How much recognition does the present government accord to women? Not much if we go by the number of women cabinet ministers that the prime minister has appointed. The number of women candidates that Barisan Nasional has fielded to contest in the elections, the number of women senators appointed to the senate and the number of women appointed by the chief secretary of government to the ranks of director-generals, have been few and far between. This is not to say that women should only be recognised through their elevation into the elite stratum. It shows that even going by conventional standards women's achievement in this country lags far behind.
It is true that the government has never deterred women from working. But there is work and there is work. Much of the employment that women occupy are underpaid, untenured and in the lowest rungs of the job hierarchy. Women make up a huge bulk of the manufacturing work force. When Malaysia opened its doors to foreign investment the kind of manufacturing jobs made available for women were lowly-paid, unskilled, monotonous, repetitive, and dreary.
Women, Work, and Family
Women have worked since time immemorial as padi-farmers, rubber-tappers, animal-rearers, dulang-washers, construction workers, hawkers, basket weavers, cloth-weavers, pottery-makers and petty traders. In short, a lot of women have worked, still work and will continue working. No amount of exhortation by politicians to remind women of their paramount duty as housekeeper will reverse the trend of women working.
A lot of women have no choice but to work in order to survive there are also others who do so because work is not just about money. It is about self-esteem, strength, independence and dignity. Is there anything in any religion which prohibits women from aspiring to those qualities?The present rhetoric about the proper role of women is disturbing, because it has little grounding in any divine or immutable principles. Male-dominance and the need to control women have been the source of this constant rhetoric to get women back into the homes. Whether it is Nik Aziz or the current minister of welfare and national unity, the message has always been the same. The burden of the 'happy family' rests upon women. This is mere cover-up for the inability of men and the male-dominated state to assume its rightful social responsibility when it comes to the family.
Of course it is easy to see that an exhausted mother will not make the best mother. However, women (encouraged by their men) assure themselves that motherhood comes with an enormous sacrifice of physical health, reproductive well being and worldly comfort. Hence, the double-day syndrome which is being made to appear as women's 'natural lot' in life. Up to this present day no solutions have been offered by the government to ease a working woman's burden. Aside from allowing the employment of foreign maids which would only benefit upper and middle-class women, no social programs and benefits have been put in place to ease the plight of lower-income working women.
The bigger question is should children and housekeeping be the sole responsibility of the woman? Is there any religious injunction that forbids a man from doing the laundry, mopping the floor, cooking, ironing and most of all caring for his own children?
The State's Responsibility
How about the state? What is it doing at the moment to invest in its children and youth? As far as we can see the Malaysian government has totally failed in its responsibility of ensuring that the welfare of children is adequately provided for. How many government-supported, good quality creches are there today? How come our children are not entitled to free and the best medical care there is? Do poor families get children's allowances so that all of our children regardless of class will not grow up malnourished and deprived of a healthy start to life? When is the present government ever going to recognise paternity leave?
Politicians should take note that a woman's existence is more than just about keeping children away from drugs, prostitution, bad company, or evil indulgences. Women should not be made to play the role of insulating children from the failures of the system. To begin with, in the eyes of the egocentric ingenuous male the present system is crafted by them. They call the shots and they assume the powers of governance. They treat women as the weaker 'other'. That being so men should stop placing the blame for society's problems upon women.
The present government is content to let women themselves worry about the breakdown of their own families. The state has so far left the major responsibility at handling issues of family violence to NGOs. In this country almost all of the women's crisis centres and shelters are run by voluntary organisations. The state has done little to further the cause of eliminating violence against women, except to negotiate and placate the various sensitivities regarding the issue. Our laws regarding family violence, rape and protection of young girls and women are still full of loopholes.
At the same time women are uneasy about PAS' overzealous stance at containing the public role of women. There appears to be a seeming readiness to take away from women more than what the party is prepared to give or recognise. The issue of not fielding women candidates is a position that is untenable, especially for an Islamic party. The challenge for PAS is to prove to the world that Islam does not oppress women, and if politics is about representing people then half of the population deserves to be represented by women.
Distorting The Past
As to the establishment of the 'correct' position that women should have in society one wonders why recognition is not given to the history and deeds of the past. Today, many of women's traditional rights are being shunted aside as being categorically unIslamic or inappropriate.
Why would the wisdom of our forefathers be less superior than the dictates of present-day preachers? For example, Malay women used to have the rights of movement (they had been itinerant traders who mingled with both men and women in the market-place). Women exercised their right to dress in accordance with the unique context of their cultural milieu without sacrificing modesty (Kelantanese women wore their traditional dresses but were not veiled). Women were also recognised as rulers (Pattani was once ruled by a succession of Queens, and Kelantan had its own Cik Siti Wan Kembang).
What is happening is that Islamic movements today selectively adopt or reject versions of the past. No social system is unchanging, fixed or rigid but people are often threatened into accepting only one version of the truth. Whether it is from the Islamic movement or the present regime, what's coming out from middle Malaysia is this pervasive trend to ensure that women remain protected but powerless.
The sound and fury over Nik Aziz's actual or alleged statement is not simply about women and work. Work can be women's source of humanisation, liberation and autonomy just as much as it can dehumanise, alienate and degrade them. The real issue is about women's freedom to exercise choice in their lives. It would be meaningless to have our statistics eventually show that more women are being gainfully employed and that the number of our women parliamentarians has increased, if more fundamental values do not also change.
The issue is about building a humane society without necessarily using paid-employment as the yardstick for human progress. We do not have to build a society peopled by displaced and distressed workaholics, men or women. Let's work for a new society which has shorter but productive working days, with more men spending time at home with their children, and with more women taking responsibility in political, social and community activities. We want children to grow up in a model family which accords equal dignity to both men and women.
If PAS is reluctant to share equal power with women, the Barisan Nasional government is worse; it basks itself in self-praise while pulling the wool over everyone's eyes that it truly respects women's rights. Let's see if the women's wings of all the Barisan component parties will do more than just foot-servant's duty in this coming elections.