Women’s empowerment materialises when we are permitted to envision the alternative and confront the powers that deny us our autonomy, says Syerleena Abdul Rashid.
There is something quite intimidating about politics that seems to deter a lot of capable Malaysian women from getting involved.
Generally speaking, women are more vulnerable to attacks, smear campaigns and negative stereotypes as Malaysian society is still somewhat receptive towards patriarchal institutions and social relations. As a result, women are often regarded as inferior and worthy of only complementing the masculine form.
Our Asian cultural values consent to a system that often regards men as the ‘protector’ of society and family – which itself can sometimes be difficult to challenge although social reforms that are consistent and relevant to modern society are not entirely impossible.
2015 will present Malaysians with a chance to improve our nation’s standing in terms of women empowerment and advancing gender-balanced policies. Supporting women’s rights is definitely a long-term agenda that demands thorough analysis, responsiveness and ambition as well as robust strategies that can strengthen progression while engaging all levels of society.
Of course, empowerment can mean many things – power, participation, ability, autonomy, decision and freedom – but core fundamental values such as dignity, integrity, respect and self-esteem are highly respected and accepted by everyone.
Our problem exists merely because of deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs, which have permeated our society and political structure. The system we live in gives priority to men and has seemingly limited women’s rights in our country.
Ironically, though, Article 8 of our Federal Constitution guarantees that “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law” and further states that “there shall be no discrimination against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender in any law or in the appointment to any office or employment under a public authority or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.” Malaysians have witnessed numerous incidences that seemingly violate what is enshrined in the constitution.
American researchers carried out a study to ascertain the perception of young girls regarding politics and gender discrimination. Results showed that many were aware of how misogynistic the political climate could be while observing that female politicians faced more difficulties than men. Additionally, the young girls perceived that female politicians were also subjected to biased treatment and sexual harassment while men were free from such treatment. This proves that society embeds negative beliefs and gender discrimination into the minds of our young children.
Talented and promising young women are often discouraged from taking on leadership roles; those who do are often prevented from making references that focus on gender inequalities to avoid perpetuating negative gender stereotypes. Simone de Beauvoir once said, “Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority.”
A feminist or an advocator of women’s rights is usually given a negative label that is spiritually emasculating and obtuse. But how else can you battle injustice if women continue to remain silent?
To change this, it is necessary for Malaysians to understand the system that wants nothing more than to maintain women as mere subordinates. We need to unravel the machinery, bit by bit, in a systematic manner. Understand that patriarchy creates barriers which prevent women from progressing in society and that this itself contradicts the modern, just world in which we live.
Effectively altering public perception of gender roles can be done through various ways. Start by creating neutral spaces where communities, especially women, can address issues such as sexual violence without worry of being mocked or judged. Promote politically correct terms that are not gender biased (ie. chairperson instead of chairman). And of course, create equal opportunities for both men and women in the workforce (ie. remuneration based on merit not gender).
Establishing a gender quota is definitely a good step in levelling the gender imbalance in politics but the struggle should not just end there. There is still an urgent need to develop national clarity – a tangible blueprint on how we can challenge and purge gender discrimination.
Patriarchy simply destroys our ability to empathise and connect with one another as it warps humanity in a way that is antithetical. There needs to be a “collective responsibility” to counter this; change requires personal, interpersonal and communal deliverance.
Women’s empowerment materialises when we are permitted to envision the alternative and confront the powers that deny us our autonomy. But until then, the sobering truth still remains and Malaysian women will continue to be denied our greater potential.