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Feminism and the Women's Movenment in Malaysia

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Combining both personal and academic insights, this study provides an in-depth account of the multiple struggles of the Malaysian women's movement, from securing gender equality in a patriarchal society to achieving unity among members of a multi-ethnic society that are further divided along class and religious lines.

236 pages, Paperback

First published June 13, 2005

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Cecilia Ng

7 books

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Profile Image for Fadillah.
678 reviews46 followers
January 25, 2023
Most of all, as pointed out elsewhere, the success of the women's movement in mainstreaming gender issues has been such that when the opposition Parti Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) wanted to introduce Hudud (Islamic criminal) laws in the state of Terengganu, the provisions related to rape incurred the wrath of all women. This included women in PAS who joined others to condemn the bill for defining rape against the interests of female victims." This joint action across political and religious affiliations is important and augurs well for the future of Malaysian women. What is interesting about the Malaysian experience is how women's groups have managed to achieve all of the above largely through a process of negotiation with the state. Unlike elsewhere in the world, there has not really been a mass movement behind the demands forwarded by women's groups here. Instead, there is latent but steady support. Without visible public backing, however, the women's movement has been more reactive in its approach to eradicate violence against women. Operating within a framework of tight state controls, it is not yet strong enough to adopt the range of strategies that should be available to any actor in civil society who seeks change. Precisely because there is an inherent fear of being persecuted by the state for speaking out, there is no history of mass mobilization for human rights, let alone women's rights, in Malaysia. Thus women's groups have had to use what they perceive to be the next best strategy: dialoguing and negotiating with the state, while using the media as an ally to expand public support. By engaging with the state, however, the movement has exposed itself to the vagaries of party politics, and the consequences of having its agency manipulated and appropriated.
- Feminism and The Women’s Movement in Malaysia : An Unsung (R)evolution by Cecilia Ng, Maznah Mohamad and Tan Beng Hui
5 stars because i am here to learn and i accomplished that by reading this book. That being said, the book is not easy to read at all. Not because it was in an academic format but the frustration of seeing how the book was published past 2 decades, yet some issues remain unresolved and pending at least on the legislation level and pending on government side. But it is also important to point out despite that, we Malaysian women have incrementally progressed. We could fastened it up (a little bit) if there is no division along ethnicity, religion and ideology to unite women’s cause. The biggest takeaway is that the relentless negotiation and reconciliation among NGOs and Government is what spearheading the empowerment of Malaysian women. Before i proceed with my review, i do have to be upfront that Majority of study focuses on Women in Peninsular/west Malaysia. Women in the east Malaysia were mentioned but its not in detailed manner. Hence this has been considered as limitation by the authors for this book. There are 8 chapters for this book including Introduction and Conclusion. I have to say that my favourite chapters would be Chapter 4 and Chapter 5. Chapter 4 analysed what NGO has done so far to develop Malaysian women and the gender mainstreaming strategies were being outlined to incorporate it either in policy / programme or Act itself. This chapter also highlighted the politics of funding. Since NGO (not all but some) relied on government funding, the criticism on state has to be softened which might push NGO to remain partial. Just like how PMX was chosen and the current government of PMX were being formed, continuous negotiation and compromises among NGOs and Government is really important to achieve the objective of certain goals / projects or even legislation. Example given in this chapter is the awareness-raising campaign on Violence Against Women. WAVE or Ombak (in Malay). It is mentioned that while the campaign was launched successfully but there are few objections and boycott by NGOs due to lack of transparency and perspective on the issue. Chapter 5 , on the other hands, highlighted why some Malay Muslim women a staunch supporter of women rights and empowerment but a bit reluctant to identify themselves as feminist. The crossroads happened when Feminism (Read : western feminism) clashed with Islamic Principles. Through this chapter as well, Malay Women used Islam as a leverage to get the place and position in politics. Islamic and Patriarchal forces is still strong within PAS, JIM and ABIM but seeing UMNO and PKR have started putting women in the forefront of the party and setting the entire wings just for them, these Islamic Parties started to recognise of women members and allowed them to contest on behalf of the parties. While i highlighted these 2 chapters as my favourite one, that doesn’t meant the other chapters is not good. It deserved a spotlight too. Chapter 2 demonstrated the shift of Malaysian Women fighting side by side with men under the banner of nationalism against colonialism. Then we saw the shift of the cause from nationalism to the racial identity politics. However, that doesn’t mean Malaysian women is not united at all. There are countless circumstances where we have seen the cooperation among multiracial women’s organization. The issue of unequal pay raised by Women Teacher’s Union did galvanise women’s mobilisation at for the first time post independence of Malaysia. Chapter 3 educated us readers on never ending battle of the violence against women in Malaysia. The advocacies done by both NGO , Government and Femocrats on anti-rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment has been pretty successful. Of course, this cannot be done without few hiccups and problems along the way. But one thing that really made me shocked that it took 20 years to just get Sexual Harassment Act legislated. Chapter 6 linked the struggle of women workers in the industry with economic globalisation. Being the pawn of capitalist production left them unprotected, underpaid and overworked. The failure of Union to do more for women workers despite they are the core of economic boost in 80s and 90s. Chapter 7 discussed the sexuality rights and how government banning the play of Vagina Monologues. It also highlighted what marginalised communities has been treated and discriminated against in this country. Both Introduction and conclusion for this book did well in introducing the readers on what to expect from the book. Conclusion done well in summarising the points of all chapters and ending it with hopeful messages of what women movement will accomplish in the future. Overall, a good collection of reference material to those interested in women’s movements in Malaysia. I will recommend and urge all Malaysians to read this book - to truly indulge and understand how far along Malaysian women have come despite the opposition and objections comes our way. But reading this book also prompted me to be and do better. I hope those who have read the book and will read this book felt the same way. Understand each other’s struggle, empower and support each other and be united at the same time. Besides, I also wanted Malaysian Men to do better, to be a better ally and not to hijack the movement and interject with “not all men” and make everything about them. To finish my review, i would like to share some of the key points i found each chapter worth sharing in this post.

