Women as politicians and care providers – is it a contradiction? PAS’ women wing deputy chief Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud shows why it is no contradiction. The first term Kota Raja Member of Parliament clocks a frenetic pace daily for her 80,000 plus constituents as well as her family of eight. Over coffee, the Rocket’s T.K Tan sought her views regarding some of the challenges women, particularly Muslim women, face and how it affects their political preferences.
Women in Malaysia, Siti believes, have many choices and career paths to take. “Malaysian women are individuals who are capable and talented and want to be recognised as such. Working is not a fundamental demand on women as far as Islam is concerned, although in many circumstances it is necessary,” she began.
However, she believes that for women to be able to work productively and to reach their full potential, there has to be an adequate community and gender support system in place to assist the women’s familial burdens.
“Women want to be treated equal, while at same time the general public also needs to recognise that we are biologically different and equipped differently. Besides being breadwinners, we are also the primary care providers for our children and parents.”
Therefore, she opines, the legislative, social and physical surroundings and infrastructure that are conducive for women have to be taken into account for women to be able to play a more effective role in contributing to the country’s economic wellbeing.
However the existing support system in Malaysia leaves much to be desired. “It needs a more concerted effort of improvement and proper and long term planning.”
Siti cites the establishing of childcare centres as a prime example: “It has to be built in areas where it is close to the commercial centres and factories for the convenience of the parents who send and pick up the children. The government has to look into providing grants and subsidies to encourage the private childcare centre providers and speed up licensing processes for them.”
“Currently childcare centre providers have to go through many bureaucratic procedures with the federal ministries and local councils before approval to commence operations. With such cumbersome processes, inevitably the providers are few and the costs increases as well. It is a form of burden on the wage earners,” she adds.
When asked about some of the steps such as the call for longer paid maternity and paternity leave and a “birth allowance” for parents, Siti says the government has to take into account the country’s financial ability and macro situation.
She states that Malaysia is facing a demographic dichotomy. “The Malay segment of the population is growing faster than the nation’s population growth, while the generally more affluent and productive Chinese population is ageing faster due to low birth rates.”
“It will impinge on the long term economic wellbeing of Malaysia. Particularly, Malay society needs to be educated more about family and old age financial retirement planning. Here educating the women plays a crucial role in bringing this change,” she elaborated.
Some of the issues
Moving to one of her favourite subject, Siti recalls some of the thorny legal issues which Muslim women in Malaysia faces. “Many Muslim women are affected by the delay in property claims, nafkah (living expenses) and mutaah (alimony) payments, divorce procedures and uneven implementation of polygamy legal requirements.”
She states that part of the problem is due to the weak implementation of the Muslim family laws in the syariah courts as they are not empowered and standardised in Malaysia. Islamic matters fall under each state’s purview; hence each state has its own Muslim family laws.
Siti believes one of the resolutions is to strengthen the position of the syariah courts and standardise Muslim related laws in the country. “However, some steps that do not require amendments to the existing laws can be implemented to alleviate the abuses that come from polygamy issue,” she says.
“We have been requesting for a common database of all Muslim marriages registered in Malaysia to be shared amongst all the states. This is to verify if a man has been truthful in declaring he has requested the first wife’s approval before marrying the second wife. We wonder if it would ever be implemented,” she notes.
“To be fair, the Muslim Family Law is much better compared with before the 1980s. Again, the recurrent problem is the fact that the women are not aware of their legal rights.”
Politics In Her Blood
Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud, who hails from Kedah, did her medical degree studies in Egypt and UK and served as a doctor and lecturer in Selangor and KL before joining politics. She was elected as the Kota Raja MP with the highest majority amongst all PAS candidate in the 2008 general elections (GE).
Both of her parents were politically active. “My mother was the former deputy chief of Kedah Dewan Muslimat (Women’s Wing) in my schooling days, while my father served as a treasurer in a local PAS division,” she said.
“As a result of my mother’s political leanings my father, who was formerly a headmaster, was demoted and sent to several remote area teaching postings in Kedah. He retired from teaching before the pensionable age of 55. It was a lot of sacrifice for us. Perhaps that was what moulded and strengthened my resolve to join politics.”
“My mother was very supportive of me in joining politics. Right till her last few months of life she would encourage me to serve the constituents and not worry about her health by visiting her,” she reminiscence.
Bringing in the votes, one at a time
In any elections the Malay electorate, particularly rural women, has proven to be a sure vote bank for UMNO. Pakatan has a formidable task of facing the core of UMNO’s party machinery, Wanita UMNO (WU). Siti explains why:
WU is a force to be reckoned with in the Malay women community. They have been working with the grassroots for a long time. Their effectiveness in getting the Malay women votes cannot be underestimated. Siti attributes this to several factors.
“Malay women generally have lower education levels and are easily satisfied with the simple things. Like their target audience, WU leaders and members are lay people who are similarly low-educated but are regularly in touch with and live among the womenfolk in the kampongs and towns. They are well-versed with what is needed to win the women’s hearts.”
“The regular programs which they cater for the women are nothing to shout about: marhaban (prophet praising sessions), cooking classes, tea and get-together sessions and the like. But in the rural environment, where there is lack of entertainment, it certainly gets their attention,’ she explains.
