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Think Before You Speak

Think Before You Speak

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By Daniella Zulkifli

On the 8th of March this year, women and men all over the world celebrated International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is #PledgeforParity – a call to action to encourage people from all walks of life to help achieve gender parity. Here in Malaysia, Dato Sri Rohani Abdul Karim, Minister of Women, Family and Community Development spoke about how the Government acknowledges the involvement and contribution by women in the nation’s development. All Women’s Action Society (AWAM) released a press statement advocating for a feminist world.

But gender equality and gender parity cannot be achieved without first acknowledging the difference between “sex” and “gender”, and what these terms mean.

Understanding the difference between “sex” and “gender”

Generally, gender equality is a state in which all persons receive equal treatment and where they are not discriminated against based on gender. The term “gender” here refers to a socially constructed identity, which is not to be confused with “sex” – the biological makeup of a person. For example, while biologically only women can get pregnant and give birth, this does not mean that only women can take care of children. Men are equally capable of doing so.

Gender equality as a goal therefore advocates for the empowerment and equality for all persons regardless of gender identity.

Dealing with Insensitive and Derogatory Remarks by Leaders and the Media

While the government, NGOs and other institutions celebrated International Women’s Day on the 8th of March 2016 by highlighting the importance of gender equality in the nation’s development, one Datuk Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali At-Takiri who is the PAS information chief said women should fulfill their true function at home as wives and mothers in order to reduce the high divorce rate and breakdown of families. While Khairuddin said that allegedly to promote restoration of the family institution, this is a classic case of “foot caught in the mouth” as he had failed or neglected to acknowledge that marriage is a partnership which requires equal effort by both spouses.

Sadly, comments like Khairuddin’s are not unheard of and is in fact a norm.

The media can also be insensitive.

On the 10th of March 2016, the local media reported a person who died falling off an apartment block in Subang Jaya. Several media reports referred to the person as “cross-dresser”, “pondan” and “transvestite”, among others.  The Star’s report on the incident began with the following remarks, which are absolutely offensive and makes one wonder whether the report was made to highlight a possible murder or simply to ridicule the deceased’s gender:

“It was a case of gender-bender for the police when they arrived at a condominium to investigate a report that a woman had fallen off the building.

They found the body with a wig and in woman’s clothes.

As it turned out eventually, “she” was a “he”.”

There are hundreds other examples of sexist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic statements in Malaysia. These are just some of the statements made in 2016 alone, apart from the ones mentioned above:

On the 14th of February 2016, former International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz was reported to have denounced feminism by saying that men never talk about masculinism. Rafidah clearly does not understand the definition of feminism, which is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

On the 15th of February 2016, Wanita MCA Chairman Datuk Heng Seai Kie was reported to have said the following racist and sexist remark:

“As far as I know, Bangladeshi women will be mostly working in restaurants or be hired as domestic help, so it is unlikely they will be the cause of families breaking apart,” she said.

The Star made it worse by referring to Bangladeshi women as “Dhaka Dolls” in the same article. The Malay version of the article referred to the same as “pelacur Dhaka”.

Not surprisingly, the said remark irked Bangladeshi expatriates in Malaysia. Bangla News quoted Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) assistant executive director Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed who said “The use of ‘Dhaka Dolls’ is not only disgraceful to female workers (but) also to the nation”.

On the 10th of March 2016, a Member of Parliament from Barisan Nasional, Dr Noor Azmi Ghazali was reported to have said the following sexist and misogynist remark about the Wall Street Journal:

“WSJ is like a beauty queen with beautiful dresses. But she has panau under her clothes”.

On the 12th of March 2016, Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia spokesman Ustaz Abdul Hakim Othman claimed that most sexual assault cases involve false accusations. He also said:

“The danger is that if the woman wants to betray other people, she commits adultery with a man, but when she regrets it, she reports to the police saying she was raped.

As you see, most rape cases involve people known to the victims, especially their boyfriends. So making out with the boyfriend is fine, and then she turns around and says she was raped when she regrets it.”

The above statement is not only misogynist, it also belittles the impact of sexual assault on women and perpetuates victim blaming.

The need for gender sensitisation

The examples shown above show that a lot needs to be done in educating and raising awareness with regard to gender equality. Gender and sex are not the same, and no one deserves to be discriminated against. Leaders and the media alike have to exercise caution before they say or publish statements which are derogatory and pejorative, because gender equality can only be achieved if we consciously make an effort to stop and speak up against discrimination, and see each other as equals.

Daniella Zulkifili is a lawyer at AmerBON Advocates, Treasurer of the Association of Women Lawyers and the Co-Chairperson of the National Young Lawyers Committee. She is passionate about gender equality, and has been an active member of the Gender Equality Initiative 2015 steering committee in organising events to raise awareness among university students on the issue. Danie spends her free time reading up on history and practising her French.


1 Comment


April 22, 2016 at 6:23 pm

Hey I love this article but I was wondering if the part where it says “only women can get pregnant and give birth” should be changed to be more inclusive? Maybe the usage of the term “people with uteruses/uteri” or something like that (my biology terms could be wrong and if they are pls let me know omg)???

Because we are trying to show that sex refers to one’s biological makeup so generalizing to say only women sounds really inaccurate to me. Oh or maybe the term DFAB/AFAB (designated female at birth/assigned female at birth) could be good too to explain that people who are DFAB can typically get pregnant and give birth but does not mean only they can take care of children. Cis men are usually the ones not expected to have anything to do with childcare and get all kinds of praise when they do the tiniest bit of work lol.

Anyway sorry this got super duper long and I don’t even know if what I’m saying makes sense but I’m thinking that we definitely need a more inclusive term when talking about “sex” and who we’re referring to biological-wise.

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