1. Introduction

In Malaysia, Muslim intellectuals in the 1930s, educated and influenced by the reform movements in the Middle East, demanded Muslim women's right to education. The Malay Women Teachers' Union, founded in 1929, encouraged formal schooling for Malay women. Sexual molestation and harassment of female estate workers were already key issues for protest action in the late 1930s in Selangor and again in 1950, this time in Perak.?
Today, feminism has gone beyond its original meaning of fighting for women's rights and legal reforms in education, property rights and suffrage? Its definition has extended to include an awareness and analysis of women's discrimination and exploitation in the family, at work and in society, as well as conscious efforts by all - women and men - who wish to end gender inequality. As such, feminism is a social and political movement for changing women's subordinate position. As a movement, feminism is holistic and inclusive. It seeks to link up with other progressive movements for social and democratic change, and it is not exclusive to women since changes sought are to benefit men as well.

2. Accommodating feminisms: the women's movement in contemporary Malaysia

In Malaysia, it was as though women's agency was used to 'rebuild Malay-Muslim identity'. The liberty to adopt a non-ethni-cized feminist identity became a limited option among large numbers of Malay women. Malay Muslim women sought a psychological as well as pragmatic rationale to justify their choice of clothes, lifestyle and social behaviour. Minimally, the veil was adopted because this was deemed to be the undisputed symbol of Islamization even if piety is exhibited in a marginal way. The project to submerge the identity of a universalized woman took full effect and resulted in a division between 'Islamized' women and others (including non-Muslims) who remained outside the Islamization project. Eventually divisions become naturalized, creating 'other' nations within the 'mainstream/dominant' nation. The enforced dichotomization between Muslims and non-Muslims also led to a pervasive if erroneous perception that unequal gender relations are only associated with an Islamized social system. Islamic practices were considered to be highly gendered and non-Islamic practices were considered more gender-neutral. As will be shown elsewhere in this book, the discourse of gender inequality and sexism is not only embraced by Muslims but by other communities too.

