Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and Architects of Diversity (AOD) strongly condemn the tone and the manner in which Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim responded to a young Indian woman, who is a student at the “Temu Anwar” session in Kepala Batas, on 5 August.
The interruption before she could complete her question on quotas in public institutions as well as concerns on meritocracy perpetuates condescension and clamping down on freedom of expression in interactions with women in political forums. It brings concern that the ‘Reformasi’ government requires serious reflection and improvement in including the voices of women and minority groups in political spaces.
Women experience significant barriers when it comes to entering and maintaining a position in the political sphere. This is further exacerbated by factors such as socioeconomic background, ethnicity, age and other considerations.
Women make up close to 50% of the population and yet we only have 13.6% representation at the Malaysian Parliament. In that, there is insufficient representation from minority and indigenous communities.
It is also deeply concerning that this is not the first time that the PM has faced backlash in communicating with women participating in political forums. In June he came under criticism for an inappropriate response to another young woman at a dialogue in Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.
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Equal participation and representation in public life is important for democracies to thrive. Malaysia acknowledged this when it acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) in 1995. Article 7 of Cedaw states clearly that state parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in political and public life of the country.
The incident on 5 August highlights the power dynamic between leader and citizen that was antagonistic and signals that political forums are not safe spaces for women to speak out. It could result in further pushing women out of public participation.
Tone aside, the response indicates that those in power do not want to engage with or understand intersectionality in Malaysia. Challenges faced by different segments of society, including women, individuals from rural communities, ethnic minorities and those experiencing poverty, require more – not less – discussion in order to be sufficiently addressed.
As Malaysia still does not release detailed statistical data on equity between groups for matriculation and university, assumptions about the efficacy of existing policies more than warrant questioning and interrogation.
A reformist Madani (civil) government requires bravery in opening a discussion on conflicts and challenges that have long divided the nation. The dismissal of grievances among minority groups and women contradicts the Madani government’s commitment to compassion among all of its people. It must work instead to ensure that all Malaysians are equal citizens.
WAO and AOD urges the Prime Minister and Malaysian government to respect and acknowledge the participation of women and minority groups in policy and political discussions on all levels, in line with its international obligations and its goal of building an equal and equitable Malaysia. This includes the ability to question political figures without fear of being talked down to or treated in a paternalistic manner or resulting in sexist remarks.
… we demand that the government abide by its Harapan action plan promise to eliminate gender inequality and to improve the lives of all in Malaysia. – WAO/AOD