Protest is not new to civil society in Malaysia

Led by the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, women and men from various non-governmental organisations and political parties gathered in front of the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry yesterday to protest against the sexist remarks made by Kinabatangan MP Datuk Bung Mokhtar Radin and Jasin MP Datuk Mohd Said Yusof against Batu Gajah MP Fong Po Kuan. They called for the suspension of both MPs and demanded they apologise for offending all women. The protestors include those from Parti Sosialis Malaysia, representatives from the womens wing of MCA, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Womens Aid Organisation, Sisters In Islam and Women Development Collective. Photo: The Star

It was Malcom X who said “So early in my life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better make some noise.”

Last week, women did just that to mark International Women’s Day (IWD), a Global Women’s Strike in 46 countries; ranging from stopping work or housework to withdrawing sex to organising demonstrations, pickets and marches.

The Global Women’s Strike was organised by the International Women’s Strike (IWS), a grassroots movement established in late 2016 by women from different parts of the world as a response to the current social, legal, political, moral and verbal violence experienced by women at various levels. One in three women experience physical or sexual violence; we should not accept this statistic as the inevitable.

In the words of the Australia Women on Strike, “As aware citizens, we, the women, know the world is going through a crisis phase, but we don’t accept being victims of it. Take care, governing powers in our countries: be mature and address the problems of the world in direct, peaceful ways, with no harm to us.”

It is no coincidence that the herstory of IWD itself is rooted in a march by women workers in New York who took to the streets in 1908 demanding voting rights and protesting against dangerous working conditions, child labour and low wages.

So, what has been the Malaysian women’s experience with protest?

Feminist historians pay homage to the women participating in Malaya’s anti-colonial movement in the 1940s. Women in the Angkatan Wanita Sedar (Conscious Women’s Front) and Kaum Ibu Umno stood with men making fiery speeches during demonstrations against colonial rule. Protest is not new to civil society in Malaysia.

Activists resort to protest when other advocacy strategies fail, or to further throw light on an issue.

Ivy (far right) and other activists demonstrated against the delay in gazetting the DVA in 1996 in this file photo. Photo: The Star
Ivy (far right) and other activists demonstrated against the delay in gazetting the DVA in 1996 in this file photo. Photo: The Star

It was in fact a protest that finally forced the Government to respond to our demands and implement the Domestic Violence Act (DVA).

I recall a sunny day in March 1996 when a motley group of 30 women gathered in front of a hotel waiting for the then Welfare Minister to emerge from a meeting. We blocked the stairs holding a banner demanding the implementation of the DVA.

The minister was friendly and all smiles as she received our memorandum, and our fear of possible arrest dissipated. We had a lawyer on standby in case the police rounded us up.

We demonstrated that day in 1996 because we were disgruntled that after advocating for nine long years – from 1985 to 1994 – to get the Domestic Violence Bill into Parliament and passed by a house of reluctant MPs (most of whom were uneasy with this law that would stop and punish husbands who beat their wives), the DVA was nowhere to be seen.

When Women’s Aid Organisation opened Malaysia’s first refuge in 1982 – a shelter for battered women and their children – women activists soon realised that police were turning away wives who made police reports about beatings and abuse by their husbands.

In 1985, the Joint Action Group against Violence against Women (JAG) was formed and the lobby began to convince the public and the Government we must have a law to protect victims of domestic violence. Without fail, every year during IWD there were renewed calls for a law against domestic violence. We employed every advocacy tool; petitions, memorandums, a road show, public education workshops, MP briefings, media advocacy, even a Walk & Wheel against Domestic violence.

We met with the AG’s chambers and sat through numerous meetings negotiating the language for the Domestic Violence Bill. We refused to agree to a law that only covered non-Muslims.

At long last in 1994, JAG and the National Council of Women’s Organisations were elated when the DVA was passed by Parliament but yet, two years later in 1996, the DVA was a dead piece of legislation, not gazetted or used, as authorities were still hesitant if this law would pose a conflict of jurisdiction between Syaria and civil courts.

To JAG’s credit and particularly the lobby by Sisters In Islam, the Prime Minister, the director-general of Pusat Islam and the director-general of Ikim (Malaysian Institute for Islamic Understanding) all came out to support a domestic violence law that protects ALL women in Malaysia irrespective of religion.

This 2007 photo documents members of JAG presenting their memorandum of protest against sexism in Parliament to then Women, Family and Community Development Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil. Photo: The Star
This 2007 photo documents members of JAG presenting their memorandum of protest against sexism in Parliament to then Women, Family and Community Development Datuk Shahrizat Abdul Jalil. Photo: The Star

The media too was supportive of JAG’s call for the law to be reality and put the demonstrators on their front pages with one mainstream English language newspaper publishing a strong editorial “Move It Minister!”. Within three months of the March protest, the law was gazetted and it is significant to note that in the following year in 1997, there was a 200% increase in police reports on domestic violence.

Can we also claim unabashedly that the Women for Maria protest on Nov 24 last year contributed to getting Maria Chin of Bersih out of jail after 11 days of solitary confinement? Within 24 hours women organised an 800-woman protest at Parliament to demand the release of Maria, who had been arrested on Nov 18, one day before the Bersih 5 rally.

It was exhilarating and inspiring to witness women from all walks of life congregate in front of Parliament in an earnest desire to exercise their democratic right to protest.

During this month, as we remember the gains that women before us fought for, let’s embrace the power of women, the power of movements and the power of protest to further gender equality.

Women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah has been at the forefront of advocating for survivors of abuse. She was the president of Women’s Aid Organisation and its executive director from 1996 to 2014, and has continued to be vocal in protesting against injustice.

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