Back in September, I conducted a survey on how Malaysians felt about women’s rights as well as their views on feminism. My interest in Malaysians’ perceptions about women’s rights and feminism grew out of seeing the complacent attitudes of the general populace with regards to the status of women in our society today.
Simply put, many Malaysians accept that in many respects, women today have made it to the ranks of men. Thus, the struggle for women’s liberation and gender equality is understood to be over : this is confirmed by the fact that women have already gained the right to work and education. In fact, women and girls both outnumber and outperform men in school and university. Women are now appointed to decision-making positions in political office and the boardroom. While women still represent a significant minority in these roles, this is not seen as a travesty for many. The fact that women are marginalised in the public sphere is so normalised and entrenched that it is no longer an outrage. This is understood as the status quo. To make further demands in the name of gender equality and feminism today is seen as asking too much and a threat to “overpower” men.
The results of the survey based on the 195 people (59.3% women, 38.7% men) who have participated brought to my attention quite remarkable responses as well as predictable ones. To begin with, when asked if women’s rights should be championed, nearly all (95%) answered ‘yes’ (click on pie chart for larger image):
It seems to me that in principle, it would be common sense to support women’s rights. To do otherwise is to be nothing more than misogynist and backward. In this respect, “women’s rights” can be regarded as a “safe” but nonetheless important issue that can easily be co-opted even by the most conservative of politics. This is confirmed by the drop in the number of women’s rights supporters (66.4%) who felt that feminism is relevant in Malaysia (click pie chart to enlarge):
What the pie chart above implicitly indicates is the difference in (mis)conceptions attached to “women’s rights” and “feminism”. While it is obvious that one can be a women’s rights supporter without calling oneself a feminist, what is less obvious is how the drop in feminist supporters is characterised. The open-ended question on why feminism may be irrelevant in Malaysia reveals prejudice and a lack of awareness about the principles and work of local activists. For example, one person said:
“[Feminism] has a bad connotation and is deemed counterproductive for efforts in addressing the gender issue”
While another person opined that feminism is quite simply degrading to women:
“It is outright insult to women [sic] dignity and intellegience [sic]”
Perplexingly, feminism is seen as female-biased. What does that make of “women’s issues”?:
“better to focus on gender equality / equitability. feminism seems biased to just
females. the human race has other genders too.”
Another respondent felt that feminism is unnecessary because women’s issues are already taken care of by the state:
“There is a specific ministry to look after woman’s affair [sic].”
And finally, one respondent felt that feminism is a “vague subject.”
I was also interested in charting the means through which women’s rights supporters find information on gender issues. As the survey was conducted online, all respondents would have access to online material which, as the results reveal, not only exceeds all other media in terms of accessibility, but in terms of new and up-to-date content. All of this may seem utterly obvious for readers of this report, but what it also suggest is that gender-related material can only be found only if we search for it. Also, it seems that ‘gender’ will only arise as an issue if it is confined to the NGO community or a news report on the latest violation against a woman’s rights and dignity. (Click bar chart to enlarge)
Finally, I asked what gender-related concerns my respondents sensed to be most pressing in Malaysia and most agreed upon sexual and domestic violence against women (click to enlarge):
Granted, violence against women typically triggers the most reaction across the board, and while it is a sine qua non of women’s rights activism, the means to effectively protect women and girls from abominable acts have repeatedly been futile and unsustainable.
Why? Well, this could be attributable to the very notion of “women’s rights” and “women’s issues”. “Women’s rights and issues” have always been secondary socio-political concerns limited to women’s traditional roles as wives and mothers, and completely defused of its radical potential when it is co-opted by the male-dominated, sexist Malaysian government for its own ends. When gender-related concerns are raised for public and academic attention, the focus falls invariably on women; their sole responsibility to redress gender inequality, and their responsibility to protect themselves. Meanwhile, men as beneficiaries and perpetrators of gender inequality have no part to play in “women’s issues”.
Nonetheless, the survey reveals the multifaceted perspectives of Malaysians who have very real concerns about gender issues. Interestingly, one respondent claims for the “right to NOT be exploited by media and the secular worldview”.
While another argues that women’s rights is inherently an Islamic issue:
“Semua wanita ada hak kepada perkara diatas. Malang nya ramai lelaki dan wanita di Malaysia jauh menyeleweng daripada apa yang di tunjukajar didalam Alquran (All of the above are women’s rights. Unfortunately, many men and women in Malaysia have strayed far from what is taught in the Quran).”
One person laments the “media exploitation of women as purely sexual object to satisfy animal lust disguised as women feminism/emansipation [sic]/liberalisation which strips them naked for sexual pleasure to be used and abused which is evident in our present decadant [sic] society around us……… which we tend to accept as modernisation.”
The last point posits one of the challenges of feminism in Malaysia today, challenges imposed by globalisation and the framework inherited from the vocabulary of liberal-leftist human rights. Despite the wide-ranging concerns raised in this survey, it appears that gender-related activism (otherwise known as feminism) is viewed with negativity and ambivalence. That said, it would be fair to say that feminist activism in Malaysia is still largely fragmented by the lack of urgency, apathy, and divided community interests.