BY: ANIMAH KOSAI
Malaysia has a problem: misogyny. The country’s Parliament set yet another sordid example last week when Member of Parliament Che Mohamad Zulkifly Jusoh, during a debate on amending domestic violence laws, said husbands were ‘abused’ when wives threw insults, withheld sex and denied consent for Muslim men to take another wife.
Sadly, this attack on women isn’t an isolated case.
In 2007, another MP, Bung Mohktar Radin, equated the leaking parliament roof to a woman’s period, picking on woman opposition MP Fong Po Kuan, and saying she ‘leaked’ every month. His disgraceful comments drew laughter from the floor. No male MP stood up to defend her.
In April this year, Shabudin Yahaya, MP and former syariah court judge, objected to a female representative proposing a ban on child marriage during the tabling of child sex abuse laws. He said nine year old girls are already mature. That girls at 12 or 15 who had bodies of 18 year olds were physically and spiritually mature, and could be married. He explained that rape victims would face a bleak future without husbands — and suggested they marry their rapists. In Malaysia, the legal age for marriage is 18 but exemptions can be given by the appropriate judge.
Was there outrage? Yes. From civil society, mainly women, and a handful of female MPs. It’s an uphill battle when 90% of the House of Representatives are male. Only 23 out of the 222 elected members of parliament are women.
Picture a rowdy boys club that fights to determine the loudest chest thumper. The winner emerges as alpha male while the rest fall into line as loyal followers. Women entering this arena upset the pecking order. We think differently. We ask tough questions. The alpha male isn’t used to being questioned. Especially not by a woman. In front of his pack!
To keep his position, he has to remind her who’s boss. He does so through bullying rather than rational intelligent discourse. You see this in Parliament, in the workplace and on social media. All a leader needs to do is make one remark to ‘put a woman in her place’ and his sycophants will do the rest.
A few months ago, Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor was at a town hall meeting when an eloquent young woman asked him about steps to reduce street crime. She was worried for her safety.
He replied, “It’s because you’re so beautiful. The next time you go out, wear shabby clothes.” The audience laughed and wolf whistles were heard.
In just one sentence, Tengku Adnan avoided answering the question, objectified the woman, blamed the victim and rallied the boys to follow his cue.
Once a leader speaks this way, he is sending the signal to the masses that it is the fault of the victim for being attacked. This is wrong and has to be called out for what it is. Patriarchy. Sexism. Rape Culture.
Why can men get away with such sexist remarks? Because they hold the power. Malaysia has the dubious distinction of scoring highest in the Hofstede Power Distance Index. In other words, Malaysia is the country in which the least powerful members of society most accept and expect the unequal distribution of power.
This means leaders can say anything knowing they will most likely not be challenged. In some families, women are reminded that religion and tradition requires them to be subservient to their husbands.
Zulkifly’s male abuse remarks last week came the same day his boss, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced women had hit 30% representation in management in the top 100 listed Malaysian companies. Najib noted 17 of the companies had no women directors and said companies without women on boards by 2018 would be named and shamed.
Najib, meanwhile, has only 3 women in his 35 member cabinet. His party, UMNO, has 7 women in its 57 member Supreme Council — a council that has both Tengku Adnan and Bung Mokhtar on it.
When there is big imbalance between the genders, misogyny thrives. The only way forward is for men to drop their pack mentality and let women in. It’s hard for women with 10% or 20% of the power to change male mindsets. Don’t leave the heavy lifting to us.
Men, the moment you hear a sexist remark, intervene and object. A man will be taken more seriously by a misogynist. Men are part of the brotherhood. When a woman points out a sexist remark, she is challenging the male ego. He gets defensive, stops listening and often continues his tirade. I have seen the powerful shift when a man calls out sexism. The speaker stops and thinks. He is not threatened. He may not change immediately, but a seed is planted. The more men call out misogyny, the greater the shift. Eventually men will hear women the same way they hear men. As equals.
Workplaces, social media and yes, Parliament, will become less aggressive and open up to a calmer, respectful culture where women will be happy to participate.
We need male champions for gender equality. So non-alpha male men: break ranks and support us.
Animah Kosai is a lawyer who writes, speaks and advises leaders on creating an open “Speak Up” culture in corporations to address wrongdoing, harassment and safety concerns. She also speaks on women empowerment. Animah is creating a platform called Speak Up and can be followed on LinkedIn and Twitter @SpeakUpAtWork. Animah is a HAKAM member.