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Crackdown on dissent obscures women's rights

As rollback on rights gains headlines, Malaysian gender equality loses ground
Crackdown on dissent obscures women's rights

Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi came under fire last year for wearing a leotard at the Southeast Asia Games. Women's rights have eroded in Malaysia amid a wider crackdown on rights and freedom. (Photo by AFP)

Published: March 08, 2016 08:26 AM GMT

The promise of gender equality in Malaysia was closer in 2006 than it is now.

A World Economic Forum chart shows that over the last decade the country's ranking dropped from 72 in 2006 to 111 in 2015, a fall of 39 places. 

An ongoing crackdown on all forms of dissent in the country has pushed women's issues into the background. 

Prominent women activists have all been targeted for their outspokenness.

Among them are Jannie Lasimbang, a former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Maria Chin Abdullah, a civil rights leader, and Ambiga Sreenevasan, a former Malaysian Bar Council president.

All have spoken out against sexism, at times taking their case directly to the public.

But change is coming at glacial speeds. 

Even in the courts, women are failing to see justice and cases instead highlight gender insensitivity.

A landmark judgment in 2011 the High Court returned to haunt women this year. Five years ago the court ruled pregnant women could not be discriminated against in seeking employment.

Adopting the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the court ruled that Noorfadilla Ahmad Saikin, had the right to be appointed as a teacher and the revocation of her placement by the government was unconstitutional.

She was awarded RM300,000 (US$73,000) in damages. The government appealed. In February this year, the amount was slashed to US$7,000. That was not all. The court had some harsh words for Noorfadilla.

Acknowledging that gender discrimination existed in Noorfadilla's case, the judge said she was to blame for her ordeal for "not [being] completely honest" about her pregnancy by failing to disclose it at her interview and seeking to "profit" from her dismissal. 

Women's rights groups were aghast. The judgment showed a lack of understanding of the applicability of international law and the state's obligations in implementing the principles of U.N. conventions.

"We are very, very upset with that. I mean the Malaysian government when talking to the international community very nicely says yes, but when they come home they do the opposite," gender and development expert Winnie Yee said in a recent interview ahead of International Women's Day on March 8.

The case, she says, shows that the government is not serious about treating women fairly.

"They are playing to the international audience, [but] Malaysia is going down, down, down in the [global gender gap] rankings. You would think we would be improving. Shame on us."


Creeping religious conservatism in the mainly Muslim country is another concern.

The latest salvo against women comes from Muslim conservatives against model Nuraini Noor. She was recently unveiled as one of 14 contestants in the latest season of Asia's Next Top Model. The news triggered online comments from Malaysians saying it was wrong for a Muslim woman to take part.

In June last year, gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, 21, also came under fire for wearing a leotard at the Southeast Asia Games. She was rebuked by leaders and on social media for showing her aurat — an Islamic word referring to the breasts, genitalia and thighs.

Cleric Harussani Zakaria told one local paper: "Gymnastics is not for Muslim women. It is clear that exposing one's aurat and the shape of one's body is haram [forbidden in Islam]. 

"If Muslim women want to participate in gymnastics, they have to find outfits which cover the aurat and this, in turn, might not be suitable for the sport," he said.

Roszida Kamaruddin, head of the women's wing of the National Muslim Youth Association, said women must prioritize the Islamic codes in sports.

Minister for youth and sports Khairy Jamaluddin was forced to defend the gymnast saying: "Farah wowed the judges and brought home gold. In her deeds only the Almighty judges her. Not you. Leave our athletes alone.

"I think this whole incident also smacks of sexism," he later told a press conference, explaining that nobody complained about men's body-hugging sports attire.



As that debate continues another threat is looming — female genital mutilation.

It is not yet believed to be prevalent but with the assertiveness of a conservative brand of Islam globally, Malaysia may be overrun by it, warned a Muslim politician who asked not to be named.

"I would be very surprised if it is common but you have Muslims from all over the world here and there may be conservative types practicing this.

"They might be going to clinics and asking them to mutilate their daughters. But this is not Malaysian culture.

The danger, he says, lies in Muslims from other parts of the world who have settled in the country and start pushing their ideas.

"We are also sending our students to quite conservative religious institutions all over the world. They are the ones coming back and controlling the religious bodies. I wouldn't be surprised sooner or later the way we are going."

Yee believes the gender gap is growing because women are kept out of decision making. 

Despite the challenges, she is optimistic that change will come.

"I think there is hope. I'm seeing young people who realize that life is not just getting a piece of paper and getting a cushy job … partly because they can't get a cushy job any more. That makes them think and want to fight.

"The fight for justice goes on and the cycle is turning slowly," she says.

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