By tan beng hui
Ask anyone on the street if women here should be allowed to go to the polls and vote, and the answer to this is likely to be ‘yes’. In fact, the question could possibly be greeted with astonished looks, as few will remember a time when women did not have the right to vote.
Granted, in Malaysia we skipped this stage as by the time we gained Independence and universal enfranchisement from the British, suffrage movements in other parts of the world had already established this precedent for women.
Most people here will therefore be relatively oblivious to the fact that there was a time when the right to vote did not come easily for women, even in what some consider as advanced nations today.
The suffragettes – as those involved in this campaign were then known – engaged all kinds of means to achieve their goal. Fierce battles were fought and many women ended up fined or incarcerated. When large numbers of those in the UK landed in jail and protested by refusing to eat, they were force-fed.
Fast forward to Selangor and its menteri besar crisis today. At a glance, the questions around the appropriateness of Wan Azizah Wan Ismail’s nomination for this post by Pakatan Rakyat appear far removed from what took place at the turn of the last century.
However, if we tease out all the political conniving – which is not unique to this case – we may come to see how the quest to win women the right to vote and the quest for Wan Azizah to become head of the Selangor state government, are not so dissimilar.
Both have to do with ensuring that women can freely participate at all levels of political and public life. Understood this way, the question ‘why do we allow women to pick governments through the ballot box but deny them the right to be heads of states?’ may bear greater meaning.
Numerous reasons have been given as to why Wan Azizah is not suitable MB material. And some have adopted the posture that this has nothing to do with her being a woman.
Even so, evidence will show that in this country, a woman’s path to political leadership is littered with obstacles. Statistics clearly bring home this point.
After over 50 years as a nation, and despite their consistent and critical role in canvassing votes and helping their parties to win elections, women form only 10.4 percent of the Dewan Rakyat (Lower House of Parliament). In cabinet – the body that essentially decides on national matters – only two out of 35 ministers (i.e. 5.7 percent) are women.
In short, even if we are told that there is no bias against Wan Azizah because of her gender, the reality tells us otherwise – that the way the political system is currently organised itself does not encourage women to become political leaders, what more heads of governments.
Others have been quick to point out that she has only been nominated because she is opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s wife. Worse, they assume that she will become a ‘remote-controlled’ MB. There are no legitimate reasons given to justify these accusations, only condescending assumptions that as a ‘wife’, she has lost any capacity for agency and independent decision-making, and can only function if controlled by someone else.
These detractors forget that this is a woman who was elected as a state assemblyperson, and not someone her constituents would have imagined to be so easily manipulable when they voted her in to represent their interests. They also forget that she is the same person who led PKR for many years while Anwar was imprisoned. Few complained then that she was incapable and that the party would fall apart under her stewardship.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the Selangor crisis. But the one message that supporters of gender equality need to take home is this: after more than a hundred years, the same ideas which made it so hard for women to have the right to vote, continue to persist today. These insist that women’s place is at home, not out in public, and worse, perpetuates the belief that women are inferior to and worth much less than men.
Perhaps we only need to wait a little longer for this situation to rectify itself. After all, if tertiary qualifications count, more and more Malaysian women are better qualified than men today. Eventually, they will have to take over jobs now reserved for the boys.
Meanwhile, the political playing field for women remains far from level and to say otherwise would be dishonest. More importantly, if Wan Azizah is denied this historic opportunity – because of ‘politics’ and its many (in)visible hands – it would set a bad precedent, one whose repercussions may take a long time to undo and further entrench the values that keep women out of political office.
Source – MalaysiaKini