3. The violence against women campaign: a never-ending story?

By and large, women's groups agree that the enactment of a law against domestic violence, even though fraught with difficulties, was a step in the right direction. At minimum, and due to this having been a long drawn-out campaign, there were numerous opportunities for JAG-VAW members to raise public awareness on the importance of addressing this issue. Indeed, even while there are still some in society today who believe that women who are beaten by their husbands probably 'deserved' it, there is also much greater consciousness that such acts are an offence precisely due to the efforts of JAG-VAW. Likewise, more people today know that there are different avenues of relief for women in abusive domestic situations. For some battered women the law was empowering as it gave them increased hope of escaping the violence. Perhaps the biggest coup was how this campaign resulted in women's groups stealing some thunder from the Syariah courts. In uniting Muslims and non-Muslims under one banner, the law transcended the jurisdiction of Svariah laws over Muslim family matters where domestic violence was concerned, something that was unprecedented in Malaysia. Nevertheless, that the women's movement took almost a decade to achieve what they wanted speaks volumes of the difficulties that plagued the campaign. As it was, all the groups in this coalition were operating on very limited resources. Worse, however, was their decision to pursue the path of legal reform which inevitably put them at the mercy of the state. For most of their engagement with the state, these groups showed little capacity to pressure the government into tabling the bill sooner. And as we have seen, neither were they able to have the final say on the contents of the new law.

4. An unholy alliance?: women engaging with the state

The idea was the same as with the 1990 'Women's Manifesto' - to pressure political parties, including those in government, to pay attention and be committed to women's concerns in return for votes. The issues and demands were either similar or additional to those made in 1990. Yet the response to this new document, launched in May 1999, showed startling progress compared to the 'Women's Manifesto'. Compared to the 11 endorsements that the first initiative had received, 76 NGOs supported this second effort. It was a political tour de force as it commanded the support of a wide diversity of civil society, ranging from consumer and environmental groups to religious-based bodies. And for the first time Muslim women who represented welfare-based Islamic bodies joined the women's movement in their call for reform. Surprisingly, the NCWO endorsed the politically charged document as well, although the Minister of National Unity and Social Development was also then its chairperson. More interestingly, the main women's wings of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN - National Front) gave their backing, with the government later even going so far as to project it on national television as their initiative. The vastly different reactions to the 'Women's Manifesto' (of 1990) and the WAC (of 1999) can be explained in several ways. One has to do with the internal cohesion of the movement as a whole. In 1990 feminism and women's rights were not yet in vogue, but more importantly there was a striking distinction between state-endorsed and autonomous women's groups. The former tended to be reluctant to support issues that they did not perceive as 'women's issues.

5. Negotiating political Islam: women in Malay-Muslim organizations

It was the experience and consequence of Reformasi which indirectly (though not insignificantly) stimulated the questioning and re-questioning of political Islam. At a time when the ruling regime was being threatened by opposition forces the women's movement was given prominence to act as the Achilles heel of political Islam's ascendance. To a large extent, the women's movement was successful in tempering the rise of political Islam in its patriarchal intention. However, there were other mediating factors too. A strong regime bent on not giving up its identity and purpose as a developmentalist state had actually given the liberal women's movement a boost. Given this, it is not certain if Malay-Muslim women's organizations can ever function as an autonomous entity or be a revolutionizing force. With the exception of Sisters in Islam, they all fall within the ambit of being a directed movement (Molyneux, 1998: 229). Yet, even an organization like the Sisters in Islam must depend on the strong backing of a secular-developmentalist state for its effectiveness in pushing for a new social consciousness. To say that feminist organizations were merely pawns in the agenda of the authoritarian-developmental state in its containment of oppositional forces would be unfair to those behind the movements. But to say that feminist movements had been successful in their engagement with the state would also be an exaggeration. Nevertheless, any form of a liberalizing Islam would benefit feminism.

