Written by: Anis Fasiehah F.
Edited by: Abigail Goh and Brenda Tan
Trigger Warning: Mentions of violence, child marriage, sexual harassment and assault.
2020 was a tumultuous year that revealed societal fault lines across the globe. Malaysia did not escape this reckoning unscathed. 2020 brought to light two important issues: economic inequality and sexual harassment. But, crucially, this year has also highlighted the gap between politics, policies, and national conscience.
Firstly, against the backdrop of the pandemic, economic inequality was exacerbated, with women bearing the brunt of the impact. According to research by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic were the ones with the high concentration of women, such as tourism and hospitality. The burden of unpaid care work compounded with lockdown restrictions, often forcing women to abandon paid work in order to look after their families. Research conducted by the think tank Selangor Women’s Empowerment Institute showed that, of the 442 women polled in Selangor, a quarter of them experienced income loss following the pandemic. Women in Selangor, the research finds, were the group at highest risk of falling into poverty. It should be noted that the study conducted used Malaysia’s official definition of poverty, that is earning RM989 (approx. 244 USD) per month. This definition has been criticised by international bodies such as the United Nations, which argues it artificially underestimates the true rate of poverty in Malaysia. Therefore, it is likely the scale of this issue and the impact of the pandemic is severely underestimated as well.
Amidst growing awareness of gendered inequalities, a sexual harassment awareness movement, similar in content to #MeToo, began making waves on Twitter in June. Women started sharing their stories of sexual harassment, from uncomfortable experiences with men to more severe confessions of molestation and rape, oftentimes exposing the identity of their perpetrators. This movement swept across social media, moving to Instagram, where e-activists gave Malaysian women a safe place to tell their stories anonymously. The growing awareness of this other parallel pandemic gave a platform for the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG), a coalition of civil society organisations, and All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) to encourage the public to push for the tabling of the Sexual Harassment Bill in Parliament through online petitions and emails to MPs. As it currently stands, Malaysia does not have a working definition of sexual harassment. The Bill aims to standardise definitions and punishments for sexual harassment, streamlining Malaysia’s current response system to sexual crimes, which is spread out across legal documents, making it difficult for survivors to seek recourse.
The Bill was supposed to be tabled back in March but was delayed due to the pandemic. Despite public pressure from JAG, AWAM, and the petition, which garnered over 17,000 signatures, the Women, Family, and Community Development (KPWKM) Minister Rina Mohd Harun still has not brought the Bill to Parliament.
However legislation reforms aimed at protecting women and girls tend to be difficult sells for the Malaysian Parliament, as evidenced by the country’s failure to ban child marriage. Last year, when Deputy PM Wan Azizah sought to ban child marriage, seven states outright refused to cooperate. Currently, minors as young as sixteen can get legally married with parental consent. However, children who are younger can get married if they obtain permission from the Syariah Court, if they are Muslim, or the Chief Minister, if they are non-Muslim. As a result, there are regular reports of girls as young as eleven getting married. Child marriage became a central issue for #WomensMarchMY back in March when over 300 Malaysians took to the streets.
While the issue of child marriage in Malaysia is not new, the conversation surrounding child marriage in Malaysia was brought to the forefront of national consciousness back in 2018, when news of a 41-year-old man marrying an 11-year-old girl went viral. The daughter’s father justified his decision saying, “The man was willing to marry my daughter because he wanted to help me as I am poor.” Economic necessity remains one of the biggest reasons why child marriage still occurs. However, in a fragmented society like Malaysia, where some parts remain deeply conservative, child marriage also occurs because of traditional attitudes towards sex whereby child marriage is viewed as a preventive measure to protect a girl’s dignity. Additionally, and more worryingly, child marriage sometimes also occurs after violating these girls. Within a mentality where protecting a girl’s dignity and virginity is important, men understand this and take advantage of it by raping girls in order to marry them, offering money to her parents as both permission and reparation. This is a two-fold solution for men, as rape within marriage is not legally recognised as a crime in Malaysia (unless a man uses force and hurts his wife, but within a context where a girl is forced to marry her rapist, it is unlikely she will have access to information such as this, much less avenues for recourse). When adults see themselves as the protectors of dignity for children, particularly in spaces where girls are also seen as a liability, the issue clearly extends beyond legislation. As Allen and Turner remarked, “Legislation alone cannot change deeply held views and opinions.”
