WOMEN’S involvement in politics should never be tokenistic or treated as “seat warmers”, said activists and academics. Lawyer-activist Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said women’s representation in politics was as important as the politics they represented and practised – politics that was inclusive, progressive, radical and representative of the people in Malaysia, in particular, the marginalised.
She said this in response to a recent call by the Pakatan Harapan women’s wing for there to be more women in decision-making positions in society, especially in politics.
PH president Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail recently said the opposition pact was willing to name a woman prime minister, prior to the eventual announcement of its candidates for prime minister and deputy prime minister.
Professor Zaharom Nain of Nottingham University’s Malaysia campus, who shared Fadiah’s opinion, said: “No duly elected representative, male or female, can be a ‘seat warmer’. We want our representatives to work for us, not just for their spouses.”
Independent writer Lim Hong Siang felt that the term “seat warmer” alluded to Dr Wan Azizah was not only unkind to her, but unnecessarily trivialised all women.
He said Dr Wan Azizah had her own strengths, as proven by the fact that she was able to face various challenges in the absence of her currently jailed husband, Anwar Ibrahim.
Civil society group Empower’s executive director, Angela M. Kuga Thas, said it was unfortunate that the term “seat warmer” had come up and been bandied about frequently when it came to Dr Wan Azizah.
“She has clearly demonstrated that she is a leader. She has been very responsible in safeguarding the interests of the coalition, as well as the party (PKR).
“Being the deputy prime minister would certainly be an opportunity for her to not only be visible, but to be more vocal and set directions for women to substantively participate in politics, democracy and good governance, irrespective of religious belief, gender, class and ethnicity.”
On the other hand, Dr Wong Chin Huat, a fellow at Penang Institute, said the real “seat warmer” in the present political arrangement was Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is expected to vacate the prime minister’s post later and make way for Anwar.
So, in the event that PH takes over Putrajaya, should Dr Wan Azizah remain as deputy prime minister while her husband replaces Dr Mahathir – in the supposed interest of boosting women’s representation in politics?
Fadiah, Wong and Lim echoed each other’s sentiments, that they felt it would bring about a conflict of interest if Dr Wan Azizah were to be deputy to her husband.
Zaharom cautioned that while it was important to have women in high-ranking positions, at times, the “women need more seats” assertion could turn out to be a red herring.
“Some of the infamous women leaders of this world, like Margaret Thatcher, never fought for women’s rights.
“It’s doubtful that, in the current context, Ivanka Trump, (Minister) Azalina (Othman Said) or Shahrizat (Abdul Jalil) would champion women as envisioned by many feminists. So really, the gender element is just one of many.
Angela, however, felt that it was precisely this culture of expectation for Dr Wan Azizah to step down that was problematic.
“If PH does take over the government from Barisan Nasional, PH should first uphold its intention, which it has already made public, that women can take up the top two positions in government.
“Ideally, and from past experience, a deputy prime minister has every opportunity to move up to become prime minister. The question of ‘who’ among women in politics should be decided based on merit, experience and the ability to govern without fear or favour in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia.”
Against a backdrop of calls for better women’s representation in politics, Wong said there was a need for more women ministers, “minimum 30% by international standards”.
“The exact portfolios should be decided based on the individual’s capabilities, but we certainly should not have as low as the 13% now (ministers and deputy ministers combined).”
Zaharom and Lim are of the opinion that allocating only certain portfolios for women was insulting to women representatives specifically, and women generally.
They said this was about intellect, ability and a commitment to serve the people.
“All of the portfolios, of course! Women’s experiences and voices should count in all areas, whether it has to do with the economy, education, health or national security. They should not be relegated to positions typically associated with women’s issues,” said Angela.
“One way to better enable women politicians to work together for the benefit of all in Malaysia is to institutionalise the Women Parliamentarian Caucus. This will not only help foster the sharing of knowledge and skills, but also work across portfolios.”
Lim said Malaysians should not overlook the importance of policies concerning women, which male politicians could support.
For instance, how do historical texts provide a sufficient portrayal of women’s role in society?
“While we champion women’s representation, we should also demand that male politicians have an awareness of and sensitivity towards women’s interests and concerns” said Lim.
“At the end of the day, it is not about 10 or 20 women ministers to defend women’s interests in our daily lives, but the policies instituted that can protect women’s interests.”