Sexual harassment statistics in parliaments around the world highlight a dire need for them to put their house in order.
LET’S stop blaming Trump for our misogynistic world. Even without him, there are plenty of men in leadership positions who think women are just fair game.
Before Trump, there was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was an early post-truth politician.
He was just 1.65m tall but Berlusconi thought he was God’s gift to women and his list of sexual scandals and sexist gaffes is legendary.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron was roasted in 2011 when he told Labour MP Angela Eagle, “Calm down, dear” which critics pounced on, declaring that his response revealed what he really thought of women: that they were emotional and hysterical.
Asian male politicians are just as prone to making sexist remarks.
Last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a visit to Dhaka, lauded Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina for her “unshakeable resolve” in fighting terrorism. But then he went and spoilt it by adding, “despite being a woman.”
Another Indian politician, Mulayam Singh Yadav, reportedly said at an election rally: “First girls become friends with boys. Then when they have differences, girls level rape charges.
“Boys commit mistakes. Will they be hanged for rape?”
Over in Japan, a Tokyo city councillor made international headlines in 2014 when he was forced to apologise to a female colleague for heckling her during a meeting.
Akihiro Suzuki told Ayaka Shiomura to “hurry up and get married” when she raised questions on measures to help pregnant women and young mothers.
And then there is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
The latest incident had him making inappropriate remarks to Vice-President Leni Robredo on her looks and “nice legs” at an event marking the third anniversary of Super Typhoon Yolanda in Tacloban City.
But all these sexist jibes pale in comparison to the unforgivably nasty barb a Malaysian deputy minister threw at an Opposition MP, Teresa Kok, in Parliament last month.
It happened during a heated debate over a rally organised by Bersih, a movement calling for electoral reform.
The Deputy Minister for Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, Datuk Tajuddin Abdul Rahman sniggered, “Why is Seputeh going ‘kekekeke’? The only woman with a ‘Kok’ is in Seputeh.”
He was obviously making fun of her surname, a common Chinese family name which sounds like the slang word for male genitalia.
Kok is a fourth-term MP for the Seputeh constituency in Kuala Lumpur.
Tajuddin’s tasteless remark ignited a firestorm of protest from the Opposition. He refused to apologise and went on to make fun of another woman MP by mimicking the way she spoke.
Tajuddin’s sexist remark actually topped backbencher Datuk Bung Moktar Radin’s crude dig at a woman MP in 2007.
The then MP for the Batu Gajah seat, Fong Poh Kuan, had complained to the Speaker about the roof in Parliament leaking every time it rained.
Bung, the MP for the Kinabatangan seat in Sabah, jumped up to make a crack: “Mana ada bocor? Batu Gajah pun bocor tiap-tiap bulan juga.” (Where is the leak? Batu Gajah leaks every month too).
Yes, we should expect better from our elected representatives. But from the many examples we have, such behaviour and attitudes in male politicians are quite universal.
It’s been 21 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women, which resulted in the Women’s Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, hailed as “the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights”, covering 12 areas of concerns like education, health, influence and decision-making, human rights, and violence against women and the girl child.
The ultimate objective is gender equality and the empowerment of women by ending discrimination against the female sex.
Significant gains and progress have been made, especially in education, employment opportunities and health care.
But there are still big gaps.
Where influence and decision-making is concerned, as of June this year, only 22.8% of all parliamentarians are women, a dismal increase from 11.3% in 1995 and still short of the United Nations target of 30%, according to UN Women, the global body working to ensure gender equality.
Not only are they a minority, they are subjected to shocking sexual harassment, as revealed by the first Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) report on Sexism, harassment and violence against women parliamentarians, released just a month before the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on Nov 25.
It confirmed what former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard told women aspiring to be politicians: “Threats of violent abuse, of rape, are far too common. A woman in public view may expect to receive them almost daily.”
The IPU report surveyed 55 female MPs from 39 countries and found that 81.8% responded that they had “been subjected personally to one or more acts of psychological violence.”
This included “sexist or sexually humiliating remarks, gestures and images” and “threats and harassment which fell outside the normal political debate which is combative and even rough by nature”.
The survey found that almost two-thirds had been subjected to humiliating sexist remarks and 44.4% had received threats of rape, beatings, abduction and even death.
Even worse, 22% actually experienced sexual violence, while 33% had witnessed sexual violence against female colleagues in parliament.
And who were the perpetrators? Their male colleagues from the opposition and even their own parties.
IPU secretary-general Martin Chungong said the study showed the need for parliaments to tackle sexism.
“Parliaments need to put their own house in order if they want to lead by example and stop discrimination and violence against women in all walks of life,” he said.
Indeed, if law-makers and leaders of countries can’t guarantee a mutually respectful workplace for men and women, how can we expect other public spaces and workplaces to be any better?
UN Women says across Asia, studies in Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea show that 30% to 40% of women suffer workplace sexual harassment.
But changing attitudes that are so ingrained will not happen easily, especially in many Asian countries that are still patriarchal in structure and treat women as inferior.
So what’s the best response to misogynistic men?
Michelle Obama’s advice is “When they go low, we go high.”
That may be a great sound bite but if going high means maintaining a dignified silence or ignoring the perpetrator, I don’t think that’s enough. I say give back as good as you get.
Instead of getting angry, get even because showing you’re hurt is exactly what these men want to see.
Years ago, as a teenager walking home, I was followed by a man who had been seen lurking around in the neighbourhood before. He turned out to be a flasher.
I managed to remain calm, put on a sneer and even laugh at his pathetic display. The shock on the man’s face was priceless. Instead of me running away in tears and fear, he ran off instead.
I never saw him again.
Giving men like him a taste of their own medicine might just be part of the cure.
The writer was the former group chief editor of The Star Media Group Malaysia and is now its Chief Operating Officer (Content Development). This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers across the region.