It is alarming that as a leader he has little or no knowledge of the state-of-affairs concerning women in this country.
It appears that the Suaram-initiated suit alleging prime minister Najib Tun Razak’s involvement in a multibillion dollar graft scandal has disturbed the premier’s equilibrium, so much so that it has left him ‘bewildered’ over the role of women’s movement in this country.
On Oct 2, in his speech commemorating the National Women’s Day celebration, Najib who is also the Women, Family and Community Development Minister, dismissed the need for a women’s right movement in the country, saying women have been treated equally “since the start” and that Malaysia was more advanced than others in that aspect.
“In some developed countries, the men were allowed to vote before women but, in Malaysia women had the right to vote from the start,” he had said.
His flat-footed speech is testimony that women’s issues are of no significance to Najib.
Had women’s struggles been of concern to him, Najib would never forget the struggles of the women’s right movement of this country which campaigned for 11 years for a domestic violence bill. He can ill-afford to discard the women’s right movement’s endeavour in seeking amendments to the Penal Code to ensure rapists are dealt with severely.
Likewise, it was the women’s right movement that lobbied for sexual harassment to be recognised as a serious violation of a woman’s right besides seeking amendments to the Employment Act 1955 to ensure the 60-day maternity leave be increased to 90 days as recommended by the International Labour Organisation’s Maternity Protection Convention 2000, to which Malaysia is not a signatory.
It is also the women’s right movement that has time and again taken to task the sexist and chauvinistic members of parliaments. And it was the women’s right movement that paved the way for Malaysia to ratify the CEDAW (United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) in 1995.
The struggle did not end there. Six years later the Malaysian government agreed to amend the Federal Constitution to include ‘gender’ in Article 8 (2) i.e. no discrimination on the basis of gender.
Najib’s disinterest in women’s rights has evoked the anger of WAO. Its executive director Ivy Josiah told FMT that there was still more work to be done by the women’s movement, and that discrimination against the fairer sex continued to this day.
“We are flabbergasted at this pronouncement as every day women experience discrimination – whether it is domestic violence, rape, divorce, getting child and wife maintenance, street crimes and harassment,” said Josiah.
She wondered who Najib’s gender advisers were because discrimination against women continues.
“Statistics and data that WAO and other NGOs have compiled have shown discrimination against women in child maintenance, divorce, rape and domestic violence. There is also an increase in female-headed households,” Josiah added.
How then did Najib arrive at the conclusion that women in this country have been treated equally and thus making the country more advanced in this respect is anyone’s guess? What is clear is that he, in his capacity as Women, Family and Community Development Minister, has not the foggiest idea of the struggles women in Malaysia face, both professionally and otherwise.
It is an understatement to say that Najib’s Women’s Day speech was an insult to the womenfolk of Malaysia. It is alarming that the country’s leader has no knowledge of the state-of-affairs concerning women in this country. That explains why he has been and continues to remain indifferent to the cries of the Penan women and girls who suffer rape at the hands of timber loggers in Sarawak.
Because Najib is utterly foolish in dismissing the need for a women’s movement in this country, it becomes necessary that he be ‘educated’ on women’s issues to understand just what a women’s movement is all about. Should he associate women’s movement with bra-burning, his shallow thinking reflects poorly on him.
In April 2008, when an Umno MP and former Cabinet minister sexually harassed a five star hotel employee, did it rankle Najib, much less bother the prime minister?When the two men who had raped underaged girls were released on ‘good behaviour’ bonds, did Najib experience sleepless nights, troubled by the unfair and chauvinistic decision of the two judges who saw it fit to let the two rapists’ walk free?
While Najib’s ignorance on this matter is unbelievable, just as shocking is the willingness of former Youth and Sports and later Tourism Minister and one-time Puteri Umno head, Azalina Othman Said to come to Najib’s defense a day after the premier was rapped for his ‘out of touch with reality’ speech.
Azalina, the Pengerang MP, took the easy way out by claiming that Najib was misquoted and that he had meant something entirely different.
“No, he didn’t say it like that. What he meant was historically women have been participating for equal rights, even from the beginning,” she had told reporters at the Parliament lobby. “The prime minister emphasised that so many women, especially from Wanita Umno, have participated aggressively.
“Najib was trying to emphasise that in Malaysia, most of the community have accepted women’s role and participation. What he’s trying to say is that you don’t need a quota when it comes to [women’s] struggles. It’s not an issue of quota. To be fair, you have to quote him properly,” Azalina added.
How did Azalina know what Najib really meant via his flabbergasting speech? Was she responsible for scripting his speech? Or was she doing her colleague a favour hoping for a quid pro quo, keeping in mind the looming 13th general election?
A let down coming from a woman Syariah lawyer who has quickly taken advantage of the situation to play politics, all for the sake of reviving her political career. What an irony that Azalina whose political career nosedived in 2009, a year after Najib took over as premier, has failed to walk her talk, for she was once adamant that a woman prime minister for Malaysia is not a far-fetched dream.
However, unlike Azalina, the opposition pact Pakatan Rakyat called a spade a spade by calling Najib “ignorant” for dimissing the need for a women’s right movement in Malaysia. PKR Wanita chief Zuraida Kamaruddin described Najib’s speech as an insult to women and “ill-advised”.
The Ampang MP said the prime minister was apparently unaware of Malaysia’s poor rating in the Global Gender Gap index which ranked Malaysia at 95th among 135 countries, far below its regional neighbours like the Philippines and Thailand.
Was it really an “ill-advised” speech by Najib or is the premier letting his ego do the talking?
Jeswan Kaur is a freelance writer and a FMT columnist.