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future is female.”
“We want to be free from fear.”
These were some of the words that reverberated along the streets of Kuala Lumpur, amplifying the voices demanding change in Malaysian policy and law.
On the 12th of March 2023, crowds gathered outside Sogo Mall at 10:00 am to participate in a march to commemorate International Women’s Day. The march was organised by Women’s March Malaysia, an organisation established with the aim to unite people from all walks of life to call for gender equality, justice and an end to all forms of discrimination against women and girls. The theme for this year’s march was ‘Rise and Resist’, demanding the changes that have been promised to women to be implemented, in addition to upholding all human rights.
The March for Freedom
The sun beat down on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and beads of sweat trickled down the faces of the close to 300 people gathered in the heart of the city. There was a mother with one hand on her baby’s stroller and another wrapped around a placard that demanded justice and change. There was a group of friends dressed in vibrant colours waving the pride flag in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. There was also a first-time protester laying low in their mask, sunglasses, and cap while their sign unleashed the wrath of women. And, on the periphery of this scene were more than 30 police officers who watched their every move, ready to pounce at the slightest misstep once the march began. Then, the flood alarms blared, stirring the demonstrators from their slumber and nudging their feet in the direction of their destination – Dataran Merdeka.
“They’re trying to drown out our voices, so we’re going to be louder than the sirens,” speaker R. Shalini announced through a megaphone
So, they screamed at the top of their lungs and thrust their placards into the air, rising against the patriarchy and resisting gender-based oppression. They echoed the nine demands outlined by Women’s March Malaysia in their pre-march press statement:
- Protect bodily autonomy and the freedom of choice
My body, my choice.
My body, my right.
My body, my own.
Ladies, raise your hand if a man has ever told you what to do with your body, life, or future! Everyone is free to make their own decisions, but how many women in Malaysia can say that they have the power to exercise that right? Whether it’s female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, rape culture, period spot checks, abortion bans, or dress codes, women’s right to bodily autonomy is under siege. And, women are not alone as anyone who does not conform to the heterosexual, cisgender norm is forced to suppress their identity or risk persecution and harm at the hands of the authorities. Thus, the demonstrators called for bodily autonomy to be upheld and enshrined in the law to ensure that everyone gets to exert control over their own lives, provided they do not harm or impose on the beliefs of others.
- Ensure decent work standards and living wage
A survey conducted by the Women’s Aid Organisation found that 56% of Malaysian women have experienced at least one form of gender discrimination at their workplace. Women are no strangers to paper cuts like comments and questions about their marital status or plans to start a family, being passed over for promotions in favour of their less qualified male counterparts, or being asked to perform tasks that are traditionally feminine such as making coffee or planning parties. Then, there are deep wounds such as sexual harassment or being paid far less than their male colleagues for the same job that aren’t as easily remedied. But, what do decent work standards and living wages look like? According to the organisers of the march, it means having the right to full employment and safe working conditions, access to benefits such as healthcare, pensions, parental leave, and the ability to unionise and negotiate work conditions as well as labour and development laws.
- Ban child marriages
She looks out the window, tears stinging her eyes as she watches children play under the sun, their laughter drowned out by the wailing of the toddler that clings to her leg. She wonders what might have been if her wings hadn’t been clipped by those she once trusted and mourns for the life she’ll never know as she scrubs dirty dishes clean. But, the clock strikes five and he’ll be here anytime, so she dries her eyes and puts on a smile, knowing that she’ll never be able to fly again.
This is the reality of many children in Malaysia. In fact, according to Women’s March Malaysia, there were approximately 15,000 child marriages recorded in Malaysia between 2007 and 2017, with children in indigenous, refugee, and Muslim communities being affected disproportionately. Child marriages rob children of their lives as they are more likely to drop out of school and become financially dependent on their husbands, limiting their ability to pursue their own goals. Married children are also more likely to experience domestic and sexual abuse and as such, are at a higher risk of developing complications during pregnancy or childbirth due to their lack of physical development. However, Selangor and Kedah are the only states to have increased the legal minimum age of marriage to 18, which has prompted Women’s March Malaysia to call for them to be banned nationwide as it is a child’s right to live a life that arises from their own choices.
- Declare climate crisis and create a national action plan
“It’s so hot today!”
“It’s raining again!”
