Like the US, we need a symbolic win, too

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The praxis of equality is often elusive, as evident in political speeches that are full of ‘buts, says Nicholas Chan.

The landmark decision by the Supreme Court has settled the issue once and for all. All 50 states of the United States can no longer deny same-sex couples from marrying and must recognise their union.

While heavily celebrated by its hardworking advocates, some would say the victory is merely symbolic. Just like a river running its course.

Some would tend to think that because at the eve of the court decision, 37 states of the US had already recognised the legitimacy of same-sex marriages. Coupled that with rising approval among the American populace, which increased dramatically from less than 40% in 1996 to close to 60% in 2014 (according to the Economist­­), one can be excused to think that sooner or later, nationwide recognition will happen. It is already one of the changing norms of the Western world.

However, to have a symbolic win is still very important, more so for an infant nation like Malaysia. But let me first be clear that I am not talking about same-sex marriages in Malaysia. Most would agree it is not a discourse we can handle now.

I recall a discussion some time ago where someone lamented that marital rape is still not being legislated as a crime in Malaysia. An activist then offered her consolation by saying that while it is a setback, we still have the Section 375A of the Penal Code, which dictates that it is a crime when a husband causes hurt or fear of death in order to have sexual intercourse with the wife.

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But there is a difference in that. First, the language of the act implies that only when significant hurt or emotional trauma is caused for sex to happen between husband and wife is it then considered a crime.

Second, there is an exception clause in Section 375 that explicitly says that sexual intercourse by a man with his wife is not considered rape.

In other words, while violence is prohibited, the concept of rape within marriage is still invalidated. We should not underestimate the effect of the law as it has manifold impacts on the mindset of society.

To start, without a clear outlawing of marital rape, members of society – a significant portion of them, I would argue – would internalise the idea that sex is a given in a marriage. They would think that to consent to marriage is actually to consent to sex, when in fact they can be two different things.

Among the consequences of it is to see so many young couples getting married (or married off by their parents) in order to have sex. A supposedly multivariate relationship is stripped to its bare until only sex is left.

I hope their sex is good enough to keep the marriage going, but the fact is that a lot of these youth marriages break down later. Parenthood, for example, also a consequence of sex, is something these unprepared couples cannot face.

Not only that, the lack of consideration of consent in a marriage also makes it an unhappy one, be it about sex or not; be it husband or wife.

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To not challenge the mindset implies we allow our form of rampant patriarchalism to run loose, and to not offer equal protection to the husbands means we effectively have people who can’t call for help.

Contrary to popular belief, patriarchy also victimises men, especially those suffering from sexual violence from their spouses. If a man is expected to hold sway in a marriage (tacitly so, even by the law), how can he ever voice out that he is being ‘violated’ by his wife?

That is why we should not underestimate the power of these symbolic victories.

While I understand some would question if the ruling spells the beginning of hegemony of marriage over other form of relationships (if it is not so already), the court decision, together with the repeal of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, also sends a clear powerful message of equality. There can no longer be any grounds for discrimination based on sexual preference in the United States.

It would take a while for the reality to actually live by those ideals. But to actualise it with a credible affirmation would make the transition easier as compared to not having it.

Coming back to Malaysia, where discrimination is not actually outlawed (despite having some constitutional safeguards that are interpreted and reinterpreted to suit multiple agendas) but practised on a discursive, policy and day-to-day operational level, you can see the praxis of equality is often elusive.

One good example is to see how our political speeches are full of “buts”.

But other religions can practise in peace and harmony. But minority rights will be guaranteed. But the interests of bumiputeras will not be sidelined. Women’s priority must be the homemaker role, but they should be allowed to pursue their career interests.

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“But” doesn’t sound like equality to me. It actually carries the latent meaning of exceptions to equality. It also implies that we are not very attuned to thinking inclusively.

Anyway, what equality is there when the entire discourse around the “sarong” incident clearly reeks of classist and religious chauvinist presuppositions?

That is why we need to have that symbolic win. If not you would have authorities telling you that marital rape is like the Loch Ness monster: it does not exist.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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