Women have long been regarded as the backbone of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Barisan Nasional (BN). But the role of women in the 13th Malaysian parliament looks set to continue to be a limited one, repeating a pattern that has been in place since before independence.
Wanita UMNO’s election machinery has always worked well, and has since the country’s first elections been credited for the electoral successes of the ruling coalition. So why hasn’t this translated into more women candidates?
When Wanita UMNO – then known as Kaum Ibu (KI) UMNO – and other political women’s wings were first set up, its primary functions were to strengthen their own organisations and increase party membership. Their existence was to facilitate “house-to-house campaigning” rather than produce potential candidates.
There were female candidates in pre-independence elections, but they were often not fielded in winnable seats. One popular explanation at the time was that among non-Malay voters, there tended to be more men than women. However, among early Malay voters, the numbers were more split evenly.
But competition for seats within UMNO was fierce, and with few women holding positions of any real power, it was unlikely that electing more women would become a priority for the party. After the 1955 elections, there was only one woman on the Federal Legislative Council – a result that KI UMNO found so disappointing that a boycott of the next elections were even suggested.
The position of women was a talking point for the political elite in the run-up to the 1959 elections. UMNO promised there would be more women candidates, and the Socialist Front at one point said that one in six of the candidates it would be fielding would be women. In February of that- year, KI UMNO leader Fatimah Hashim received assurances from the UMNO Supreme Council that there would be more women candidates.
But it later emerged that in Selangor, there would be no women candidates in any of the state’s 14 districts. Despite this, KI UMNO agreed to work hard for the candidates. At a federal level, the number of women in parliament did not increase following the elections.
Afterwards, KI UMNO again continued to press for more women candidates, specifically that there be federal seats reserved for women. They were, at the time, the only women’s wing in the country to take up this issue. But as before, KI UMNO would again be left disappointed – the 1964 elections saw no increase in the number of women in parliament.
History has since continued to repeat itself. Wanita UMNO continues to be “sidelined”, to borrow Kamilia’s description, all the while promising to work hard for the party. Creating opportunities for women are just not seen as being that important.
When the candidates list was finalised after nomination day on April 20, it soon became obvious that the number of women standing for seats in the federal parliament had not increased significantly since 2008. Unless the political elite enact measures that will provide more opportunities and support for women in the political realm, it is inevitable that role of women in the Malaysian parliament will continue to be limited.
One other nomination day development related to women’s participation in politics was the departure of Wanita UMNO deputy and UMNO Supreme Council member Kamilia Ibrahim to stand as an independent in the federal seat of Kuala Kangsar.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said she had been offered a state seat; Kamilia denied there had been such an offer. Wanita UMNO leader and former Minister for Women Shahrizat Jalil was reported to have said in the wake of Kamilia’s departure that women in politics needed to be “patient.” She also added the Wanita UMNO election machinery was behind UMNO’s male candidate in Kuala Kangsar, and that it was running “smoothly and without any hitches.”
Both sides of the political divide have followed a tradition established during the country’s early elections by pointing towards its relationship with women as a sign of its progressiveness and suitability for government.
BN, and in particular its component party UMNO, has made much of its long history of engaging with women voters. It has also attempted to utilise what it says is its positive track record on women’s rights, with Prime Minister Najib Razak infamously declaring last year that gender equality already existed in the country.
Pakatan Rakyat, meanwhile, has pointed to the number of high-profile women within its ranks. It has also signaled a willingness to implement quotas to increase the number of women in leadership positions.
But when it eventually emerged that it was unlikely the number of women in federal parliament would increase after 1959, and that neither side had made iron-clad commitments that would improve women’s political participation, it quickly became clear that the 13th general election was something of a squandered opportunity when it came to seeing more women parliamentarians.
At a recent Google Hangout organised by the Centre for Independent Journalism, young writer Juana Jaafar described herself as being “disappointed” about the relatively few women candidates in this election. At the same event, other women’s activists Marina Mahathir and Zainah Anwar, whilst expressing similar disappointment, said that they were unfortunately not surprised.
The organisation Empower, which has set up a website to monitor women’s political participation in Malaysia, has been similarly critical of this (non) development, noting that women candidates had to be fielded in winnable seats.
The structure of many political parties in Malaysia allows women only limited opportunities and support to participate in the political process. Ideas about the consignment of men and women to public and private spheres remain strong. Women continue to be policed for any sign of outspokenness or not toeing the patriarchal line, and are always viciously punished for the smallest infraction.
Men have thus been able to thrive in and dominate the political sphere, and the gap between the public rhetoric on women’s participation and actual results can be explained by the refusal to recognise women as anything other than supporting players. With no real bold steps undertaken the pattern remained in place on nomination day this year, and looks set to remain so beyond May 5th.
But there are some steps that can be taken to prevent this from continuing.
The idea of quotas is not always a popular one amongst Malaysians, mainly due to many associating them with the pro-Bumiputera policies. Worldwide, however, quotas have helped many parliaments increase the number of women there to levels healthier than 10 per cent.
Additionally, women candidates must be placed in winnable positions. It’s no accident that the number of women in the Senate, where members are appointed, is 25 per cent and therefore higher than in the Parliament.
It is also worth noting that proportional representation is likely to see more women elected than a first-past-the-post system – Malaysia has the latter system.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, there must be cultural change. Gender audits are a useful tool in determining how structures and environments can become more gender-sensitive so as to encourage more women to be active and equal participants.
Dahlia Martin is a PhD Candidate at the School of International Studies, Flinders University. Her thesis, titled “Family and the Melayu Baru: motherhood and Malay Muslim identity”, investigates the position of motherhood in Malay nationalism.