6. Muted struggles: challenges of women workers

The shift towards export-led industrialization as a key development strategy has undoubtedly brought a wave of women workers into the labour force, dubbed the 'femi-nization' of labour. Industrialization in Malaysia (and in many developing nations) has been as much women-led as export-led. The labour force participation rate of women increased from 37 per cent in 1970 to 43.5 per cent in 1995 and 44.5 per cent in 2000 as documented in the Eighth Malaysia Plan (Government of Malaysia, 2001b). Today, about 85 per cent of women workers are in the manufacturing and services sector, with the majority located in urban areas. In manufacturing, they make up the bulk of production operators in the electronics and textiles and garments industries - jobs that are generally labour-intensive and low skilled. Indeed the so-called success of the Malaysian economy, where the electrical and electronics industries have consistently been the major export earners, has been built on the back of low-waged women labour. From just four companies with 577 employees in 1970, the electronics sector expanded to 850 companies with 321,700 workers in 1998. The sector now employs 27 per cent of the total manufacturing workforce, the majority of who are women. With the modernization of the economy, women are slowly inching their way up to higher-paying occupations, but the majority are still in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs with few prospects for upward mobility.

7. Querying the forbidden discourse: sexuality, power and dominance in Malaysia

The Vagina Monologues incident highlighted the importance of questioning the whole idea of cultural values. Often, the authorities condemn things or ideas that they do not like as culturally inappropriate or as going against Asian values. For instance, unless endorsed by the state, Malaysians have been told that they cannot hold political demonstrations because this goes against Asian values, even though the right to peaceful demonstrations is a fundamental human right. Are street demonstrations really against Asian values, or is this simply a convenient way of denying Malaysians their rights? Also, as we have already seen, the Asian values discourse has been used to vilify certain sexually marginalized groups - homosexuals, transvestites, young single women who appear to be promiscuous, and the like - saying that these people are aberrations of society and not part of Asian culture. In fact, there is enough evidence to show that homosexual relations were not only common but also accepted in many parts of this region. Even in Malaysia, what is derogatorily referred to as the pondan^ (the effeminate man) was traditionally a valued member of kampung (village) communities, respected, among other things, for the mak andam role they played at weddings. In light of such evidence, it would be worth asking which exactly is alien - homosexuality or homophobia?

8. Conclusion: the women's movement and discourse on sexuality

What accounts for the nature of the current discourse and action around sexuality? Sexuality is one area easily subsumed under the gaze and conte so tie authoritarian state because of the latter's capacity to regulate almos everything: In Malaysia with the rise of religiosity, morality has become the purview of not only personal but public scrutiny and control. Power over the discourse and practice of sexuality is both a coercive and non-coercive means to elicit submission. People are extremely defenceless when put to shame. This can cut many ways, either to be used over powerful dissidents or to pacify further a powerless underclass. In coercive ways a state like Malaysia has used anachronistic laws on sexual practices such as sodomy to character assassinate a political leader, as in the case of the former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. In non-coercive ways, morality norms can be readily invoked to conjure up the superiority of 'Asian values' and thereby win public legitimation. National leaders like former Singapore premier Lee Kuan Yew and the former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad tried to negate Western-led pressure for more democracy and human rights in Asia by playing the morality card. They argued against the universality of human rights by claiming that the extension of human rights to homosexual relationships, as promoted by Western advocates, is simply immoral and 'not Asian'.
Profile Image for Anas Nor'Azim.
16 reviews7 followers
January 13, 2019
A very good account on the origins ,development and contributions of feminist movement in the Malaysian context. A must read for those interested in feminism in Malaysia, or social movements in general
Profile Image for Anas Nor'Azim.
16 reviews7 followers
September 25, 2018
A good overview of the feminist movement in Malaysia, whose role is admittedly constantly downplayed in Malaysian politics.
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