Every Malaysian has been guilty of saying these things before. But, have any of us ever stopped to ask why? It all boils down to climate change, with rising sea levels and temperatures in Malaysia causing floods that displace people from their homes and lead to food and water shortages. Of course, this issue affects all Malaysians, but people of oppressed genders are affected disproportionately as they lack the privileges and resources to fight its drastic effects. For instance, Women’s March Malaysia stated that indigenous women in Malaysia are severely affected by deforestation and water pollution as most Orang Asli villages have no access to clean water and are dependent on rainwater or ponds, leaving them vulnerable to health complications such as urinary tract infections (UTIs) and complications for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Hence, Women’s March Malaysia insists that there is no time for empty promises or pointless conferences, as immediate action needs to be taken to solve the climate crisis.
- Equal political participation of oppressed genders at all levels of governance
Last November, more than 7 million women cast their vote in Malaysia’s 15th general election, which made up roughly half of the registered voters. However, in the federal-level polls, only 127 of the 945 candidates were women and only 13.4% of women currently have seats in the House of Representatives, which is nowhere near the 30% target for female political representation promised by political leaders in past general elections. This is largely due to the ‘old boys club’ mentality in political parties which makes it difficult for women to have a seat at the table and the misconception that people are less likely to vote for female candidates. Hence, demonstrators at the march called for equal representation of women in the political landscape as a diverse and inclusive government benefits both the country’s economic strength and social welfare.
- Enact constitutional and legislative reform to achieve gender equality
Although Malaysia has made some progress in narrowing the gender gap in recent years, there is still a long way to go before it catches up with the rest of the world as it ranked 103rd in WEF’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Index rankings. Whether one is male, female, transgender, non-binary, gender neutral, or gender fluid, they deserve to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. According to Women’s March Malaysia, this means establishing a gender quota system and equal pay, criminalising gender-based violence, and equal education, and employment opportunities. But, they cannot do it without the help of government officials, civil society organisations, and gender equality advocates. Naturally, the voices of the demonstrators at the march were meant to get their attention in the hopes of fostering collaboration for the sake of gender equality.
- Ensure safe and accessible public spaces for oppressed genders
“Don’t wear revealing clothes, or you’ll attract unwanted attention.”
“Don’t go out alone, especially at night.”
Growing up as a girl in Malaysia, it’s pretty common to hear these so-called words of wisdom from your parents and they continue to haunt you even in your adulthood. Futhermore, Women’s March Malaysia has reported that women are three times more likely to feel unsafe walking in Kuala Lumpur than men and it has been reported that 80% of public sexual harassment victims in Malaysia are women. However, why are women expected to police their bodies? Why aren’t men expected to police their behaviour in public spaces? Women’s March Malaysia feels the same way, which is why demonstrators were pushing for safer and more accessible public spaces in Malaysia.
“Why can’t you use the bathroom that matches your biological sex?”
“Why can’t you just dress like your biological sex?”
Meanwhile, the transgender community is no stranger to these tone-deaf questions. In fact, “transgender people in Malaysia risk arrest every day they step out of their door simply because of the way they express themselves,” according to Boris Dittrich, an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Most transgender people in Malaysia also face difficulties in accessing public facilities such as toilets, changing rooms, prayer rooms, and gyms. Thus, Women’s March Malaysia is fighting for all genders to be considered in the design and planning of public spaces as safe access to public spaces is a human right that should apply regardless of a person’s gender.
- Create a social protection system for all oppressed genders
A social protection system is supposed to ensure that everyone has access to the resources and support they need to thrive, especially in times of crisis. Yet, according to Women’s March Malaysia, that is not the case in Malaysia as oppressed genders and sexual minorities from poverty-stricken backgrounds have fewer education and employment opportunities as well as limited access to healthcare. Therefore, demonstrators called for a gender-sensitive social security system and legal protections against gender-based discrimination in the hopes of eliminating systemic inequalities and building a reliable social protection system for all.
- Eliminate all forms of violence against oppressed genders and sexual minorities
It is a widely held axiom that violence in any shape or form is unacceptable. However, a 2021 survey by the Women’s Aid Organisation found that 53.3% of Malaysians believed that domestic violence is a “normal” reaction to stress and frustration while 43% were of the opinion that a woman can make a man so angry that he hits her when he does not mean to. On the other hand, a study conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia in 2019 discovered that most transgender people in Malaysia have experienced harassment, abuse, and violence at the hands of the authorities and the general public. Thus, not only is violence against oppressed genders accepted, it is normalised, which has prompted Women’s March Malaysia to campaign for laws that ban violence on the basis of gender and sexuality.
