Halls of Power Narrow for Malaysian Women

By Liz Gooch, New York Times

KUALA LUMPUR — At the gathering in a hotel on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital, there was talk of canvassing “highly persuadable” voters, campaign budgets and media strategies. There was even a stirring speech by a “candidate.”

The gathering had all the hallmarks of an election campaign meeting, with a couple of exceptions: all the participants were women, and they were from across the political spectrum, united in their eagerness to learn how to run a successful campaign.

“Long live women!” was the candidate’s final rallying cry, which was met with cheers from the audience.

Empower, the nongovernmental organization that organized this and similar workshops, hopes that training women to navigate what remains a largely male-dominated power structure will increase their chances of rising within their parties — and winning elections. But there are plenty of reasons why it thinks Malaysian women need help.

Malaysia lags behind many of its Southeast Asian neighbors when it comes to women’s political participation, according to the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index report by the World Economic Forum, based in Geneva.

While its overall ranking in the index was 98th out of 134 countries, Malaysia placed 110th in terms of women’s representation in government, behind the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. The political empowerment ranking is determined by the number of women in parliament and in ministerial positions, and the number of years a country has had a woman as the head of state or government.

Quota status

The issue of women’s representation in both the public and private sectors has been attracting increasing attention here. In June, the government announced a new quota system under which women must occupy at least 30 percent of the seats on the boards of Malaysian companies starting in 2016.

A similar quota for the public sector was introduced in 2004, and the government says the number of women in top positions in the civil service and state-affiliated universities, hospitals and other sector jobs has nearly doubled since then, reaching more than 32 percent.

On the political front, however, women’s advocates and analysts say that conservative attitudes about women in leadership posts in this Muslim-majority nation and the internal structure of political parties have set up obstacles to women’s advancement.

Those who manage to overcome these hurdles often find that negotiating the halls of Parliament is not easy, with some male politicians notorious for headline-grabbing sexist remarks, from accusing female drivers of causing road accidents to pointing the finger at wives whose husbands visit prostitutes.

Several years ago a male politician, when criticizing a female member of Parliament from a rival party, said that she “leaked every month.”

“Female M.P.’s are often more vulnerable to attacks and scrutiny and have to live up to a different expectation from the public,” said Teresa Kok, a member of Parliament for the opposition Democratic Action Party and one of several female legislators who in 2009 submitted a memorandum to Parliament complaining about such remarks.

Women hold 10.4 percent of the seats in the national House of Representatives and 8 percent in the state assemblies. Their numbers are higher — 25.7 percent — in the national Senate, where most members are appointed rather than elected.

Only 2 of the 25 ministries — the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development and the Ministry of Tourism — are led by women.

Advocacy groups, such as the Women’s Aid Organization, argue that the shortage of female parliamentary representatives and cabinet members has meant that the government has been slow to tackle issues of concern to women, like developing legislation to combat sexual harassment.

Making progress

Despite the low numbers of elected representatives, the current figures reflect progress. More female candidates were fielded in the 2008 national elections and more women were elected to Parliament than at any time since Malaysia gained its independence from Britain in 1957, said Maria Chin Abdullah, executive director of Empower.

Most of the new female representatives came from opposition parties, which made historic gains in the 2008 elections.

Like their counterparts in many countries, Ms. Chin Abdullah said Malaysian women bear the burden of domestic work and child care. She said many women had complained that they had been expected to do all of the housework even while they ran their political campaigns and that their husbands had not supported their decisions to be involved in politics.

Analysts say that women find it more difficult to secure the money needed to run for election than men.

“Most of the people who run the campaigns and fund the campaigns are men,” said James Chin, a political science professor and director of the school of arts and social sciences at Monash University in Malaysia, adding that they tend to support other men.

While social and financing challenges are hardly unique to women in Malaysia, some commentators say the structure of political parties in the country also hinders women’s progress. Most Malaysian women join their parties’ women’s wings rather than the mainstream party.

Critics contend that women’s wings tend to focus on “women’s issues” and often lack clout. But some say the effectiveness of such wings in helping promote women varies by party.

Mr. Chin said women in the ethnic Malay-based parties suffer from what he called the “religious factor,” a reference to local Islamic views on the suitability of women for leadership positions.

Ethnic Malay-based parties, such as the governing United Malays National Organization and the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, have fielded proportionately fewer female candidates than ethnic Chinese-based parties, such as the opposition Democratic Action Party and the Malaysian Chinese Association, a member of the governing coalition.

In addition, analysts say, opposition parties tend to be more open to change and therefore more favorable to women.

Cecilia Ng Choon Sim, an independent researcher, and Ms. Chin Abdullah cite the People’s Justice Party’s decision to amend its constitution to ensure that 30 percent of leadership positions be held by women, and the Democratic Action Party’s nomination of twice as many female candidates for the April state election in Sarawak as in the previous election.

“The opposition gives more opportunity to women, but in Barisan Nasional they have to fight a lot in order to be recognized,” said Ms. Chin Abdullah, referring to the National Front, the coalition that has governed Malaysia since independence.

‘It’s just not enough’

Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, the minister for women, family and community development and the leader of the women’s wing of the United Malays National Organization, known as U.M.N.O. Women, says that the National Front has always fielded female candidates. “It’s just not enough,” she said.

She defended women’s wings as a platform to “nurture” women. “They can have the comfort of being with other women, but at the same time, the road is open for them to be involved in mainstream politics,” she said in an interview. “Today, if we were to merge and there’s no wings, my worry is that there won’t be enough women in the decision-making positions.”

Five positions on the United Malays National Organization’s 55-member Supreme Council, the party’s top decision-making body, are allocated to representatives from U.M.N.O. Women and Puteri U.M.N.O., the group for women aged 18 to 35.

Daunting though it may be, there was no shortage of enthusiasm at the recent workshop for women.

Mariana Abdullah, a 53-year-old branch leader of the People’s Justice Party’s women’s wing, is confident that Malaysia will one day have a female prime minister.

But she predicts it will be at least another decade before this becomes a reality, because she says more women must first be elected to Parliament and more time is needed to “change all the stubborn men.”

“We have to fight for it,” she said.