While efforts to raise women’s participation in the labour force are commendable, we should not limit their roles to certain types of work, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
Women, like their male counterparts, clearly have a significant role to play to contribute collectively to the progress, prosperity and harmony of Malaysian society.
And over the years, they have made great strides in some of the major sectors of society, including professions.
But there is obviously still a lot to be done – as in certain sectors, the stipulated 30% quota (if not more) for women has not yet been accomplished.
The recent call by Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin for more women to join the Fire and Rescue Department is in the right direction.
However, she runs the risk of ‘essentialising’ women and thus, limiting them to certain categories of work when she reportedly said some duties are more suitably handled by women, such as “counselling as well as training housewives how to avoid fires”.
These roles can also serve as stereotypes that would provide flimsy grounds for some men to exercise discrimination against women who want to move up the professional ladder, especially in a society where elements of patriarchy are still intact.
While women may have the capacity to do well in such prescribed roles, they should also be encouraged to reach for the sky, so to speak.
Women in other sectors of the economy have shown that they have the mettle and moral fibre to perform professionally well and elegantly. Many have become successful bankers, judges, scientists, social activists, journalists, academics and politicians, to name a few – something which Malaysia can be proud of. Their contributions to the country are certainly commendable.
To take a recent example: National Audit Department director Nor Salwani Muhammad has shown to the world that a woman can also be professional, principled and courageous while discharging her duties.
She was aware that the weight of the entire state machinery could come down on her if she was found out to have made an “illicit” audio recording of top officials working to remove portions of the original 1Malaysia Development Bhd audit report. And yet, she persisted to do what she thought was the right thing to do.
Nor Salwani knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff; she had an ability to distinguish – which is vital for women as well as men in nation-building.
The enormous contribution that women can make towards our society should, however, not be lost on politicians and government officials who lead the seven state governments that refuse to increase the minimum marriage age to 18 – namely Sarawak, Pahang, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Perlis and Negri Sembilan.
To be sure, child marriage robs young girls of the opportunity to tap their potential in the latter stage of their lives. This cultural practice may help perpetuate the stereotype of women as only good at being child bearers and homemakers.
And consequently, the nation is all the poorer as it is deprived of many useful and rich talents. This is apart from the adverse effect of child marriage on the health and mental development of young girls.
In the effort to increase women’s participation in the productive sectors of society, it is also crucial that the state provides the necessary support system in the form of, say, childcare centres and nurseries to enable mothers to work efficiently and effectively at their workplaces.
Despite the existing odds, Malaysian women in general are poised to break the glass ceiling.