As demonstrated, the crowd carried the burden of millions as they braved the heat to complete the 1km journey, accompanied by empowering speeches and musical performances. As they reached the historical landmark, a sense of accomplishment and pride filled the protesters, renewing hope for the future of the oppressed genders and sexual minorities in Malaysia. One of the organisers, Kirath KS put this feeling into words, saying that she was proud of the turnout and outcome of the march this year. However, little did they know that their bliss would be broken in the middle of the night by the issuance of notices by the police to seven participants, speakers, and organisers of the march.
The Positive Reactions
Many women have stated that they felt empowered and supported by other like-minded advocates, as reported in Malay Mail.
Aissa, a participant in the event, gestured to her daughter and said, “We’re fighting not only for us but also for her rights.” She was accompanied by a man who claimed that he was there because he cared about women’s issues, especially as a Malaysian citizen and not just as a husband and father.
Along with the country’s refugees, members of the LGBTQ+ community echoed the experience of feeling safe and empowered at the women’s march.
22-year-old Harshini said that the march felt like a safe space especially since events that are LGBTQ-centric are frequently stigmatised and prosecuted after sharing her experience at a Halloween show that was raided by Islamic religious authorities the previous year.
The Negative Reactions
Following the march, The Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) released a press statement and sent Notice 111 to seven attendees, speakers, and event organisers. According to the New Straits Times, the Dang Wangi district police chief stated that the police have opened an investigation paper under Sections 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012 and Section 14 of the Minor Offences Act of 1995 to look into the assembly and march that took place. The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 is a law that governs public protests in Malaysia, permitting citizens to organise and participate in assemblies peacefully and without weapons, depending on restrictions deemed necessary and in the interest of public order and security; whereas the investigation into the march’s participants were justified under Section 14 of the Minor Offences Act due to allegedly insulting placards.
Several worrying trends from the post-march reactions highlighted in a Malay Mail article on March 17 include:
- The misuse and arbitrary use of laws to harass and intimidate organisers and participants;
- The growing exclusion and discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Malaysia; and
- The politicisation of the march.
According to the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA), no authorization or permit is needed for an assembly. However, the PAA mandates that the organisers notify the police five days in advance of the assembly. The organising committee had already done so, notifying the police six days before the Women’s March.
Malay Mail further stated that due to the presence of rainbow flags, the march was frequently referred to as an “assembly and march that did not adhere to laws” and an LGBT assembly. As a result, there have been more inaccurate reports and manipulations of the march’s specifics on social media, along with harmful and hateful comments directed at those who participated in the march.
“It is deeply disappointing that the new government seems to be resorting to tactics used by its predecessor to restrict peaceful demonstrations. The right to freedom of expression is integral to the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of assembly and association guaranteed in Article 10 of the Malaysian Federal Constitution. The government and police are obligated to respect, protect and fulfil the right to protest, and should establish an enabling environment for the full enjoyment of this right.
“We urge the authorities to immediately and unconditionally drop all investigations into organisers and participants who have exercised their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and to stop any further harassment against organisers and participants,” ARTICLE 19 Senior Malaysia Programme Officer Nalnini Elumalai said.
“We recall and remind this current government of its long history of democratic actions and expressions and the use of public assembly and protests over the last several decades prior to its coming to power,” the Women’s March Malaysia organising committee stated in a press release on March 13, 2023. “And we are disheartened and disappointed at being penalised for exercising our democratic rights to fight for a better Malaysia.”
“I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change, I’m changing the things I cannot accept,”Angela Davis
Do the cries of the protesters fall on deaf ears? Are their placards merely pretty props? Their efforts may seem futile to some, as it takes more than a 20-minute walk to undo centuries of oppression towards women and sexual minorities. However, the march is a step for a better future, as it united people from all walks of life to fight for their rights and reignited the discourse on gender-based discrimination in Malaysia. Women’s March Malaysia has their work cut out for them if they intend to relieve the plight of the oppressed genders, but here’s to hoping they won’t have to do it all alone!
Written by: Chloe and Priyanka
Edited by: Poorani