Reimagining the narrative: Upholding equality for Malaysian women

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By Ameena Siddiqi

Malaysia is a country that prides itself on its diversity, development and democracy. Yet, when it comes to the rights and opportunities for its women, it falls woefully short.

Malaysian women are expected to be superwomen, juggling multiple roles and navigating a labyrinth of expectations while contending with systemic discrimination, injustices and even violence.

A Malaysian woman must be polite, soft-spoken, and obedient to her husband and elders. She must also be a successful career woman, contributing to the household income and national economy.

She bears children and raises them with care and devotion while she manages household chores, cooks delicious meals and caters to her husband’s needs. She must do all this without complaining, asking for help or expecting any recognition or reward.

But even if she does all this, she is not safe or secure, she can be abandoned by her husband, who can easily take a second, third wife or even fourth wife, without her consent or knowledge.

She can be dragged to the Sharia court, where she will face a long and arduous battle for her rights and dignity. Here, she can be denied child support, alimony, or inheritance. Though recently men insist that Sharia courts are in jeopardy, the truth is – it is the men who do not in fact respect the judgments meted out by these very courts they want to uphold.

A woman can also be harassed, abused or raped as marital rape remains unrecognised by law and be blamed for provoking or inviting it. She can be silenced, shamed or punished for speaking out or standing up for herself.

In contrast, Malaysian men enjoy privileges within this patriarchal system. They benefit from the labour of their wives, maintain authority within the household and evade accountability for actions that would be deemed unjust or immoral if committed by their female counterparts. They can do all this because they are men and have the law, religion and culture on their side.

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This is the reality of a patriarchal society, where women are treated as second-class citizens, and men are given the privilege and power to control and exploit them. This is the result of a misplaced ego and value system that is reinforced by misguided religious beliefs and interpretations.

The obstacle to a truly progressive and prosperous Malaysia is obvious.

Nationality laws

One of the most glaring examples of this inequality is the nationality law, that denies Malaysian women the right to pass their citizenship to their children born abroad, while granting this right to Malaysian men.

This law affects thousands of families who face difficulties in accessing education, healthcare and social services for their children. It also exposes them to the risk of statelessness, which can have devastating consequences for their human rights and dignity.

The High Court ruled in August 2021 that this law was unconstitutional, and that Malaysian mothers have equal rights to pass their citizenship to their overseas-born children.

However, the government appealed this decision, and the Court of Appeal overturned it a year later. The case is now pending at the Federal Court, where the fate of these families hangs in the balance.

Law and amendments

The Malaysian government has proposed amendments to the Federal Constitution that will grant Malaysian mothers equal rights to confer automatic citizenship on their overseas-born children, just like Malaysian fathers.

This change is intended to address the long-standing issue of children born overseas to Malaysian mothers and non-Malaysian fathers, enabling them to become Malaysian citizens by operation of law, meaning automatically without having to apply to be one personally.

However, this proposal comes with constitutional regressive amendments which will worsen statelessness for others, particularly affecting abandoned children, foundlings, vulnerable children and children born to permanent residents of the country.

Therefore, to pass this law, the majority of our decision-makers in Parliament, who are men, have decided to introduce these five regressive amendments –  which potentially infringe on the rights of other children and individuals who are in a vulnerable state.

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This law is not only discriminatory and unjust but also outdated and illogical. It contradicts the spirit and the letter of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees equality and non-discrimination for all citizens.

The regressive amendments totally befuddle the rational mind of any human being with a shred of integrity.

It also goes against the international conventions and norms that Malaysia has ratified or endorsed, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Cedaw) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both in 1995.

Malaysia is one of only 28 countries in the world that still prevent women from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis with men. This is a shameful and embarrassing statistic for a country that claims to be a leader and a model in the region and world.

It is also a hindrance and a liability for a country that aims to achieve a high-income and a high-impact status by harnessing the talents and potentials of its people.

Political arena

The proportion of seats held by women in Parliament in Malaysia declined to 13.6% in 2022, from 14.4% in 2018. This is far below the global average of 25.5%, and the regional average of 20.6%.

This is also a regression and disappointment for a country that had a historic change of government in 2018 and a promise of a new and better Malaysia.

Participation in workforce

The low representation of women in politics reflects low participation of women in decision-making and leadership positions in other sectors and spheres of society.

It also affects the quality and effectiveness of policies and programmes designed and implemented for the benefit and the welfare of the people, especially women and children.

The Department of Statistics’s recent data reveals that the female labour force participation rate stood at a mere 56.2% in the second quarter of 2023 compared to the 82.8% male labour force participation rate, demonstrating the gender disparity within the Malaysian workforce.

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Malaysian women deserve better. They deserve to be treated as equal and respected partners – not as inferior and subordinate dependents, to have a voice and a choice, not to be silenced and suppressed.

Their demands are not extravagant; they merely seek justice, fairness and acknowledgment of their invaluable contributions to Malaysian society.

Malaysian women are not asking for superhuman feats; they simply seek to reclaim their rightful place as equal citizens in a fair and inclusive nation.

Malaysian women are human beings; they have needs and wants, dreams and hopes, feelings and emotions. They are not perfect, and they do not expect perfection. They are not asking for too much but are asking for what is theirs rightfully and are willing to fight for it.

Women are the backbone and heartbeat of the nation. They are the mothers and daughters, sisters and wives, friends and colleagues, leaders and followers in society and the economy.

Women are past, present, future and the legacy of Malaysian history and identity.

It is time to dismantle the barriers that hinder Malaysian women from realising their full potential – therefore, to end the cycle of discrimination, injustice and oppression. It is time to build a Malaysia where every individual, regardless of gender, can thrive and contribute to the nation’s progress.

To achieve this vision of equality, Malaysia must undertake legal reforms, increase women’s political participation, raise awareness about gender equality, ensure access to justice for survivors of violence, promote women’s economic empowerment, engage men and boys as allies, and leverage international cooperation and partnerships.

By taking concerted action at all levels of society, Malaysia can work towards creating a fair, inclusive and prosperous nation where women’s rights are upheld and their contributions valued and respected.

Ameena Siddiqi is a media and publishing professional with over 20 years of experience.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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