Gender issues are about democracy

Noble goals tend to be almost impossible to reach. But that does not make them less noble, and that does not make them less necessary. Above all, that does not make the injustices more acceptable. Positioning of women, it must be argued, is more important than positions for women.

A prominent woman politician recently lamented the enormous difficulty faced to achieve the United Nation's (UN) target of 30% women participation in Malaysia. Such a sentiment is understandable, especially for those who have sacrificed energy, time and resources towards this noble aim.

Today, more women than men have a first degree and more women than men are pursuing a postgraduate degree; yet this gender disproportionate academic achievement does not reflect itself in the overall composition of power in public life. At the highest level in politics – the Dewan Rakyat – only 10% of Members of Parliament are women, a far cry from the UN’s goal. The picture is even gloomier at state level, with state assemblywomen constituting an average of eight per cent among state legislators. In Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s cabinet, there are two women out of 30 ministers; the number of women ministers has never exceeded three at any time since Merdeka.

I fully support the aspiration to achieve the UN’s goal for more women in leadership positions. I have said this many times elsewhere; that women must be consulted and be allowed to participate in decision-making to ensure equitable distribution of power. Yet, while we are aiming to increase the quantitative participation of women leaders, we must not forget that putting women in positions of power is penultimate; the final goal is social equality.

As we celebrate more than a century of struggle to attain recognition of equal dignity and equal rights for women, symbolised today by the observation of the International Women’s Day (held every March 8), it is perhaps appropriate go back to the fundamentals to reframe our perspectives.

I particularly remember a time when I spoke about women’s rights with a female colleague in politics. Perhaps half surprised – because I did not expect such a strong ideological protest – and half ashamed – because I know her analysis was correct – I found myself agreeing with her observation of the situation. The problem, she said, was not a battle of the sexes, but rather one of a historic class struggle. The current discriminatory situation against women is for the most part caused by a failure to recognise the equality of all human individuals, men and women. There is no denying that women face much more discrimination than men, especially in the public sphere. But to see this as solely a gender issue is to miss the point about social justice. And at the same time, we risk missing the solution.

Living in a society that takes inequality for granted, the question we should ask is, how do we bridge the power gap between government, the corporations and civil society? In other words, how do we diffuse the traditional monopoly of power?

In our society, the culture of inequality is deeply entrenched. The widening disparity between the rich and the poor, and the disappearing middle class are symptoms of a system that prioritises profit over people, and one that in Malaysia was made worse by unfettered government power and its abuses. The way forward is to deal directly with social inequality – to enact laws against discrimination, to protect the weak and the workers from the market strength of capital owners, as well as to put the concept of justice back into our legal system and stop merely seeing the legal system as a tool for facilitating contracts between businesses.

The time has also come for Malaysians to view politics differently. While it is noble to aim for more women in traditional positions of power, what needs to be done more urgently is to expand the democratic space at all levels. Politics is not merely about winning elections once every five years; rather it should ultimately be more concerned with democracy between elections. This is the area where we want more women, and more men, to take part. Participation should not be misconstrued as merely about positions. If anything it should be about positioning, not just positions. People should be empowered and positioned to demand accountability from the government. Women, and men, for example, must be empowered to participate in the local government decision-making process which affects their daily lives.

In European countries where women’s representation in politics is very high, some scholars have argued that it was in part due to those societies having a more acute awareness of social equality, as opposed to those dealing with issues from a gender, or much less, a women’s angle per se. In Malaysia, we are still struggling with the issue of democratisation where not only women, but also men are not allowed to express their opinions freely without fear of repercussions from the government. As such it is imperative to deal with the root of the problem, and this includes to stop seeing politics as a game of the elite few, but a process of democracy which requires participation from all levels of society.

What does it mean to those of us who believe in gender equality? I think it is time to look beyond the much cherished 30%. Fifteen years have passed since the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action which proposed the 30% strategy, so we must come together again and review our strategy. The world has changed since Beijing – yes, while women in many places are still the most marginalised group, the needs of women and men as well as social dynamics have changed. With more than 50% of our graduates being women and most of them having access to all sorts of resources, the question is, how do we create and instil political awareness about the existing unequal system? Otherwise we run the risk of creating powerful women leaders who are equally oppressive.

Recently, at a training session for women political leaders organised by a Penang-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), a question was asked to the participants, what do women in their constituency need? The answers came in a cluster of five broad themes, and none of these had to do with political positions. The answers included: economic stability, family and personal safety, education for their children, affordable and quality housing and general social security.

This brings us back to fundamental issues of a society constantly threatened with insecurity, caused by a system that favours certain groups of people over others; in other words, a system which takes inequality for granted. Perhaps such immediate and almost fundamental needs were anticipated by the UN this year when they set the 2012 theme for International Women’s Day as “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty”.

It is indeed time for us to revisit the fundamentals.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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