By Zara Taza
We define democracy as inclusive and yet, we often leave women out of the political conversation. There is a gap between the population of women and the political representation of women on both a local and global scale. According to the UN Women, only 24.3 percent of all national parliamentarians were women in February 2019 which is disproportionate to how women make up roughly about 50% of the population. We cannot pride ourselves as a democratic nation if we do not listen to women. Our democracy should take into consideration all voices in order to make the best suited political choices for us to move as a nation. With the lack of women in politics, an issue emerges where Parliament misrepresents the desires of the public and therefore cannot implement the necessary legislation that benefits the people as a whole.
By denying women from participating in politics, we are also neglecting how they are affected by these political choices. Women are citizens who must abide by the law but due to the limited political representation, they are unable to have an opinion on the laws that impact them. Encouraging women to become politically active seems like a simple solution but it is more complex than that. The barriers that women face are entrenched in our culture and political institutions, making it difficult for them to elevate themselves.
With the patriarchy ingrained in our political parties and institutions, there is no doubt that women find immense difficulty being elected into Parliament. According to a study done by Political Research Quarterly in 2011, party gatekeepers are more likely to recruit candidates who are similar to themselves. As a majority of party gatekeepers are men, it is no surprise that the successful candidates are predominantly male. While this creates unequal gender representation in Parliament, we dismiss women who may be more qualified to lead than their male counterparts. Due to the systematic sexism within political institutions, there is only 14.41% of female MPs in Malaysia’s 14th Parliament. Even though some Malaysian parties have established women’s wings in Malaysian parties to prevent this, counterintuitively, this hinders the advancement of women more than elevates them. Due to male politicians being able to control how far their female counterparts progress in the workplace, women are often restricted into supporting roles. We may be missing opportunities to have great leaders if we only choose from a specific pool of candidates rather than the whole picture.
Our cultural reinforcement of gender roles hinders the progress of women’s political advancement. The societal association that strong leadership is a masculine trait suggests that women are not strong enough to obtain this quality. As a result, women underestimate both their abilities and potential, leading them to believe that there is no place for them in leadership roles. According to a study conducted at American University, only 57 percent of women would consider themselves as qualified or very qualified to run for office compared to 73 percent of men. When we encourage women to take leadership roles, we are not only ensuring that women are participating in the policy making process but we are also normalising women in power; motivating more women to be confident enough to believe they are suited for leadership roles. However, there is currently an absence of equal gender representation in politics which superficially proves the notion that women are not fit for positions of power. This is not only an outdated idea, but an inaccurate portrayal of what women can achieve. We see this in prominent female MPs such as YB Hannah Yeoh, who became the first woman speaker for the Selangor State Assembly, and YB Yeo Bee Yin who was appointed as the Minister of Energy, Green Technology, Science and Climate Change in 2018 and constantly pushes for more women in science. Women are more than capable of achieving their ambitions but they need resources to provide them with confidence in order to overcome the notion that leadership is a masculine skill.
Due to the idea that women do not fit into leadership roles, women are required to work harder than men to gain their approval. Research by the Plan International, in partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, suggests that 60% of women feel that they must work harder than men to prove that they have the skills to lead while also facing gender based obstacles. Women who are determined to become leaders are doomed to face opposition who will try to undermine them. In an incident in July 2020, YB Kasthuri Patto, was verbally assaulted with both racist and sexist slurs by her male counterparts. The unfortunate truth is that this is not new. Women in leadership roles will face hostility because they resist against the cultural demands of being a woman. This is the consequence of being a woman in power and in fear that they will face this backlash, less women will actively choose not to participate in politics.
Not only does political participation require emotional investment but also temporal investment as well. These are luxuries that not all women have. Cultural and religious standards require them to put their familial and household responsibilities first. According to the International Labour Organization, women spend 4.1 times more time than men in Asia and the Pacific on these responsibilities. Despite how invisible this work may seem, it contributes at least US$10.8 trillion a year to the global economy. Expecting women to balance both their domestic commitments and political advocacy would be unfair. There is an unbalanced distribution of care work among men and women. There is no doubt that cultural and religious expectations that women are responsible for care work makes it easier for men to be politically active than women.
There have been initiatives to counter the gender imbalance in politics such as quotas and women’s wings in political parties. However, these initiatives have been proven to be ineffective as they fail to solve the underlying cultural and societal issues. With determination and idealism, women can advance themselves into positions of power but we need to provide them with support throughout the process. When we supply women with confidence and practical legislation to aid them, we show them new opportunities to become leaders in their communities, workplace or government.
The 111 Initiative promotes to increase the representation of women in Parliament to 50 percent. The initiative aims to show women that they do have an equal say in the future of their country and they are entitled in exercising this right. Once we empower women to be confident enough to be vocal about change, we are taking the first step towards revolutionising Malaysian politics.
Zara Taza is part of the UNDI18 team and works on a variety of campaigns but especially in the 111 Initiative. She advocates for more women representation and autonomy in not only in Parliament, but also in Malaysian society.
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