The (secondary) role of women in Malaysian politics…

19 Aug

According to the BBC, Anwar Ibrahim has launched his political campaign to fight for a seat in the Malaysian Parliament. He is coming up against the government’s candidate, Arif Shah Omar, in Permatang Pau, which used to be held by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. The window of opportunity arose after she gave up office, thereby triggering a by-election, which, according to the news agency, acts to ‘pave the way for her husband’s return to formal office’.

Anwar supporters might have welcomed this move given they have waited with anticipation for the man’s return; and that Wan Azizah, rose to prominence only because she was  ‘the face and support for Anwar’ during those years in which he was incarcerated. Nevertheless, by giving up her position to facilitate her husband’s entrance to parliament, the bigger question of women’s role in Malaysian politics resurfaces its ugly head.

That Wan Azizah herself, is keenly aware of the dynamics of Malaysian politics, can be seen from her own writings and behaviour. According to her observations, there are five factors which put women at a disadvantage in the field: ‘subliminal discrimination against women; time constraints; the notion that “a woman’s place is at home”; natural apathy and aversion to political involvement and lack of adequate resources’ (Azizah 2002, p. 2).

Despite the tribulations, she formed and became the leader of the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan) which was a vehicle to seek redress and justice for Anwar.

Her political style reveals cultural constraints and is intimately related to the unique circumstances in which she entered politics.

Criticised by detractors as possessing ‘weak leadership, lack of decisiveness, too overt and obedience to advice from her imprisoned spouse, and for being too compliant with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), she was also perceived as having moral capital of the kind where ‘decency and moderation became the hallmarks of her public image (Derichs, Fleschenberg & Hüstebeck 2006, p. 258; 259).

She strictly adheres to the Malay Islamic dress code and as such, ’embodies an almost ideal image of a Muslim wife’. In her public statements, her point of references are also Islamic in nature. When asked if she would ‘resign from politics if Anwar were released, she responded that a principle in Islam states that justice is done when everything is placed where it ought to be. And since Anwar is the “better politician,” her answer was that “she would give it [i.e., politics] to the better person,” hence where it ought to be (Derichs, Fleschenberg & Hüstebeck 2006, p. 260; 261).

To any close observer of Malaysian politics, it is not surprising that Wan Azizah has chosen to relinquish her seat to allow Anwar to contest in the by elections. Yet, in doing so, she has also chosen to perpetuate the stereotype of women, being relegated to a secondary role in Malaysian politics.

It could be argued that her ‘sacrifice’ was necessary for Anwar to make a timely comeback. On the other hand, Anwar could have waited until the next elections or staged a reformasi movement II and force the Malaysian government to call for snap elections.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, it is a pity that Malaysian politics will continue to be a male-dominated ‘sport’ (whether one is in Opposition or power).

Now that she has passed on the baton to Anwar, the perennial questions remain unresolved. As the dissident leader has set his sights on becoming the next Prime Minister, one wonders where his leadership will lead to, given his promise of a more just, fair and equitable society.

Would he enact legislations to ensure a greater proportion of female  political representation? Would he decriminalise consensual male sexual behaviour which had been used as a political tool to intimidate him? What is the kind of multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious Islamic state of Malaysia that he would promote?

For while it is true that many will welcome a more democratic Malaysia, it also needs to tackle some of the underlying cultural and institutional inertia which is stacked up against minorities and women.

– Works Cited –

Azizah, W 2002,  ‘Women in Politics: Reflections from Malaysia’, International IDEA, Women in Parliament, Stockholm, accessed 18 August 2008.

Derichs, C, Fleschenberg A, & Hüstebeck, M 2006, ‘Gendering moral capital: Morality as a political asset and strategy of top female politicians in Asia’, Critical Asian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 245- 270.


2 Responses to “The (secondary) role of women in Malaysian politics…”

  1. ONE August 22, 2008 at 3:14 pm #

    From a purely gender perspective of course it is seems unfair that a WOMAN had to give way to a MAN. But it can also be argued that that would be a sexist view because one is looking at gender and not WHO would the best person to get justice for a nation in grasp of corruption at this moment in her history. As it stands the reality is that Anwar Ibrahim seems to be the best PERSON. The other question who then should he have displaced seeks for an answer. His daughter’s? warranting another gender analysis. Perhaps a historical perspective could lend some answer to the choice but which I shan’t discuss here. The reality is that it’s true society is sexist in its many dimensions. But a pure gender perspective gives us only a skewed view. Other dimensions need to be looked at too. Whether Anwar will be the one to bring any change from any view will always be questioned. “Is he gender-sensitive?” cannot be answered at this moment in time. Can anyone, male or female, having political power in Malaysia today be regarded as truly gender-sensitized? So to zero unto Anwar does disservice to Malaysians especially at this juncture in the political cross-roads of Malaysia. And so “the perennial questions remain unresolved” will remain true, until things get better. Until then, your analysis is pointless as you can make the same analysis of every other politician in power in Malaysia at the moment including the women, and come up with the same conclusion. I suggest that after he comes into power, can the real work of feminist continue in a more profitable manner.

  2. Charles August 23, 2008 at 10:55 am #

    Hi ONE,

    I appreciate your comments and agree with you that there are many dimensions/ perspectives to this issue. However, the point of my posting is to highlight the often ignored opinions/ comments that is overlooked in any discourse.

    In this case, I think both of us agree that there is an underlying institutional bias against women, in this case, Malaysian politics.

    The other issue which was not sufficiently discussed within mainstream discourse was the decriminalization of consensual male sexual behaviour in Malaysia.

    Give that Anwar himself is a victim of the sodomy laws (and I have blogged about it), being silent on this issue somewhat gives the general public the impression that he thinks it should continue to remain in the law books.

    It all boils down to this: Should he be doing the ‘right’ thing (such as voicing his concerns at repealing sodomy laws or promoting greater female political participation) or to do the ‘safe thing’ that will help him get into power through democratic means.

    That will always be the conundrum for any political leaders. It will especially be tougher decision for dissident democrats…

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