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Law & Politics

Feminism and the Invisible Capitalist Leash

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Feminism is synonymous with the emancipation of women and other oppressed minorities from all aspects, be it within social contexts and cultures or economic and political spheres. Since its emergence in the 1980s, the feminist movement in Malaysia has worked very hard, from providing shelters to protect women and children from domestic violence, to creating systemic legal reforms such as the passing of the 1994 Domestic Violence Act and the inclusion of “gender” under Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution in 2001 to fight against gender discrimination.

While these are big milestones, victory is far beyond our reach. At the very core, Malaysian women are still expected to be feminine and to aim for marriage and motherhood; while our men are taught to be masculine and to be strong, superior figures devoid of sentiment and weaknesses. We are taught that gender and sexuality only exist in a binary and any deviation from that accepted binary is unnatural. In the previous general election (GE13), one of the Barisan Nasional party manifestos was “to provide women with the choice of being at the forefront of business and innovation, without giving up their natural instincts as homemakers”.

Unfortunately, our toxic and ignorant political landscape is not the only challenge faced by the Malaysian feminist movement in the ongoing battle to create an egalitarian state. The silent yet deadly mercenary that is the capitalist nature of our economy not only hinders our ability to create systemic change, but also creates new forms of exploitation and inequality in Malaysian society.


Feminism has now become a vehicle for capitalist organisations to further entrench their efforts to build a free-market society. Feminist ideals used to be radical notions; these days, however, you can see feminist narratives being tossed around like confetti at parties, not just by famous public figures and celebrities, but also by profit-oriented organisations. Last week, our very own Malaysian feminist, Thulasy Suppiah wrote about the opportunistic nature of brand feminism which exploits the feminist narrative as a profit-making tool,  while at the same time being an effective platform to un-demonise the feminist label.

Honestly, that debate is quite advanced for Malaysia, as Malaysian companies have yet to even recognise the potential value of feminism; nor do we see our celebrities being aware of gender and identity politics.

But as feminists, do we celebrate the mainstreaming of feminism by western corporations and media?

Should we simply be grateful that people don’t look at feminists as crazy people? Or do we actually have a say in what portrayal of feminism is positive and supportive, and which will bring negative, latent harms to the cause as a whole?


Image via Free Malaysia Today: [http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/09/29/wao-slams-slimme-white-ad-on-domestic-abuse-victim/]


State-managed capitalism in Malaysia has made it far more difficult for feminists to fight against injustices because it gives corporations and private entities huge room to exploit femininity and  perpetuate misogynistic beauty standards, while creating a 500 billion USD cosmetic industry around it. Degrading advertisements which use women as subservient sex objects have been allowed just so corporations can sell burgers, tongkat ali drinks and slimming products. Sexist discussions have been allowed to take place on air on local radio stations. Television series which normalize domestic violence and movies which romanticize rape have been allowed to be shown to millions of viewers. All these happen without any form of government intervention, because god forbid, government regulations stop businesses from making profits.

To make things worse, capitalism also creates various splinter factions of feminism, or self-proclaimed feminists who are extremely individualistic in nature. Take choice feminism, for example. As writer Mai Mokhsein argues in her article The Choice Feminist Delusion, the personifications of women’s subordination are now being repackaged as liberating personal choices and hijacked by corporations and all arms of the media to gain profit. And because they are smart enough to brand their actions with the illusion of agency and empowerment of women, we will never know if these personal choices are made by women because of the patriarchy, or in spite of it.

Indirectly, capitalism takes away the responsibility of the government to create change and to fight for the emancipation of women, and places these burdens on individuals. To paraphrase writer Anna Leszkiewicz, mainstream feminism manipulates us into thinking that politics is personal. Worried about rape? Buy this nail polish that can detect drugs in your drinks. Concerned about unfair standards of beauty? Buy this expensive makeup and wear it for yourself, not for men. Troubled by the continuous oppression of women? Buy these t-shirts with feminist slogans on them for RM99 and beat the patriarchy in style. This takes away the awareness that politics and public engagement are necessary to create long-lasting and meaningful change.

The biggest harm in all this is that state-managed capitalism has rebranded the image of feminism into one where women comply with predominant feminine traits and cultural expectations, as exemplified by celebrities, and use their voices to speak up on easy, shallow subjects, in the vein of corporate campaigns. Sure, this makes feminism more sellable, but at the same time, it makes non-mainstream feminists who choose to propagate tough, sensitive issues look extremely unnecessary, distasteful and objectionable – thus, diluting the importance and depth of other issues on the feminist agenda. It makes it way harder for feminists to obtain support and fight for the other things that matter.

History teaches us that capitalism in Malaysia has entrenched social injustices in the past. Post independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman adopted the British laissez faire model of capitalism. This system, also known as free-market capitalism, allowed private businesses to flourish with minimal government intervention, in the hopes that corporations would self-regulate within the natural, unobstructed market forces.

