Let's tell Obama #WhatObamaShouldKnow about women in Malaysia | WBEZ
Skip to main content

The World

Let's tell Obama #WhatObamaShouldKnow about women in Malaysia

US President Barack Obama pauses after being introduced at the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Town Hall at University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur April 27, 2014.  (PRI/Larry Downing)
“Selamat Datang, Mr. President!” As a Malaysian, I would like to welcome President Barack Obama who is making his second visit to Malaysia in less than seven months.
Obama’s last trip here in April made him the first US president to visit Malaysia in nearly 50 years. On that visit, Obama called for equal opportunities for the Malaysia’s non-Muslim minority.
But this time his top priority will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free trade deal with Malaysia and 11 other countries across the region.

However, we at Across Women's Lives would like to invite you and your friends to help Obama to look at the status of women in the three countries that he will visit in this trip — Malaysia, Philippines and Turkey.

Malaysia was ranked 107th out of 142 countries in the WEF Global Gender Gap 2014, one of the two worst performing country in Southeast Asia together with Cambodia. (East Timor and Myanmar were not ranked.)

A closer look at this annual index published by the World Economic Forum to measure gender equality revealed that Malaysia was given some of the lowest scores in term of women's political empowerment. The chart below shows the details.

The weak position of Malaysian women in the public space is further confirmed by another international gender index. The Social Institutions & Gender Index 2014 published by OECD Development Center ranked Malaysia as the country with the highest "restricted civil liberties" in Southeast Asia. This includes negative attitudes toward women as public figures or as leaders.

The same index found that Malaysia has the second highest "discriminatory family code" in the region after Indonesia. "Discriminatory family code" refers to social institutions that limit women’s decision-making power and undervalue their status in the household. This is especially true for Muslims women who are deprived of certain rights under the Sharia laws. For example, Muslim men are allowed to marry up to four women, and they are granted an automatic right to divorce, while women need the approval of a judge if they want a divorce.

Malaysia practices a unique dual justice system that allows the Sharia laws to run in parallel with secular laws. The Islamic laws only applicable to Muslims who make up approximately 61 percent of the population. The growing of conservative Islam since the 1970s has led to a narrower interpretation of Islamic laws and teachings.

The discrimination against Muslim women was epitomized by a recent debate over the definition of marital rape following a rape awareness campaign launched in April with the tagline "Rape is rape. No excuse."

But Islamic conservatives, including a state-appointed mufti, challenged the campaign, arguing that men can always have sex with their spouses even without their consent.

“Even the Prophet says even when they’re riding on the back of the camel, when the husband asks her, she must give ... So there’s no such thing as rape in marriage. This is made by European people, why should we follow?” Harussani Zakaria, mufti of the Malaysian state of Perak, told a local newspaper.

The muftis in Malaysia are given power to issue Fatwa which is legally binding for every Muslim.

Two months later, this view on marital rape was backed by the government when the law minister Nancy Shukri, one of the three female ministers in the cabinet, told the parliament that marital rape is not a crimeand there is no plan to amend the law.

The Islamic laws and religious norms also hold Malaysia back from fully complying with the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The country has made several reservations with regard to women's equality in marriage and family relations.

Criminalization of transgender

The discrimination does not stop at Muslim women. Muslim men who want to be women are also facing growing persecution by the religious authority.

In June this year, religious officials raided a wedding party held in a private home and arrested 17 transgender women invited as guests, including a minor. One was reportedly beaten, choked and kicked by the officials during the arrest. A Sharia court later fined and jailed the 16 adults for seven days. They were put in the male prison and had their heads shaved.

The offense? Men posing as women, which is a crime under a state Sharia law.

According to Human Right Watch, while some states in Malaysia also criminalize women posing as men, all arrests to date under these laws have targeted transgender women.

In a report released last year, the international human rights watchdog pointed out that transgender people in Malaysia are fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, physically and sexually assaulted, and denied access to health care because of their gender identities.

“When public officials or private individuals commit violence against transgender people, the victims face serious obstacles — and at times further sexual abuse — from the police who are supposed to be helping them,” said the report.

The struggle for transgender right suffered a blow last month when the Malaysian federal court, the highest court in the country, overturned the judgments of two lower courts and reinstated a state law that criminalizes cross-dressing of males as females.

Rights group Justice for Sisters found that the court's decision has triggered a wave of raids and arrestsagainst the transgender community in several states.

Sex trafficking

Malaysia was identified by the US State Department and the United Nations as both a destination as well as a transit country for women and children subjected to sex trafficking.

In her preliminary report published in March this year after a visit to Malaysia, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, stated that trafficking of young foreign women and children particularly from neighboring countries for the purpose of sexual exploitation is prevalent in the country.

“These young women and children mostly end up into the commercial sex trade following deceptive recruitment practices for legal work in Malaysia.

“There is also information about women and girls from South Asia entering into brokered marriages with older men in Malaysia and subsequently being forced into domestic servitude and forced prostitution,” her report states.

Human trafficking in Malaysia attracted international attention in May when several mass graves of suspected trafficking victims were found along Malaysia’s border with Thailand, and again in July when the US upgraded Malaysia from tier three, the worst ranking in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons report, to tier two.

The upgrade was criticized by anti-trafficking groups and activists as a political decision to facilitate Malaysia’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership as US legislation bars Obama to fast-track the trade negotiation with countries in tier three.

Reuters report published in August revealed that human rights experts at the State Department concluded that Malaysia should remain in tier three as the trafficking conditions in the country hadn’t improved. However they were overruled by senior American diplomats and pressured to inflate the assessments of Malaysia.

Several US lawmakers have since called for internal probe into the controversial ranking.

On top of all this, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who recently claimed he is the only prime minister in the world to be able to play golf with Obama, has been implicated in a financial scandal.

US President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off the 18th hole while playing a round of golf at th

US President Barack Obama and Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walk off the 18th hole while playing a round of golf at the Clipper Golf course on Marine Corps Base Hawaii during Obama's Christmas holiday vacation in Kaneohe, Hawaii, December 24, 2014.


Hugh Gentry

Razak’s opponents say he’s capitalizing on his cozy relationship with Obama while his support within the country wavers. Hence there are more reasons for Obama to raise the issues above during his visit to Malaysia.


Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.