Malaysia also has to contend with their current KPKWM Minister upholding particularly toxic perceptions of women. It was under her leadership that the Department released their infamous #WomenPreventCOVID19 campaign, encouraging women to wear makeup and speak like Doraemon to avoid annoying their husbands during the lockdown. The backlash was immediate, not only from the Malaysian community but the international community as well. In response, WAO began trending #WanitaBukanDoraemon (women are not Doraemon) on Twitter, stating, “Women should never have to act like 'Doraemon' or childlike to be taken seriously.” Malaysians began using the hashtag to express their disappointment, criticising the regressive, sexist views on women endorsed by the Department. KPKWM released an official statement in response, saying, “We apologise if some of the tips we shared were inappropriate and offended certain parties.” The statement was further criticised, with some calling the tone gaslighting for placing the blame on the people who were offended as opposed to the Department accepting responsibility for their misstep and issuing a proper apology.
Following this blunder, MP Rina also denied that rates of domestic violence increased following lockdown measures, despite the fact that it clearly had, with the government’s own hotline experiencing a 57% spike and WAO’s hotline experiencing a 44.4% spike. Whether this blatant denial stems from misinformation/miscommunication within the government regarding their own hotline data or an attempt by MP Rina to sweep the issue under the rug remains to be seen. Malaysia already has low capacity to deal with domestic violence, as WAO reports have shown. Outright denial of the issue only further serves to perpetuate harm to women, in addition to justifying the lack of support and services available.
2020 brought a dearth of societal issues to light in Malaysia, but it also exposed the gap in national conscience, the push-and-pull of reconciling cultural values and the growing urgency for gender equality. The reckoning is about issues deeper than just policy. Sustainable solutions will not be found by passing legislation. The pandemic held a mirror to the societal attitudes Malaysians have and reinforce. Child marriage could not be banned because enough people in those seven states would be upset that either they could no longer marry children or could no longer marry their children off that it was not worth pursuing--which begs the question: Who benefits from marrying children?
The Sexual Harassment Bill has not been tabled despite months of promise because the safety of the people the Bill can protect does not matter enough to MPs--that women had to take to Twitter to seek recourse, publishing the names of those who had wronged them, speaks volumes to the failure of legislation. But then, we must ask: Who benefits from legislation which silences or fails to protect victims of sexual harassment?
The growing economic inequality between men and women represents a backwards slide, where women are still conceived of as homemakers and caretakers, and these roles crystallise when the economy weakens because women’s jobs are the first to be sacrificed in case of emergency. And again, the question remains: Who benefits from this? For every issue, there are deeper questions we need to ask beyond the surface-level fodder that obscures the splintered ideals Malaysians are fighting to protect.
It is very easy and very lazy to argue that things are hard to change because of culture. Malaysia is often constructed as hyper-conservative because of its Muslim-dominant majority and many people mistakenly assume it is Islam which holds Malaysia back. Undoubtedly, Islam plays a role in the landscape of Malaysia’s morality. However, parts of Malaysia remain deeply conservative, regardless of religious affiliation to Islam, defined by unchallenged ideals of morality and purity that other parts of Malaysia have outgrown. Recall, former Deputy PM Wan Azizah, who tried to ban child marriage in Malaysia, is a devout Muslim woman. The way that culture ties and binds these ideas is directly related to the values we as a society endorse, teach, and pass down. That said, the current landscape of digital activism in Malaysia is a rich tapestry that transcends ethnicities, language, and religion, offering a new hope and alternative, especially for the youth of Malaysia. As the national conscience steers towards a desire for growing equality, the space for feminist movements grows. Change begins when awareness starts and this year has presented Malaysians the perfect opportunity to take the necessary steps towards pushing for social change and gender equality. Whether the politicians and policies will line up remains only a matter of time to be seen.