Whither gender equality?

OUT of the 25 countries at the bottom of the 2018 World Economic Forum Gender gap survey, 21 are Muslim-majority countries, with Chad, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen at the bottom five.

The survey which measures the relative gaps between women and men in 149 countries, across indicators on health, education, economy and politics, ranked Malaysia at 101, just below the global average. Our country has achieved gender parity in educational attainment, but ranks 84 for economic participation and opportunity, 83 for health and survival, and near bottom 131 for political empowerment.

The World Bank Women, Law and Business 2019 report which measures how laws affect women throughout their working lives, once again reveal that 21 of the 25 worst performing are Muslim-majority countries, with Qatar, Iran, Sudan, UAE and Saudi Arabia at the bottom five.

Malaysia performs worse in this survey at number 124 out of 143 economies surveyed, not least due to its Muslim family law that discriminates against women.

Using datasets from the World Bank’s 2014 and 2016 reports, one research found that restrictions on legal capacity, including limits on married women’s rights to work and travel, asymmetrical inheritance rights, and spousal obedience rules normally embedded in family and personal status laws, is the clearest predictor of women’s asset ownership and labor force participation.

The 2015 Mackinsey Global Institute Power of Parity report identified formal legal equality as a critical first step to closing the gap between women and men in the economy. Its study showed that the global economy will increase by a staggering US$28 trillion in 2025 if there is gender parity in the workforce. Even if countries advance to match the rate of improvement of the best performing country in the region, US$12 trillion will be added to the global economy.

Tonnes of research have been done to prove that gender equality is good for the family, for society, for the economy, for a country’s prosperity and well-being. Yet, in the Muslim world, we find leaders opposing the demands for change by invoking the name of God and persecuting women human rights defenders for allegedly being a threat to public order and national security.

Aren’t these governments ashamed that a religion that granted women rights considered revolutionary in the seventh century, including rights to own and inherit property, to sign their own contracts, to give consent to marriage, are today used to deny half their population from reaching their full potential as citizens of equal worth?

Aren’t they ashamed that they and their fellow Muslims are languishing at the bottom of gender equality tables, even when their economies are ranked as high-income or upper middle-income countries? How do these leaders justify discrimination against half their population and live with the harm done not just to women and family life, but even to their own economies and national well-being?

This is the 21st century. There can be no justice without equality. It is as simple as that. What was considered revolutionary in seventh century Arabia is today the dominant global ethics. Alas, if only the Muslim world had been true to the teachings of Islam, we would be at the top of all these gender equality tables.

I shudder when the UN report cards come out this year and into the next year to measure progress on government commitments to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and SDG Indicator 5.1.1 that tracks progress on legal frameworks to advance gender equality. I will not be surprised that once again, many Muslim-majority countries will get failing grades, given the record so far and the continuing lack of commitment and political will to do what is right and just for their citizens.

Over 1,400 years has passed since the message of equality, justice and compassion was revealed. Obviously our patriarchal men just cannot deal with the realities of the 21st century.

Women today are no longer willing to be treated as doormats, as subservient and inferior half of the human race. They are no longer willing to keep quiet and suffer the laws, policies and practices that discriminate against them just because they are women.

Why is that still so difficult to fathom for many men? It is not rocket science if only these men are capable of empathy and putting themselves in the women’s reality.

Instead they quickly turn to religion to justify their bad behaviour, to silence dissenting voices and to demonise and delegitimise the right of others to seek change.

And to make it worse, there are women willing to join their male colleagues and hurl labels and accusations at groups like Sisters in Islam for standing up for the rights of women to be treated as human beings of equal worth and dignity.

Stop for a moment and think. How come a group of women who goes through so much abuse, attacks and persecution for the past 30 years, still thrive today? Obviously, it’s because there is demand on the ground for the work that they do, the services they offer, the language they speak. In fact, since the attacks on SIS began, the calls and emails to its Telenisa legal clinic have more than doubled. So thank you very much to these hate mongers for spreading the word that a group like SIS actually exists and stands ready to help Muslim women in distress.

And why attack Hannah Yeoh, Deputy Minister for Women and Family Development for the donation of RM20,000 to SIS for its Telenisa services?

Many years ago, Datuk Shahrizat Jalil as Minister for Women, granted SIS RM100,000 for its work. We were on stage to receive the cheque and we were in the newspapers. Nobody attacked her or SIS then.

It’s obvious this outburst of vitriol against SIS and Hannah is politically motivated. It’s nothing more than part of a concerted strategy to distract the Malays from the stink hole of corruption that’s drowning the once mighty leaders. Keep up the avalanche of hate speech against the Chinese, the Christians, the DAP, the liberal Muslims to whip up insecurity and fear among their Malay base, now living with the uncertainty of change.

What is so desperately needed is political will and political courage from our new leaders to stand on principles and deliver on their promises of change for the better.

That Islam rahmatan lil alamin also means laws, policies and practices that are harmful and discriminate against women, children and undermine family well-being, will be reformed so that the true Islam that is a blessing to all will see the light of day in Malaysia and the world.

Can Malaysia under this new government build the courage and the will to take the leadership that is so desperately needed to lead the Muslim world into the 21st century?

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