Pakatan women, on the other hand, bring the idealism of the message of reformasi and change.
“The word change is not a favourite phrase amongst the Malay women. As long as they don’t see the adverse impact of the government’s policies, the idea of change is disconcerting to them as it affects the people close to them (i.e. the WU go-betweens),” she stated.
“When the PR women leaders talk about corruption and abuse of power, they can’t relate to it as it doesn’t affect their pockets and daily lives.”
“We don’t have many committed grassroot PR members who have the patience and intimate knowledge of mixing with the Malay women. Our prospects in a particular area improved when these grassroot WU members cross over to PR. But it’s an arduous task to convince them,” she elaborated.
“Malay women are also generally not inclined to read, unlike the men who would buy alternative newspapers such as Harakah or Suara Keadilan to get themselves posted on the latest political happenings.”
Adapting to Reality
In contrast PAS’s Dewan Muslimat, who often takes up the unenviable task of trying to win over the Malay women’s vote for PR, are cut from a different cloth.
“Dewan Muslimat members are generally from activist and religious background. They are more comfortable to be in the suraus or mosques performing religious duties such as reciting Quran or attending religious classes. They would even take up low-salaried teaching post in PASTI (religious kindergartens organised by PAS) just to be with their children,” Siti expounded.
“They generally stay away from programs which they consider as intoxicating and draw them away from their faith; things such as fancy tudung fitting, beauty makeup classes, tea sessions, karaoke etc comes to mind. In this aspect, we are losing out to UMNO in attracting the Malay votes.”
“During the elections, Wanita UMNO members will spread the goodies such as hampers and gifts for the women. It softens their aversion towards BN,” she continued.
“Even for those who are fence sitters or PR-inclined, there is a tendency to keep their political leanings hush-hush. This is to protect themselves from being ostracised or sidelined after the elections.” In a community that is highly collectivist, there is a strong motivation to do so.
“During kenduris (gathering) or gotong-royong, a typical rural family will need the immediate community’s help to accomplish it. WU has much leverage with the authorities and village chiefs to facilitate these events.”
“We need to have more programs that can draw us closer to the womenfolk. This is one ominous void which PR has to address,’ she cautioned.
Despite there being a shortage in women politicians, Siti believes that having more women candidates will not necessarily address or solve women and gender issues. “We should consider placing more emphasis on electing and appointing gender responsive legislators and civil servants, not just women politicians,” she opined.
Siti believes the current ‘first-past-the-post’ political system as practised in Malaysia hinders meaningful representation for women representation in politics.
In some neighbouring countries such as the Philippines, women-based parties and NGOs are allocated seats on the national legislature based on the popular votes obtained by them. Even the seemingly conservative Pakistan has quotas for female representation in the local councils.
“Often, the winning appeal of the candidates trumps the political parties’ well-meaning intentions to select women and minority candidates for fairer representation. Indirect and proportional representation voting system can be one of the ways to address this issue,”
“With the obtained number of votes, the parties can prioritise what agenda it wants to push in the form of the candidates it selects,” she said.
In terms of candidate lineup, Siti perceives both DAP and PAS as having very different make up of women candidates and members.
“DAP has more professionals and activists, particularly lawyers for its women leaders; they are generally more vocal in fighting for women’s rights. PAS, on the other hand, mainly draws its female talent from the grassroots, who are also less well-versed with women and gender-related issues,” she said.
“Women’s issues advocacy needs learned expertise on the part of its proponents. There are many women’s issues advocates in civil society, but they prefer not to operate within the political parties’ systems.”
As for Pakatan, “we do draw ideas from and advocate women NGOs’ proposals in the parliament. However, I admit we have not been able to discuss and research in more depth with the women NGOs as these issues are often relegated to secondary-tier priority,” she added.
“For PAS, we see the fight for women rights in the communal sense. We will refer back to the ulamas and religious scholars’ interpretation of the Islamic jurisprudence to advocate women’s rights,” she said, adding that the ulama nowadays are listening to the view of women.
In Siti’s view, DAP and PAS have reached a level of mutual trust and understanding amongst the leadership. The challenge is conveying that message of cooperation to the grassroots members.
“On many controversial issues, the two parties’ leadership have agreed to disagree on the matter based on each party’s principles. We are in coalition politics; differences of opinion are inevitable.”
As for the hudud issue, Siti is of the opinion that it needs more explanation to the non-Muslims. “Basically hudud is the capital punishment for certain types of crimes specified in the Quran. It can be inserted in the present penal laws to be fair to all. It requires the same process of charging, trials, case appealing before punishment or acquittal.”
“The severity of hudud’s punishment serves as a reminder and deterrent to potential crime doers. For Muslims, obedience to Allah’s decrees is absolute. However, the question may be asked of its enactment and implementation,” she stated.
“We acknowledge that there has not been much fair public space and time allocated to discuss about it. If we are able to explain it in an adequate number of venues and forums in a rational and academic way, in time we believe that the non-Muslims will be able to accept it.”
“Perhaps by then we can have a referendum on it and enact or disband it accordingly. Much energy has been spent debating and opposing it; it is a part of Islam, but not the only part. We will prioritise what is of necessity now, which is to rid Malaysia of the UMNO’s corrupt gripe,” she enthused. –The Rocket