By Vee Nis Ling, Malaysia.
It’s easy, as a teenager raised in the city, to say: “You know what? The world is an okay place for women. Feminism doesn’t seem so important.”
But there are women out there whose eyes will never see this post and girls who wouldn’t be able to read it even if it were shown to them – and they are the ones we have left behind. They are the people we fail when we say: “The world is okay.” Because it isn’t. Living in Malaysia, these are just some of the obstacles to gender equality that I see every day:
The BBC released a 2017 documentary about child marriage in the United States. The Swedish government told women and girls who suspect they may be taken abroad for forced marriage to hide spoons in their underwear.
For girls in Malaysia, these sound like fairy tales.
A loophole in Malaysian law allows girls under sixteen to enter marriage with written permission from the Syariah Court “under certain circumstances”. When news came out about an eleven-year-old girl married to a forty-year-old man, I was sad and angry, but not surprised.
The worse part? The man was charged with polygamy and marriage without permission, but not child marriage. He got off with a fine of just 1800 MYR (440 USD).
The worst part? The recently elected Deputy Prime Minister, a woman herself, said it was legal.
And this is but the tip of the iceberg: The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development found that there had been 15,000 cases of child marriage in the past ten years. Malaysia is not alone: over 100,000 Indonesian girls were married before the age of 15, child marriage rates in Laos stand at 35%, and at 19% in Cambodia.
Underrepresentation of Non-Cis Male Individuals
In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduced a perfectly gender-balanced cabinet (the stuff of dreams). Although Malaysia recently (finally!) elected a new party and our first female Deputy Prime Minister, the state of female representation in our cabinet is not ideal:
This despite the ruling party promising in their manifesto to ensure at least 30% female participation in the cabinet. Women’s rights groups and activists have reminded the government of their guarantee (see here and here) but to no avail.
This problem extends further than politics: it’s present in the boardroom too. Data from Bursa Malaysia show women making up only 10.3% of board-level positions. Though women make up the majority in most institutions of higher learning, this representation disappears once they enter the workforce, with female participation in decision-making roles consistently below 40%.
I could name so many other sectors where cis males continue to dominate positions of power: STEM work, law, medicine… the list goes on. (They’re paid more, too). But the bottom line is, we need to do better. If we can have quotas for racial representation, why not for gender as well?
Deep-Seated Gender Stereotypes
It can be easy to assume that these problems are confined to rural areas, where social attitudes on women’s rights are still stuck in the 16th century. But they aren’t.
I studied in a girls’ school, one of the highest-performing in my state. And you would think that in an environment so full of high-achieving girls and women (a good 80% of our teachers were female), stereotypes would be non-existent. At the least, they would probably be less present than in co-educational schools. But this was never the case.
It was heartbreaking to witness my schoolmate, one of the most brilliant people I know, say to herself at national Physics Olympiad selections: “Maybe guys really just are better at this.” She was one of the top thirty students in the nation, chosen from a good 100,000 – but society had told her for far too long that she would never be enough. So much so that she herself started believing it.
It was insanely frustrating to hear my Chemistry teacher, the head of her department, tell us: “Girls, don’t go into chemical engineering. That’s a job for men.” How could someone so successful and so self-assured – in every other area of life – utter those words?
I left that class furious. But looking back now, I can’t be anything but disappointed. Knowing that I am one of a lucky minority who has it relatively easy just pains me even more.
It’s all too easy to oversimplify feminism. But feminism needs to be intersectional – and to do that, it needs to be inclusive.
Many women and non-binary individuals who also belong to the LGBTQ+ community face even more structural barriers to happiness and self-actualization. Just ask Nisha Ayub – a portrait of her, scheduled to be on display at an arts festival, had to be removed simply because of her status as a trans woman and LGBTQ+ activist. Or ask these women, who were sentenced to six lashings of the cane each because they were found “guilty” of gay sex.
That’s not all: The Ministry of Health has perpetuated ideas that LGBTQ+ identities are “dysphorias” that need to be “prevented and controlled”. Despite having drawn repeated condemnation from Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Embassy, and local human rights groups, the government has shown no sign of letting up.
It’s ridiculous, frankly, that when Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, a national gymnast, represented her country at the Southeast Asian Games, the first thing some people decided to take issue with was her attire. Even more ridiculous is the fact that they had the audacity to tell her to “cover up” and “dress decently”.
Never mind that she won two gold medals and six in total. Never mind that gymnastics leotards are tight as a safety measure to prevent athletes from tripping on loose clothing. All that mattered to critics was the fact that Farah was Muslim.
It would be nice if I could say Farah’s case was a disgraceful one-off that should never happen again. But it is, sadly, only a small part of a much larger picture. Religious officials in Malaysia have raided homes without warrants, shut down concerts at the last minute, and tried to introduce national-level dress codes for Muslim women. The fact that religion continues to be used as a crutch to criticise and control women’s’ behaviour is absolutely disgusting, and it needs to stop.
A Broken Education System
About 96% of Malaysia’s school-age children, both boys and girls, are enrolled in national education institutions. That’s great news! But this statistic conceals the fact that the Malaysian education system is inefficient in ways that expose students to sexual harassment and assault.
I spent a year in English class wanting nothing more than to be able to just leave. The teacher would routinely comment on my classmates’ bodies or make suggestive remarks – and no one knew how to respond. We tried lodging a complaint with the school administration, only to be told that parents had complained before: the school had asked for that teacher to be transferred, but the Ministry of Education just never took action.
In fact, because of that incident, I learned another painful truth: teachers with histories of sexual harassment rarely face consequences. Even if the Ministry of Education had taken action, that teacher would have been transferred, not fired.
I’m reminded, again, that my peers and I had it easy. Students in other schools across the nation have been molested, assaulted, and sexually groomed. Though the aforementioned predators have all been brought to justice, the fact that 90% of sexual assault cases go unreported should be enough to remind us that there are many more like them still at large.
Legislative and Structural Failure
In developed nations, these problems continue to exist because law enforcement fails, time and time again. In the developing world? Similar laws don’t even exist. More often than not, legislation is oppressive and outdated.
I mentioned loopholes in marriage laws earlier, but that doesn’t even begin to cover the full extent of it. LGBTQ+ rights? We’re a long way from being able to even think about same-sex marriage. Same-sex sexual intercourse is considered a criminal offense, punishable by 20 years of jail with or without fines. (Read more here). Syariah courts allow Muslim men to marry up to four wives, but no corresponding freedoms for women.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), otherwise known as female circumcision, remains legal. Over 90% of girls born into Muslim families undergo this procedure, despite a WHO fact sheet saying it “constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women”. The UN has called it a “human rights violation” and called on countries worldwide to ban it. Yet it continues to gain popularity in Malaysia. Though it is increasingly performed in less invasive methods, often by trained medical professionals, the premise of FGM itself stems from the archaic idea that women must be controlled, as it purportedly “decreases sex drive” and “helps to prevent premarital sex”. When will we learn to stop treating women like objects?
Seven list items doesn’t even begin to cover the entirety of the issues Malaysian feminism needs to tackle – seventy would be closer. What did we miss? Let us know in the comments below, or send us a message using the contact form!
Authors explore the development and application of various feminist theories on our modern society.