Nikesh Mehta

Counsellor for Foreign Policy and Security

Part of UK in Malaysia

8th March 2013 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

One Woman’s Fight to End Gender Discrimination in Malaysia

Nikesh Mehta with Marina MahathirI’m delighted that Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, daughter of Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohammad, has kindly agreed to write a guest blog for the British High Commission to mark International Women’s Day 2013. This year’s theme is ‘The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum’. As one of Malaysia’s foremost advocates for gender equality, I couldn’t think of a better-informed person to write this blog. As always, I look forward to receiving your comments.

Over to you Datin…

Listening to a top female banker on the radio one day, I heard the host ask the inevitable question when career women are interviewed. “How”, she asked, “ do you combine your career with being a wife and mother?”

I rolled my eyes at what is never asked of men. Then I heard the banker reply, “I am supremely well-organised. I plan all of my children’s meals and activities a week ahead of time.”

On the one hand I had to admire her efficiency because obviously it contributes very much to her success. But on the other hand, I could not recall a single instant when a man would have needed to answer the same question, not least because he has a wife at home who would organize all that for him.

Therein lies the perpetual dilemma for women, finding ways to do two jobs well when men only have to do one.

Undoubtedly in more advanced countries, these dilemmas are being alleviated; women are allowed flexible working arrangements, get long maternity leave so that they have time to organize themselves and most importantly male partners and husbands who pitch in to help. In Malaysia, women are still waiting for things to change.

It would be untrue to say that there have been no positive developments at all in Malaysia over the years. In 2001 the Federal Constitution was amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a citizen’s sex. More recently crèches have been built in government work places and female civil servants are now entitled to 90 days’ maternity leave, up from the previous sixty days.

But anomalies remain. Despite the Constitutional amendment, women in the private sector can still be discriminated against, as in the case of female flight attendants on the national airline whose flying careers are not as long as their male counterparts’. Furthermore private sector workers are subject to the vagaries of their own companies’ employment policies. Thus not all enjoy the same benefits as the public sector workers.

Which raises an interesting question: aren’t women in the public sector and the private sector equal citizens under the Constitution?

The other strange dichotomy is of course that between Muslim and non-Muslim women. In the area of personal laws, different courts, civil courts for non-Muslims and syariah courts for Muslims, separate Malaysian citizens. Within this system, Muslim women suffer the most disadvantages, having to endure the indignities of polygamy, and inheritance laws that give more to their brothers.

Not that it was always this way. In 1984, Malaysia had the best Muslim family laws in the world. While granting that some religious customs such as polygamy cannot be wholly forbidden, various laws were enacted to mitigate the worst effects on women. No Muslim man could take on another wife without the expressed written permission of his first wife. He had to persuade judges that he had good reason to marry another and that his first wife and family would not suffer a drop in living standards as a result of it.

However over the past three decades, changes, mostly stealthily, have been made to these laws to erode these protections for women. In the name of ‘gender neutrality’, men were given the same rights as women, but women did not enjoy the same rights as accorded to men. Women found the court system increasingly unfriendly, being unable to obtain divorces or maintenance for themselves and their children while men could easily divorce their wives, sometimes even by SMS. Where once her earnings and property remained her own, men could now lay claims on them, while at the same time denying her her share of mutual property obtained during the marriage. Court-ordered settlements are not enforced, leaving many single mothers destitute or forced to find work to support themselves and their children.

These are the injustices that the organization that I am part of, Sisters in Islam, works to redress. Every day we face many women whose lives have been made miserable because of these laws. Yet there are those who insist that these laws can never be changed because they are of ‘divine’ origin. This is a notion that we reject, for the simple reason that Islam, like other religions, cannot be founded on injustice. We believe that these man-made laws should address the realities of women’s lives and seek to alleviate their problems, not aggravate them.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2013 is The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum. Our lawmakers may not appreciate it just yet but with more educated Malaysian women, the old agenda of allowing such injustices to prevail may soon run its course.


3 comments on “One Woman’s Fight to End Gender Discrimination in Malaysia

  1. Marina is a Malaysian hero. She has brought back forgotten smiles to thousands of women.. Marina is a true patriot and a true fighter for your right and mine. TQ Marina…keep up the good work..

  2. Malaysia is lucky having former PM’s daughter, Marina, being a foremost advocate for women’s rights! She really speaks from the heart for women’s rights in her country which also gives impact to her surrounding countries and global world.

    Marina has had done a lot towards the issues on HIV/AIDS. Would be great if many more Marinas in Malaysia.

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About Nikesh Mehta

Nikesh (Nik) Mehta commenced his posting as Counsellor (Foreign Policy and Security) at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur in January 2012. This new role was created to strengthen…

Nikesh (Nik) Mehta commenced his posting as Counsellor (Foreign
Policy and Security) at the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur in
January 2012. This new role was created to strengthen the British
Government’s relationship with Malaysia on issues such as Counter
Terrorism, Counter Proliferation and Transnational Crime.
Nik joined the Foreign Office in 2002 after nearly three years
working as a teacher in rural Japan. His first experience of culture
shock was trying to explain why he was vegetarian to a group of
sceptical Japanese students. Nik spent a year on the NATO desk in London
before serving in the Coalition Provisional Authority as the Political
Officer for southern Iraq based in Basrah.
In 2004, Nik was appointed as Second Secretary (Political) in Kampala
primarily responsible for reporting on conflict with the Lord’s
Resistance Army, the ensuing humanitarian crisis and the subsequent
peace talks in Juba. The posting was particularly poignant for Nik’s
family as his mother, a Ugandan-Asian, was expelled from the country by
Idi Amin’s forces in 1972.
For the last four years, Nik has served in the Foreign Office’s
Counter Terrorism Department, most recently as Head of the Guantanamo
and Rendition Issues Team.
Nik is in Kuala Lumpur with his Australian wife, Anna, and their
three year old son, Arran. You can follow him on Twitter @nikmehta33.

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