This had allowed the British to dominate commercial agricultural production and export. While it managed to tremendously increase our per capita income to the third largest in Asia at the time, the people were extremely unhappy as poverty rates had increased amongst the locals. It took Malaysia one bloody racial riot in 1969 to realise that market regulation is necessary to ensure equitable wealth distribution for the people and avoid exploitation. The government then introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1970s to focus on thorough socio-economic restructuring of society in an attempt to reduce poverty and promote national unity.

Fast forward to almost 47 years later, one would argue that Malaysia has yet to achieve a desirable level of national unity, nor have we successfully eradicated poverty. The World Bank ranked Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) at number 37 out of 195 economies in 2016. Sadly, we also ranked 30th out of 150 economies on the Gini Index, which measures the extent of income and wealth inequality in society. Worse still, the Global Gender Gap Report 2016 ranked Malaysia at 106th position out of 144 countries, a testament to the magnitude of disparities and inequalities between women and men in our country.

This begs the question: does our unique capitalist economy really balance the rights of private businesses while focusing on wealth distribution to the people, as alleged by our former Minister of Finance II Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop? Is our capitalist economy failing Malaysians, particularly women and other minorities, as we witness the widening gender gap despite improvements to our overall GDP?

Is our capitalist economy bribing Malaysian politics with the promise of profit to shut down criticisms forwarded by the feminist movement on the manipulation and exploitation by the media and corporations?

The government has intervened before to put certain regulations in place in an attempt to address poverty. We don’t know how long it will take before we see certain forms of government intervention to address the current inequalities and injustices perpetuated by capitalist structures. Not that we’re all fond of government intervention, but it’s naive to assume that corporations will self-regulate and position themselves as change agents within society. After all, they are not accountable to the people. Corporations may try to sell feminism, but the purchasing power lies in our hands which should be held together arm in arm, to create a louder, coherent voice in demanding for a more equitable and just state, because we have a long way to go.

Understanding RUU 355: Q&A with Rozana Isa

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1. Let’s start with the basics – what is RUU355?

RUU355 refers to Act 355 of the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 or Akta Mahkamah Syariah (Bidang Kuasa Jenayah) 1965 in Bahasa Malaysia. This is a short legislation, which determines the sentencing powers of Syariah courts in Malaysia. RUU355 or Rang Undang-Undang Akta 355 is a Federal legislation and it is an enabling legislation, which allows State legislatures to increase punitive powers in Islamic Laws (which are also State based).

2. What is Hadi’s Bill?

Hadi’s Bill refers to the recent proposed amendment to the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act which was introduced as a Private Member’s Bill by PAS President and Member of Parliament for Marang, Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, most recently on 6th April 2017.

At the moment, Section 2 of the Syariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 [Act 355] states that the Syariah Courts may only impose a punishment of: imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or any fine not exceeding five thousand ringgit, or whipping not exceeding six strokes (also known as the 3-5-6 rule).

The current version of the proposed Bill seeks to amend the 3-5-6 rule to a maximum punishment of 30 years in jail, a maximum fine of RM100,000, and a maximum of 100 strokes of the whip.

3. Is RUU355 a form of Islamic law? 

It is very important that we view RUU355 for what it actually is – a set of proposed law amendments.

 These are man-made laws, defined as fiqh, which is the human interpretation of the Holy text. Fiqh is not a divine set of laws as it is a human interpretation limited by one’s lived reality, experiences and understanding.

For a law to be considered Islamic or syariah, it should be based on principles of justice, welfare and mercy.

It must serve the purpose of delivering those three elements. If a law does not promise to deliver these, then it incorrect to call it syariah.

RUU355’s main focus is on increasing punishments. If we refer to the sunnah of Prophet Muhammad SAW, however, we will learn that the Prophet often chose forgiveness over punishment.

Hadith 52 of hadith Shahih Al-Bukhari 6823, Book 86, narrated by Anas bin Malik, recorded an incident where a man came to the Prophet and said,

“Oh Allah’s Messenger, I have committed a legally punishable sin; please inflict the legal punishment on me.” The Prophet did not ask him what he had done. Then the time for prayer came and the man offered prayer along with the Prophet. When the Prophet finished his prayer, the man again got up and said, “Oh Allah’s Messenger, I have committed a legally punishable sin; please inflict the legal punishment on me.” The Prophet asked, “Haven’t you prayed with us?” The man answered yes and the Prophet replied, “Allah has forgiven your sin.”


4. Politicians continuously claim that RUU355 is a law that will only affect Muslims, so non-Muslims should not worry. Is this true? 

The Syariah Courts only have jurisdiction over Muslims under the Federal Constitution. So technically Syariah courts should not impact non-Muslims in Malaysia. However, we have seen many incidences where the decisions of the Syariah courts have negatively impacted the lives of non-Muslims:

2006: The case of the custody battle between R. Subashini and her ex-husband who converted to Islam and also converted their two children without her consent. In the Federal Court, it was unanimously decided that the Syariah Court had no jurisdiction to make custody order in marriage-dissolution involving a Muslim convert and a non-Muslim convert.

The final decision of the Federal court ruled that the conversion of children by one parent is considered valid.

