Women’s progress is a recurring theme in ethno-religious politics in Malaysia, particularly when there is concern about support within the electorate. The run-up to the thirteenth general elections (GE13), together with developments since then, testify to the continuation of a particular pattern when it comes to the political significance of women and gender.

Last month saw the “historic” declaration by Prime Minister Najib Razak at the 2013 United Malays Nationalist Organisation (UMNO) general assembly that Wanita UMNO (UMNO’s women’s wing) was the “backbone or the mother” of the party. It came a day after Wanita UMNO chief Shahrizat Jalil called for such a recognition, noting that without Wanita UMNO, many UMNO divisions and branches would have to “close shop.”

The declaration also topped off a year that had been disastrous for Barisan Nasional (BN: National Front), the ruling coalition of which UMNO is the largest party. The thirteenth general election (GE13) had seen BN lose the popular vote for the first time since independence. Najib had failed at making the 2008 political tsunami (the twelfth general elections, or GE12) appear to be an anomaly, and it looked as though GE13 might cost Najib his job much like the GE12 results had cost Najib’s immediate predecessor’s his.

Najib’s task then, upon becoming Prime Minister in 2009, had been to engineer policies and rhetoric that, whilst being forward-looking and possessing wide appeal, ultimately led back to UMNO, a strategy that has arguably been most evident in how his administration approached gender issues.

When Shahrizat, beset by corruption allegations, resigned as the Minister for Women, Family and Community Development in early 2012, it was announced that Najib would be taking over the women’s ministry. Shahrizat described him as the “best choice” for the role, adding that “under the BN government, women’s achievements have been something to be proud of.”

Najib certainly made sure to emphasise these “achievements”: he angered several local women’s group later that year when he said there was no need for such groups as there had been gender equality in Malaysia “from the start.” He was also quoted as saying that Malaysia was ahead of other countries when it came to gender equality, and that Malaysian women were so successful that “men are said to be an endangered species.”

When Najib did speak of work that needed to be done on gender issues, he often did so in a tone reminiscent of UMNO’s role as “protector” of the Malays.[1] He launched a program that focused on empowering women in rural areas so that they could look after themselves and their families; he wrote in a 1Malaysia blog post of protecting the “women we love” from violence whilst stating his commitment to empowering them and making them less vulnerable; and he also, shortly before GE13, again reaffirmed the government’s commitment to empowering women, and linked it with achieving national objectives.

At the end of 2012, at the last UMNO general assembly ahead of GE13, Shahrizat thanked Malaysian men, “specifically UMNO men”, for supporting Malaysian women and helping to make sure that they did not need to burn their bras to attain gender equality. The deliberate construction of links between ethno-religious nationalism, gender and equality was key in selling to the electorate the continuing relevance of UMNO-BN – the coalition that had ruled Malaysia “from the start” i.e. since independence.

UMNO has long relied on its women’s wing for maintaining grassroots relationships, particularly in the rural areas, and also for acting as a useful symbol for its aspirations. One early episode that demonstrates the wing’s dual-purpose is the initial resistance to changing its name from Kaum Ibu (Mother’s collective) to something “more age-neutral and less matronly”; opposition was mostly centred around the idea that the term Kaum Ibu presented a particular image of Malay womanhood that “brought the party votes and victory to the polls.”

When the name of the wing was eventually changed to Wanita UMNO in 1971, it was done so as to help build up an urban membership base and attract more professional women. It was thought that an increase in “educated women” members would increase the political clout of the wing, and help bring about more women in cabinet.

A name change did not result in an influx of “intellectuals”; instead the gendered pyramid of UMNO that saw a “stable” women’s wing campaign for the party and support the (male) party leadership remained constant. The UMNO leadership continued to view shrewdly the contributions that Wanita UMNO made to the party, so that when they felt Wanita UMNO was falling short, they had few qualms about moving quickly and with apparently little consultation: despite initial resistance from Wanita UMNO, Puteri UMNO ( UMNO’s women youth wing) was formed to help make sure women, but specifically young Malay women, continue to support the party, since, according to one local observer, such a task could “hardly be accomplished” by Wanita UMNO.

Najib, in the run-up to GE13, appeared to demonstrate similar shrewdness: in using women as a symbol and example of his administration’s progressiveness, he was continuing a pattern set by his predecessors in UMNO. But if he was hoping to establish both himself and UMNO as essential to Malaysia’s social development, then GE13 delivered a blow to those efforts.

In the immediate aftermath of GE13, Najib appointed a new cabinet of mostly conservatives, and relinquished the women’s ministry to Rohani Abdul Karim of the Sarawak-based Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB). Wanita UMNO, already without a minister since Shahrizat’s earlier resignation, continued to have no representation in the cabinet. This development did little for Najib’s personal brand as a progressive and reformer, nor the narrative of UMNO as an upholder of women’s rights. But if women had won UMNO votes in the past, they could be relied upon to do so again.

Less than two weeks after announcing his new cabinet, Najib made an admission at odds with some of his earlier statements when he grimly noted a recent World Economic Forum report that had placed Malaysia in the bottom quarter of the gender gap index. At the third global conference of Women Deliver, where he made the admission, he also discussed how with his re-election came “new and increased commitment to empower women and girls.”

Again and again over 2013, at a number of events including the Global Summit for Women, the National Women’s Day celebrations, and the World Islamic Economic Forum, Najib continued to utilise feminist rhetoric to send a message that he was personally committed to women’s empowerment.

Was Najib’s renewed commitment to pursuing gender equality genuine?

If there was any optimism that Najib’s more strengthened use of feminist rhetoric in the wake of GE13 meant that he and UMNO were indeed seeking to challenge existing gender roles and stereotypes, then the way that the Wanita UMNO leadership contest played out should have been the first definitive sign that this was not the case: Shahrizat, whom Najib had clearly signalled his preference for when he appointed her special advisor to the Prime Minister shortly ahead of the polls, won after allegedly sending voting division members a video where she spoke of spending time with her mother, preparing a meal for her family, how much she missed spending time in the kitchen since she was busy with party matters, and that she would continue to pray for the wing’s future.

An earlier challenger, Puteri UMNO founder Azalina Othman, was dismissed by one Wanita UMNO leader as “too alien” to lead the wing. Azalina, who had discussed in an interview shortly after her challenge was announced how being an unmarried woman made her an easy target for others, eventually withdrew from the contest, ostensibly to be trained as a “suitable successor” according to speculation in the New Straits Times.

The 2013 UMNO general assembly announcement saw UMNO come full circle in terms of its view of the women’s wing as serving a dual-purpose function. Whilst Shahrizat hailed Najib’s “courage, mission and vision”, Najib’s speech both invoked the motherly image that once been thought to be so critical to UMNO’s success, and further formalised the gendered pyramid structure of UMNO by referring to Wanita UMNO as the “backbone.”

Both Najib and UMNO were firmly back on track to repeating history.

This article is based on the paper, “Politicising Malay-Muslim Womanhood: Women’s Empowerment as a Political Platform in the Run-Up to the 13th General Elections”, presented at the 18th Malaysia and Singapore Society of Australia (MASSA) Symposium on 6th December 2013 at the University of Sydney.


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[1] Helen Ting has suggested that the unequal gender power relations within UMNO were “a manifestation of the general political dynamics” within UMNO and a reflection of its hierarchical function as a “protector” to the Malays.