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Malaysiaku: Feminism in Malaysia

Thanks everybody who came to our second Malaysiaku this year on Feminism in Malaysia, especially those who met us at the Malaysian Contingent at the International Women’s Day march. We’ve prepared this summary for those of you who couldn’t make it.

In this session we went into a brief history of women’s involvement in social movements in Malaysia, the start of what might be described as our modern “feminist” movements, and the political issues faced by women in Malaysia today.

Main Talk

The session began by a short video clip of Tok Guru Nik Aziz in regards to his statement about aurah (intimate body parts; which parts exactly depends on the particular interpretation of Islam). In the video he is recorded speaking to an audience; he claims that covering one’s aurah reduces sex before marriage, reduces HIV as well as claiming that women whom exposes her aurah deserve to be raped.

Afterwards, we uncovered the leading female figures who were involved in politics Pre-Independence. Unlike the women’s movement in the West, whose struggle was precipitated by the fight for the right to vote (suffrage), the struggle here was founded by resistance towards the colonial powers. Figures like Shamsiah Fakeh, Khatijah Sidek, Sakinah Junid were members of groups like Angkatan Wanita Sedar (AWAS), Malayan Nationalist Party (MNP) and Parti Komunis Malaya, who were at the forefront of the struggle for independence. For their participation, many of them consequently faced reprisals by those in power, with some being jailed and exiled.

The second wave of the movement occurred during the 1980s. Here we see the formation of NGOs initially fighting for the issue of violence against women, but gradually expanding their efforts towards other issues. In this period we also see the resurgence of a conservative Islamic practice, pitting the two against each other. The movement during this period also laid the groundwork for the involvement of feminist discourse into the public and private spheres of Malaysian society today.

Discussion

In the discussion, we talked on how the obsession with women’s bodies led to policing of what they wear and their lifestyle choices. This is inextricably linked to how women are expected to conform to concepts like male guardianship and traditional maternal roles in the family.

We also made the link between racism and sexism specifically by emphasising how modern beauty standards are shaped by Eurocentric ideals. This can be seen by how job opportunities are far greater for women with perceived whiteness, and the popularity of skin whitening products.

We touched on the availability of a proper sex education for Malaysian society, and how even the most liberally perceived education system, like international schools for example, tend to abstain from it.

An interesting discussion took hold on whether Malaysian society would be ready for women to take a leading role in politics, or whether the institution would allow it in the first place. This led to a discussion on how women are treated in the political and public arena. Points were made on how political parties tend to only view women as a voting bank and are unwilling to make actual changes to the situation, as opposed to mere symbolic gestures.


If you found this summary useful, you should consider joining us for future Malaysiaku sessions. We’d also love to discuss this topic or just meet up at any MPOZ activities! You can always find our upcoming events on Facebook.

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