On 8 March, many parts of the world will mark International Women’s Day.
This year’s theme is #BreakTheBias. The campaign website says:
“Imagine a gender equal world.
A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.
A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
A world where difference is valued and celebrated.
Together we can forge women’s equality.
Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias.”
It’s a lot to imagine. But imagine we must if we are to set goals in the quest for a more inclusive society. Equally important are concrete actions accompanying these goals that could result in real change on the ground for women’s lives.
So how will we mark International Women’s Day, or IWD for short, in Malaysia? What milestones will we be celebrating for women in Malaysia this year?
A recent milestone was a High Court decision in September 2021 to allow Malaysian mothers who married foreigners to automatically pass their Malaysian citizenship to their children born overseas – a right already in place for Malaysian fathers married to foreigners. What a joyous day that was!
In early December 2021, the government reiterated its intention to propose a constitutional amendment to allow Malaysian mothers with foreign partners to confer citizenship on their children born overseas and to get the proposal approved by the Conference of Rulers before the constitutional amendment is tabled.
Things were looking up.
But then, we saw the federal government apply to stay a High Court ruling – a move which the Court of Appeal dismissed in December 2021.
On 23 March, the Court of Appeal will hear the federal government’s appeal against the High Court ruling.
So, while we celebrate the outcome of the High Court decision, things are still not smooth sailing for women on the ground. There is apparently still a lack of procedural clarity among National Registration Department branches and embassies or high commissions.
One has to ask why there is such resistance from our government.
Remember, Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender.
That’s not all. In 1995, the government ratified the UN Convention on The Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (Cedaw), albeit with some reservations.
And now Malaysia holds a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. To support its candidature for the 2022-24 term, the government had vowed to “strengthen efforts to achieve gender equality, women empowerment and eliminate violence against women”.
What happened? Could it be that patriarchy rules supreme, cleverly (or not so cleverly) camouflaged in culture and/or religious interpretation and in the implementation of administrative tasks? Is something else also at play?
Clearly, the battle is far from over.
As we mark IWD and envisage a more inclusive future for all, let’s recognise the courage of women who continue to struggle for justice and rights.
Let’s hold in our thoughts Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Raymond Koh, and Norhayati Mohd Ariffin, the wife of Amri Che Mat, and their families.
The Suhakam 2019 report on its public inquiry into the disappearances of both these men had concluded that enforced disappearance had taken place.
However, the Malaysian government has refused to release a special taskforce report on the disappearances of both these men, classifying it as ‘secret’ under the Official Secrets Act 1972. Apparently, the public release of this report would be against the ‘national interest’.
Susanna is currently suing the government and 12 other defendants (including the current and former inspectors general of police) to compel them to identify and reveal her husband’s whereabouts.
While attempts are being made to make the police force accountable, spare a thought for the wives and families of all the men who have died – and continue to die – in custody in our police cells, immigration centres and prisons. This year alone already 10 men have died in police custody in just two months.
Are the lives of these people not worthy of care? How many more women and their families will suffer as their spouses, siblings or sons or family members die in custody? When and where will their voices be heard?
On this IWD, let’s remember the determination that M Indira Gandhi displayed in her successful legal challenge against the unilateral conversion of her three children. The Federal Court’s landmark decision in 2018 made it clear that the conversion of minors to Islam requires the consent of both parents.
Indira’s struggle, however, continues as she has not yet been reunited with her ‘stolen’ daughter, Prasana Diksa, after over 12 years. The courageous mother has embarked on a legal suit (ie a nonfeasance lawsuit) against the police, the home ministry and the government.
Let’s also remember the persistence of domestic violence victim Loh Siew Hong as she journeyed to be reunited with her three children after a three-year separation. She may now embark on a judicial review of the unilateral conversions of her three children if indeed they took place, allegedly in her absence and without her permission.
On this IWD, while recognising the bravery of women speaking out against injustices the world over, let’s also remember women who have spoken truth to power in Malaysia but now face lawsuits.
We think of 17-year-old Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who spoke out against inappropriate comments on rape in her school.
Then there’s Lalita Kunaratnam, who raised allegations of possible conflict of interest involving the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission chief.
Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil has been targeted for speaking out about logging activities, environment impact assessments and the protection of the forests.
It is not the first time that what can be seen as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) have been used against human rights defenders or activists. SLAPPs are intimidatory and will ultimately affect the freedom of opinion and expression, and other human rights and fundamental freedoms.
On this IWD, while period poverty in the country has finally come to light, let’s not forget the ongoing struggle for access to reproductive health and rights that so many women continue to face. Let’s hold in our thoughts the 15-year-old teenager currently charged with the murder of her newborn and held in remand in Terengganu.
While we may be understandably aghast at the turn of events and the loss of life, think too about the circumstances which make it incredibly difficult for pregnant, unmarried young girls or women to get the help they need. With feelings of fear, humiliation and shame, the chances of rational thought and action become more remote.
On this IWD, while noting the 2022 Budget’s specific allocation for women’s safety, let’s think about all the women who continue to suffer sexual and domestic violence.
It is important for our government to take a clear stand against any form of violence against women. There cannot be any normalising of violence against women in the home or elsewhere.
There must be a push for women’s empowerment and not a promotion of women’s subservience. It was a dangerous day for women in the country when the leadership in the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development showed a lack of comprehension of this very important issue.
With this type of thinking at the helm, it would seem that only a change in leadership will ensure that gender equality and women’s rights will be better respected and prioritised.
The pursuit of women’s rights as part of the quest for gender equality is a serious and relentless pursuit.
Do not be fooled by images of smiling, ultra-feminised women speaking in (or not) ‘Doraemon’ voices.
Do not be taken in by advice on ensuring a harmonious family life if it requires a wife’s subservience to her husband.
Do not get distracted with the use of soft tones or images in pretty pink or pastel colours.
And do not for a moment think that the use of ‘gender terminology’ (ie gender equality, gender mainstreaming, gender responsive budgeting and so on) in official reports or speeches means that there is an actual comprehension of these terms or real commitment to their implementation.
Hullo? Wake up! The pursuit of women’s rights is a hard and gruelling road, especially for the vulnerable and marginalised in society.
And the road to gender equality? Well, it remains an uphill struggle.
Each IWD marks the journey we take towards the goal of gender equality.
We have to keep imagining and believing in a just and inclusive future for all. We have made some progress, and this should be cherished and nurtured.
But we still have a long journey ahead and, like it or not, we will face setbacks. In our country, these will almost certainly be connected to patriarchy, neoliberal policies, the politicisation of religion and ethnicity, rampant corruption, poverty, and poor leadership and incompetency.
As we mark IWD this year, we must have vision and faith that a better future is possible – and we must be willing to work for it.
Happy International Women’s Day. Dare to dream. Dare to believe. #BreaktheBiasPrema Devaraj
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
28 February 2022