So Aunty, So What?

Published: Wednesday July 29, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday July 29, 2015 MYT 7:30:26 AM

Feminists are the good guys

TWENTY years ago, I went to China to cover the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women.

It was one of the most memorable and impactful experiences in my life as a journalist and as a woman.

It certainly opened my mind to what gender equality was about. Because of that, writing and editing stories on women’s rights and issues became a staple for me.

In other words, I was and am a feminist. That, however, is a nasty word to many, even among many women, who wrongly associate it with bra-burning, being anti-male and generally unfeminine-like behaviour.

Feminism has a long and proud history and the September 1995 UN conference, which was held in two parts – the official governmental meeting in Beijing and the non-governmental forum in Huairou, then a dusty, shabby town more than an hour’s drive from the capital – was a watershed event.

I witnessed 40,000 women from government and civil society from all over the world coming together to create a powerful mission statement and framework for women empowerment.

It was here Hillary Clinton, then merely the wife of the United States President but who already had rock star appeal, famously said: “Women’s rights are human rights.”

What came out of Beijing was a clear action plan which was formulated with much difficulty.

As women activists Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler, who were there in Beijing, write in, they “fought off attacks from the Vatican, from Iran and from a host of others who lobbied to diminish commitments to women’s equality and freedoms.

We left with a sense of purpose and a roadmap to gender equality: the Beijing Platform for Action.”

In 2012, the UN mulled over organising a fifth world conference this year but member states voted against it. The reasons for this, as summarised by Goetz and Sandler, are the high cost of organising such a meeting and because many of the commitments in the Beijing Platform have yet to be implemented.

These include the commitment to increase the proportion of seats held by women in governments to at least 30%, to put an end to female genital mutilation and to cut military expenditure.

But the reason I found most chilling for not holding a conference is the fear of “reactionary forces.”

According to Goetz and Sandler, “It is far too dangerous now to re-open international agreements on women’s rights. Powerful governments and non-state actors today actively obstruct efforts to advance neglected areas of women’s rights such as sexual and reproductive freedoms. The power of these reactionary forces in an international forum is considerable; they could seriously reverse progress made at Beijing.”

Just who are these reactionary forces in 2015? If in 1995, the Vatican was the leading anti-feminist, today the Holy See has more allies.

That’s why Goetz and Sandler argue that a conference should be held, if not this year, then at least in 2020 because “Women from countries under conservative governments need an opportunity to be heard around the world.”

They add that if a world conference were to be held in a country or region increasingly dominated by fundamentalist religious interests, it would be an opportunity for women to express their perspectives about the use of religion or culture to excuse repression and extreme violence.

So where does Malaysia fit into this? Our government was represented at Beijing and was an active participant in formulating the platform of action, although it had reservations on several provisions.

As a society, Malaysian women generally have it good, although there are still glaring gaps and lapses that remain, like amending the Constitution to give women the same citizenship rights as men with regards to their spouses and children born outside of Malaysia, formulating a real action plan to achieve that 30% in decision-making positions and protection against sexual harassment and other unfair workplace practices.

On the bright side, they’ve always had the vote and increasingly, they outperform men in terms of education and employment. Three out of four students in tertiary education are female and women now make up more than 50% of the national workforce.

Malaysian women enjoy personal freedoms too: they can go about with their lives without chaperones, drive on their own, and go in and out of the country without restrictions.

We take all this for granted but let’s face it, those reactionary forces mentioned are definitely at work here too. They would dearly love to turn back the clock, deny women education and independence, marry them off early, dictate their dress code and push them back into the kitchen as docile and obedient wives.

We may think we can laugh off such attempts; after all, ours is a modern, progressive model Muslim state.

At least, that’s how we like to present ourselves on the international stage; especially so with the Global Movement of Moderates initiative that our Prime Minister first mooted at the UN on Sept 27, 2010.

Yet in the last five years, instead of emphasising and building acceptance and understanding of each other for peaceful co-existence and respect for all, regardless of race, creed or gender, we have been getting the opposite.

We have been bludgeoned by hammer blows condemning and vilifying highly valued and aspirational social concepts like liberalism, pluralism, secularism and even human rights. And you bet feminism is something these people want to beat out of existence.

Those reactionary forces are at work all over the world and right-thinking Malaysians must do our part to stop them in their tracks and beat them back.

What the PM said on that September day before the world is more urgent than ever: “It is time for moderates of all countries, of all religions to take back the centre, to reclaim the agenda for peace and pragmatism, and to marginalise the extremists. With greater will and collective determination, we will build a more peaceful, secure and equitable world.”

That is exactly what feminism is about. So you’d better believe it: we feminists are really the good guys.

  • Aunty would like to give the last word to the great Gloria Steinem, “A feminist is anyone who recognises the equality and full humanity of women and men.” Feedback to

Tags / Keywords: gender equality, empowerment, human rights

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