Malaysia must move beyond archaic gender norms

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It’s a tough life being a woman in Malaysia. Not only are we supposed to conform to gender norms, but also expectations on how to be ourselves based on cultural and religious expectations. Almost always, however, all these expectations are based on patriarchal leanings on who a woman should be.

Let’s just take a look at recent expectations on us women. I will list these down in chronological order (these events happened in the last four weeks alone):

On May 8, the 30% Club was launched. This club is an initiative by its co-founders Aziz Bakar and Anne Abraham, two prominent corporate and business figures in Malaysia. The club aims to increase participation of women in decision-making positions in businesses in Malaysia to at least 30 percent.

This initiative, or at least the launch of this initiative, is a collaboration between Pemandu (Performance Management & Delivery Unit, Prime Minister’s Department), Bursa Malaysia (Malaysia Stock Exchange), and the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development.

Overall, it includes big names from both heteronormative genders. From its website, it seems that the program is quite holistic; by engaging girls who are still in school and women across the board through series of talks, workshops, mentoring, and providing scholarships to ivy league business schools. However, it seems that the program only focuses on breaking the glass ceiling in the business world.

On May 25, the Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rohani Abdul Karim was reported to have encouraged Malaysians to make more babies. Her statement was based on a report by the United Nations which projected Malaysia’s national fertility rate will fall to 1.91 children per household by 2020, lower than the 2012 fertility rate of 2.1 children, thus pushing the nation towards an inverted population growth pyramid.

She then apparently made this statement, “That is why the ministry encourages couples not to be so focused on quality of life, but to also have children for the long-term benefit of the country,” during a question-and-answer session in Parliament.

On June 1, Rohani then stressed that the quality of life and family size should be aligned for sustainable development of the nation.

I don’t know about all of you, but I sense a pattern here — one of deciding who women should be and what we do with our bodies.

I am sure that we all know no nation in the world can function if only males are allowed to be in the workforce. However, women have often been discriminated against simply due to patriarchal expectations on our gender. Furthermore, current systems in place encourage and allow an easier path for men to acquire high-level positions rather than women.

Personally, upon graduating with a PhD at 27, I have been told that some laboratories will not employ me as I am of childbearing age. It seems that at my age, even as a highly educated woman, all that should on my mind is to have sex like rabbits and produce as many children as I can.

Never mind that I was more interested in investigating new, less evasive therapies for cervical cancer treatment or the immunological cascades of human papillomavirus co-infection with HIV.

I should, instead, be making babies while I still can.

However, a 27-year-old man would instead be told to join the rat race and make as much money as he can, so he can become a millionaire by the age of thirty.

I am aware that I am making a gross generalization here. I am fully aware of the amazing, hard-working, dedicated women who balance their families while breaking the glass ceiling. I aspire to be one of these women, perhaps to a family of cats. But, let us not forget that the playing field at the moment is not level.

Many women have had to choose between their careers or their families for generations. Societal norms have dictated that women choose families over careers. Yet, we also do not put systems in place to allow seamless re-integration to the workforce after a woman decides to take a sabbatical to focus on her family. Most offices still lack daycare facilities. We do not have part-time positions or flexible hours to allow both mothers and fathers to work from home. We only grant maternity leave, but limited paternity leave. We have to break the gender norm that only women should sacrifice their careers for their families.

Most importantly of all, we seem to always place such high expectations on women to “save the nation”.  This is apparent through the pressure of us having to churn out at least three or four children per person!

Instead of promoting baby-making to solve the issue of an aging population, why don’t we instead focus our efforts on improving geriatric care and providing communal living for the elderly instead?

As a single woman in Malaysia, I am absolved from the pressure of making babies to save the nation. However, it should not stop me from voicing the need for equal pay, mentoring and other opportunities to advance my career and the knowledge that I will be considered for a high-level position in my field should I wish to apply for it. Without being discriminated on the basis of my gender.

It is time for us to move towards achieving the 30 percent and more by women across the board.

Lyana Khairuddin for The Malaysian Insider*

Source: ucanews.caom (Jun.10, 2015)


*Lyana Khairuddin is a scientist who works with HIV and HPV, and an educator with a public university in Malaysia.