Legally, there is nothing in the Federal Constitution that restricts the gender of the Prime Minister. In fact, Article 8 of the Federal Constitution guarantees equality and non-discrimination.
Compared to some other countries, the status of women in our country is arguably better. Women have reasonable access to education, for example. They are given opportunities in employment, although not as many or as favourable as men. We do not have the same degree of sexual discrimination as places such as Saudi Arabia, for example. The women of Malaysia, unlike in India, do not face the same 'subculture of oppression' (as described by a committee set up by the government of India to investigate sexual violence in the country), at least not to the same magnitude.
But the reality is that women do face discrimination in Malaysia. Maybe not overtly or codified in our laws, but certainly through a plethora of hidden and subtle forms of gender discrimination.
The root of the problem is our attitude towards women. We only accept women of a certain mould because to us, this is how a woman should be. We view women who are opinionated, assertive or 'strong', negatively. We think that women are incapable of shouldering certain responsibilities, usually connected with top leadership positions.
This patriarchal attitude is most obvious in our political culture. Politicians usually have to take up some form of leadership role. Our patriarchal mindset when it comes to leadership means female politicians have a tougher time than male ones. Female politicians are relegated to specific portfolios, which are usually seen as ‘lightweight’ ones, or those relating to women, children or family. Anything more would be unthinkable because to us, women are just not capable of being at the top of the leadership hierarchy.
It is fine for women to be ministers or excos; but only a man gets to be the prime minister, chief minister or mentri besar. The irrational objection that certain quarters had to a female mentri besar in last year's political crisis in Selangor is the perfect example of this.
On top of this, female politicians in Malaysia are expected to conform to certain established 'sensibilities'. They are expected to speak, dress and act a certain way. They are expected to only champion certain causes. Their public lives are under greater scrutiny than male politicians. We are generally less forgiving of the transgressions of female politicians compared to their male counterparts. A male politician caught in a scandal is far more likely to survive than a female politician in the same position.
The culprits are not only the men, unfortunately. When Dyana Sofya, the young DAP politician uploaded a photo on her instagram account as part of the 'Wake Up for a Good Cause' campaign to raise funds for an organisation helping abused women, a female leader from another party was alleged to have accused Dyana of 'exploiting her body'.
This politician was reported to have said that young women should not 'pose like that' to attract attention, when in actual fact there is nothing inappropriate or indecent about the photo. Some female politicians themselves perpetuate this patriarchal mindset when instead they should stick up for each other.
Yes, most major political parties here in Malaysia have a dedicated women's wing. Presumably, the formation of a women's wing was to encourage the participation of women in politics. But the existence of women's wings in politics has resulted in limiting the opportunities of women in these political parties.
The political pinnacle for a woman leader in a political party is realistically the position of the head of the women's wing, as the chances of a woman succeeding outside of the wing and within the main leadership hierarchy of the party are slim.
In spite of these challenges, a lot of women have succeeded in politics. Women such as the late Tan Sri Aishah Ghani, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and younger politicians such as Nurul Izzah Anwar and Hannah Yeoh have managed to carve a name for themselves at the highest level of politics, a realm usually dominated by men.
These women are role models for other female politicians and women in general.
But one Nurul Izzah here and one Hannah Yeoh there is not enough. We need to have more women in more meaningful roles in politics. To help achieve this, we need to discard our old mindset and attitudes toward women in politics. We need to start seeing the participation of women in politics beyond mere tokenism and to accept the fact that women are as capable of political leadership as their male counterparts.
At the same time, there must be bi-partisan cooperation of both sides of the political divide to change the patriarchy in politics. They can start by not attacking each other on trivial issues that actually perpetuate patriarchy.
Only then, can we truly entertain the possibility of a female Prime Minister, Menteri Besar or Chief Minister. Happy International Women's Day!> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.