The conversation needs to move beyond discussions of gender equality.
The subject of feminism can be frustratingly hard to discuss rationally. At its most rational, the discussion tends to revolve around the already thorny topic of equality and why women deserve, for example, the same opportunities and pay cheques that men get. At its most heated, it sees both men and women raise their voices to fist-clenching levels. There’s no more a recognizable and stereotypical way to typify the conversation than the old trope about women belonging in the kitchen.
That’s only talking about how the conversation sounds in urban Malaysia. The issue takes a deeper dimension when you consider it in the context of the rest of the country, its rich diversity, and its multicultural history and tradition.
All this is to say that in many ways, Malaysian views on the woman’s role in society can be more than a little passé.
This came under an especially bright light last March 8, when Malaysia celebrated International Women’s Day with the rest of the world. PAS decided to enter the conversation and rile up women everywhere in one go when the information chief for its Ulama Council, Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali, said the family institution should be “restored” by allowing women to “perform their true function at home as wives and mothers.”
Hackles were raised. Syerleena Abdul Rashid of DAP condemned Khairuddin for his “mean-spirited” misogyny. “The fact that such a suggestion was made on International Women’s Day is mean-spirited and disrespectful to every woman,” she said. She went on to say that Khairuddin’s comment showed the seeping of patriarchal values into Malaysian society. “Such opinions have become somewhat accepted,” she lamented.
Khairuddin’s comment on the place of women is only the tip of the iceberg. Malaysian readers should be well familiar with news of parochial-minded sexism. In December, Khairuddin suggested marriage as the “best solution provided by Islam” to the problem of rape. This was seen as another attempt to place women where they apparently belong.
Opposition politicians tried but failed to censure Kinabatangan MP Bung Mokhtar Radin last year for his comments on Ampang PKR MP Zuraida Kamaruddin. He said he “pitied” her husband for having such an aggressive wife. The Malay Mail’s Boo Su-Lyn summed up Bung Mokthar’s situation perfectly: “Can’t fight a woman’s arguments? Accuse her of being unfeminine instead.”
That’s just in the political sphere. Last June, a gold medal at the SEA Games could not keep Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi from being hammered online for exposing her aurat and the “shape of her vagina” through her leotard. In September, 18-year-old Hajar Nur Asyiqin Abdul Zubir’s winning of a prestigious Bank Negara Malaysia scholarship was marred when other Muslims criticised her online for not wearing a tudung.
These cases, as do many others, reveal – to borrow a much-used feminist expression – the entrenched patriarchy within Malaysian culture. Patriarchal, male-centric attitudes are very much a part of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures. Readers should be well aware of the woman’s traditional and cultural place in the family, which people like Khairuddin cannot seem to forget. Criticism of these attitudes is well and present. Women politicians and women’s rights activists usually lose no time in hammering the people involved. However, there seems to be a problem with the Malaysian feminist conversation and its representation in the media.
In November, Batu Kawan MP Kasthuri Patto denounced three male MPs for linking women’s “sexy” clothing to adultery. Zuraida Kamaruddin criticised Bung Mokhtar for his “aggressive” comment.
Boo Su-Lyn’s discussions on feminism largely focus on gender discrimination in politics and business. The same goes for arguments by people like Marina Mahathir and Ivy Josiah.
There is very little representation of the cultural perspective. In a multicultural country like Malaysia, that’s more than a little short sighted.
Many of the arguments made today are focused on government and corporate roles in effecting change. But for the conversation to move beyond debates on gender equality, there needs to be an increased recognition of our cultural roots. Ill-thought as their comments may be, Bung Mokhtar and his ilk are products of their times, and of the traditional roots that some parts of our society still hold strongly to.
These people should be roasted in the public media. Perhaps, though, it’s time to focus on the roots. If their sexism is borne out of tradition and parochial religious views, then it’s time we aggressively attack tradition and parochial religious views. It’s dangerous, especially given how powerful religion is in this country, but it would certainly be a step forward.