Women's Status in Malaysia

On the night of the 20th of September 1998, my father, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, was arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act; he was first sacked on the 2nd of September after a political fallout with the then Prime Minister of Malaysia.
Prior to his arrest, he led calls for reform in the country, termed the Reformasi movement. By April 1999, my mother, Dr. Wan Azizah Wan Ismail founded the People’s Justice Party.

I myself, have definitely become more politically active since then. I was heavily involved in the 1999 as well as 2004 elections. I campaigned alongside the opposition movement and many non-governmental organizations to ensure that the reform agenda could be implemented. In addition, I attended many conferences abroad to bring up the political incarceration of my father at the time. Like all daughters of political prisoners, I am an advocate for the abolishment of the internal security act, for a comprehensive reform of the judiciary.


As a member of the People’s Justice Party I also aim to empower women – and most importantly to ensure that women’s voices are heard, and not manipulated and used as sheer political tools. Though a working progress, the People’s Justice Party aims to promote greater working relationship between the main races – to ensure that we incorporate not only different groups in the party, but also women’s involvement. Our youth wing is one of the few in the country, which combines both the men and women – I believe it marks an important start.


Here’s part of my musings on women in Malaysia (myself included) and our shared hope for the future. Needless to say, my source of inspiration is not only my father, but also my dear mother. She is an epitome of patience –and I am persevering to reach her level of composure (and hopefully getting there… slowly)

Malaysia, May 30th 2006: Pockets of women in society continue their lifelong quest to define feminism. An elusive term – much misunderstood by many, and viewed negatively by others across the gender spectrum of the Malaysian society, it remains an important link to women’s rights. Even if we restrict its definition to the “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” there would still be a chorus of disagreement from others who either feel this definition is lacking or incomplete in its description. Consequently, first and foremost, what remains of crucial importance is for women to understand that they have rights, which need to be protected and respected. Ranging from being accorded due respect, protected against sexual harassment at the workplace, at the universities, and against abuse at the hands of cruel spouses, to being granted certain benefits to allow mothers balance their family and work life –these rights are not exclusive to professional working women. Women’s concerns will include the trampling of the rights of domestic helpers, factory workers bordering on exploitation, even refugees from neighboring countries – regardless of their nationality or race.

Malaysia has certainly come a long way since obtaining independence in 1957. Women now hold 25.7% of the total seats in the upper parliamentary house. But this marks only a humble beginning to a spectrum of changes needed in the struggle for equality and recognition – including reforms in legislation and the incorporation of laws such as a comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation to provide adequate victim protection (you get my drift).

The move to change society’s psyche, which is sometimes plagued by patriarchal bias, pressures against women to conform, and outright insensitivity, begins with us. We need to engage and participate in the movement to increase awareness on women’s issues, rights – that more often than not include rights of society at large.

I envision a generation of women, who will continue to carry on the successes of yesteryears, coupled with a strengthening of vigor to address issues and concerns of women/society at large. Exclusivity will not be the agenda of the day. Politicians from either side need to stress substantive change and enforcement of laws that protect women from abuse. We begin this process by joining and taking part in the conversation – on issues that affect us, and all levels of society. Granted, this can include heated debates on what defines feminism – but before we get into that, you must first partake in this process.

Editor's Note

Originally published in Imagining Ourselves.

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