2014: The body snatching case of Teoh Cheng Cheng by the Penang Religious Authority (JAIP). Teoh Cheng Cheng’s body was taken away by the Penang Religious Authority in the middle of a Taoist funeral procession. The reason was that JAIP allegedly had information to confirm that Teoh Cheng Cheng was Muslim and should be buried the Muslim way.

After investigation, the Penang Syariah High Court declared that Teoh was not a Muslim. Unfortunately, the tragic incident of body snatching by JAIP had already scarred the family.

2014: The Selangor Religious Authority (JAIS) raided a Hindu wedding ceremony because of a tip-off that the bride was actually Muslim.

As it turned out, the bride, a practicing Hindu, was unilaterally converted to Islam by her father. This resulted in her wedding day being victimized by JAIS.

5. The slogan for RUU355 is, “syariah diperkasa, rakyat sejahtera.” Is this true? If so, then why should we oppose positive efforts towards improving Syariah courts?  

The slogan is an oversimplification of the issue, and in many ways deceptive. Supporters of RUU355 argue that the present limit on punishments is not effective as a deterrent for social ills in Malaysia. Therefore, they further argue that increasing punishments would elevate the status of syariah courts and help reduce so called syariah crimes – thus creating a peaceful society (rakyat sejahtera).

How will increasing punishments create a peaceful society?

In addition, what evidence have PAS and the government supporters of RUU355 provided in support of their claim that more punishments will result in fewer crimes? Will systemic problems in syariah courts also be addressed in the pursuit of elevating its status?

Claiming that RUU355 will help create a peaceful society is a bold and misleading claim, because the bill does not address systemic problems that presently exist in Syariah courts. Muslim women that SIS work with often complain to us about the multiple fees to file applications, the many trips back and forth to court due to a change in judge and/or court date, the exorbitant cost of syarie lawyers and of ex-husbands getting away with not paying maintenance for months.

The status of syariah courts have a better chance of being elevated by addressing these existing systemic problems, rather than focusing only on the aspect of punishment.

6. Is RUU355 completely unrelated to the implementation of hudud and does it have the potential to open the doors to the implementation of hudud in Malaysia? 

On one hand, RUU355 does not have a direct or clear connection to hudud. However, it enables the implementation of hudud laws, even if only partially.

For example, under the new punishment limit of RM100,000 fine, 30 years jail and 100 lashes, the hudud punishment for zina and drinking alcohol can already be applied. Under Section 22 of the Syariah Criminal Code in Kelantan, the punishment for zina is up to 100 strokes of the cane; while Muslims drinking alcohol may be punished with up to 80 strokes.

7. Will RUU355 really provide justice to the people? 

To discuss this, we first need to discuss what acts are punishable under RUU355 and critically analyse whether these acts are actually crimes and that punishing them under RUU355 is constitutional.

In 1997, three contestants of a beauty pageant in Selangor were arrested by the religious authority (JAIS) because they were Muslim. The three women were arrested in front of the audience, handcuffed and then thrown into lock up. Publicly humiliated and treated like criminals, they were arrested for violating a fatwa which banned Muslim women from participating in beauty pageants.

In 2014 the Negeri Sembilan Religious Authority raided a wedding to arrest 16 transwomen, some of whom were the wedding planners and some who had attended as guests. Not only were the transwomen arrested, their heads were shaved, they were fined RM950 each and then imprisoned for 7 days each. Why? For allegedly ‘cross-dressing,’ which is punishable under the Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment (SCOE).

More recently in February this year, a married couple were traumatized by another moral policing raid by the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI) at the budget hotel room they were staying in. The male religious officers had forcefully entered the hotel room despite being told by the husband that his wife inside was not dressed appropriately, which had resulted in a scuffle that caused the husband’s neck to be injured due to alleged strangulation.

Although the husband had repeatedly told the religious officers that they are husband and wife and showed the officers the photo of their marriage certificate on his hand phone, the officers refused to accept the explanation. Instead, the male officers had directed the wife, in front of her own husband, to put on her clothes in front of the male officers. One of the officers kept on taking pictures and video despite being told of the couple’s marital status.

The couple, who have been married for three years, are now suing JAWI for raiding and arresting them for khalwat or close proximity. They are demanding an apology from JAWI for their traumatic experience that resulted in injuries and their wrongful detention even after showing proof of their marriage.

These three examples highlight three important issues in the implementation of Syariah Criminal Offences Enactments: i) the violation of fundamental rights in enforcing these laws; ii) The complete disregard of standard operating procedures by the enforcers; and, iii) the vague and wide scope of ‘crimes’ under the SCOE.

In addition, the implementation of punishment for ‘syariah’ crimes have been targeted towards women, sexual minorities and people of lower economic status.

How can the selective implementation of laws and the violation of fundamental liberties coupled with the increase in punishments under RUU355 ensure justice for Malaysians?

Understanding Sex and Gender: Distinctions, Assumptions and Violence

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Understanding sex and gender is imperative in ending violence and marginalization of transgender persons.

Overwhelming evidence affirms that gender identity is an innate part of our being, and sex and gender are two separate categories that all human beings have. Neither sex nor gender are binary, meaning consisting of only two identities.


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