Of Men & Menses

THERE were two firestorms that raged through social media this week. The first was in response to the hysterically irate, steering lock-wielding lady (now known as ‘Kiki’ from Kuantan), which I find has elicited the same magnitude of vitriol and venom as the infamous operators of pet hotel Pet Knode some years ago. The second was in response to the ridiculous statement from Umno lawyer Hafarizam Harun, saying that a woman cannot become Selangor Mentri Besar because their menstrual cycle would get in the way of certain official duties.

I would like to focus on the latter, as it has greater implications and significance to contemporary Malaysian society.

The year is 2014. Technological, political and social change has swept the world over – from the triumphant rise of social media, to the democratisation of Tunisia, to the election of Barack Obama as the United States’ first African American president, to the continuation of Angela Merkel as Germany’s nearly decade-long Chancellor, to the election (and subsequent coup d’etat) of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak president, to the appointment (and subsequent removal) of Thailand’s first female prime minister, to the rise of Pakatan Rakyat to deny Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds majority in two consecutive general elections.

In short, things are changing. The world is changing. Yet there are some people and quarters who are adamant about keeping things – especially in the public sphere – the way they are, mostly for their own benefit.

I’m of course not talking about physical development, in which case I would argue for the total opposite: that we are completely bereft of a sense of architectural history. There is very little “adaptive reuse” in our developmental lexicon, and where possible all traces of the (colonial) past must be removed and replaced with gaudy, Frankenstein-ian eyesores.

I am talking more about fundamental power structures and relations. It seems that in essence, the ruling coalition is unable to grasp the idea of a woman being in a leadership position, constantly relegating and isolating them in their own “Wanita” category … or dare I say “class”?

Think about it. There can never be a woman Umno president, if the majority of Umno members believe and extend the argument of their prime lawyer. Even the minister in charge of women’s affairs at one point was a man!

Pakatan Rakyat, on the other hand, has seen women in key leadership positions, many of which are historic and groundbreaking: two Yang DiPertua of Penang city councils, the Petaling Jaya City Council mayor, and Selangor state assembly speaker no less!

In PKR, as we already know, there are no gender barriers for women to contest the top central leadership positions.

Yet what is really stopping us from believing that one day soon we may have not only a female Mentri Besar, but even a female Prime Minister?

There needs to be debate and critical discourse on this subject. The old parochial, patriarchal order of things needs to be shaken up. A rethinking and reimagining of leadership, just like a rethinking and reimagining of the direction this country needs to take, must happen. The vanguards of sexism must be checked and the “mengkuang ceiling” must be torn through.

We must have room to imagine and dream of vast possibilities not only for the country or for its leaders, but most importantly for the people. Only by being allowed and encouraged to have these imaginations and dreams will we be able to truly be more innovative, unlock greater potential, and embrace our true capacity as Malaysians.

The time is come. Wanita, bangkit!

(This article first appeared in The Star on 17th July 2014.)

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