Sunday 7 October 2012

The women's room in Malaysia

  • S Thayaparan
  • 9:46AM Oct 7, 2012
"Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men." - Joseph Conrad

COMMENT Prime Minister Najib Razak believes that men are an endangered species because of the "success" of women in Malaysia. He also believes that Malaysian women are "different" from the rest of the women on Earth.

He didn't say how they were different just alluded to ‘his' fact that this difference was based on his premise that ‘they' were better off in terms of equality than their sisters in the rest of the world.

I find it funny that Perkasa's big cheese Ibrahim Ali is on the endangered species list. So, it's not the non-Malays, who are a threat to his survival, it is women. How queer.

If I was a women, I'd be pretty concerned that the women, family and community development minister, who happens to be a man and apparently the most powerful one in Malaysia (or should I say Peninsular Malaysia, since Abdul Taib Mahmud, is still lurking about in Sarawak) thinks that Malaysia has no need of a women's movement.

NONESo what exactly is the role of his ministry? Or as PKR leader Latheefa Koya (right) put it: "His is displaying his utter contempt for women's empowerment. It is unbecoming of a minister holding the women's development portfolio to have such a view."

Pointing to the reality that women make up 50-60 percent of tertiary student population, he went on to say, "It's a waste as we spend a lot of money sending women to university but they quit their jobs later. We want them to have families and still work."

Case of a pregnant teacher

That's right, Mr Prime Minister, the reason why women make up only 40 percent of the workforce is because they quit their jobs after they start a family.

This, of course, would be news to Noorfadilla Ahmad Saikin who won her gender discrimination case against the Education Ministry who withdrew her job as a temporary teacher because she was pregnant.

Speaking at the launch of a report entitled ‘Cedaw and Malaysia: Malaysian Non-Government Organisations' Alternative Report Assessing the Government's Progress in Implementing the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw)', she said, "An officer asked any pregnant recruits to step forward... I was asked to hand over my job placement letter, and told that pregnant women couldn't be employed as temporary teachers."

Apparently Najib is mistaken, even before they start a family, women in Malaysia face the kind of discrimination that supposedly doesn't exist in Malaysia because women were "given" equality from the start.

NONE"I hope no other woman has to face this type of gender discrimination. This incident was a real eye-opener on gender equality," Noorfadilla (left) said, but the fight is not over for her or any other women because the government is appealing this decision.

The appeal of this decision is strange because according to Najib, "All companies and departments should have creches and I believe the chief secretary can issue a directive on this."

Perhaps his "belief" should be translated to action, but then again Umno believes many things which conflict with reality.

Cedaw reports long overdue

The High Court's judgment in the Noorfadilla case is particularly important because it affirmed the binding nature of the above mentioned Cedaw. However the Cedaw reality in Malaysia is precarious for a variety of reasons.

Instead of indulging in a litany of case studies about the level of discrimination faced by women in this country and taking potshots at Umno, which is like shooting fish in a barrel, readers interested in the nature of Cedaw and on the status of that particular UN convention here in Malaysia, should read an alternative report compiled by various NGOs at the Women's Aid Organisation website.

Readers would have to make do with an alternative report (which is a good thing) because as Shanthi Dairiam, a former Cedaw committee member explained at the launch, "Globally Cedaw has the least number of overdue reports as compared to other treaties, but Malaysia stands out as going against that trend in fulfilling its reporting obligations. It now owes three reports: the third, fourth and fifth."

cedaw shadow report briefing 050506 NGOsAs a stark contrast to Najib's belief that Malaysia is some kind of gender Utopia, the words of lead writer of the alternative report, Sarah Thwaites (a programme officer at Women's Aid Organisation) should be considered.

She said, "There seems to be a lack of political will to fully implement Cedaw. Unfortunately, this means that discrimination based on gender is alive and well in Malaysia." Obviously Thwaites is not of the opinion that men are an endangered species here in Malaysia.

Of course, in the course of ratifying any international conventions there are bound to be objections to specific clauses in said conventions by member countries.

In the case of Cedaw, Malaysia objected to three specific clauses in Article 16 (States parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:) because of the dual legal system governing Muslims and non-Muslims in this country.

Key problematic issues

I'll reproduce the ‘key issues' of the Article 16 chapter to give readers an idea of the complex issue involved in this section.
  • A dual legal system.
  • Women and men in Malaysia do not share the same rights in marriage.
  • Child marriage is still legally permitted in Malaysia.
  • Muslim children born within six months of the date of marriage are considered ‘illegitimate'.
I urge readers to read the alternative report to familiarise themselves with the issues faced by a certain segment of the Malaysian public and I hope they come away from this understanding that these issues affect us all.

This particular source merely gives an overview in a very specific context (with regards to the legal system) but it should by no means be the end of the ‘education' when it comes to the discrimination faced by certain Malaysians based solely on their gender in this country.

Of course, Pakatan Rakyat just throwing money at the situation (for too long women have had to put with the idea that they are viewed as objects with a monetary value tacked on when convenient) and proudly proclaiming that they value women "10 times more than BN" (sic) does not inspire confidence in how the opposition would handle the complex cultural issues that impede the progress of women in this country.

NONEThis is ironic because Pakatan has many capable women leaders who far outshine their male counterparts when it comes to their commitment to dealing with the vital issues that affect this country.

What Pakatan should be doing is ensuring that NGOs dealing with "women's issues" who for far too long have be consigned to margins be brought in from the cold and these so-called "women issues" be folded into the greater Pakatan philosophy so it becomes like any other of their hot-button issues, matter of "great concern".

Behind Najib's rather facile comment are issues which would have a great impact on this country and if we don't start viewing them as such, we will end up going nowhere or worse convincing ourselves that superficial changes are enough to repair the damage that the long Umno watch has wrought.

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