

** This is the personal opinion of the writer(s) or organisation(s) and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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