Conservatively speaking freely, 18 March 2016
Over the course of last week and this week there have been many events celebrating International Women’s Day, which fell on 8 March – in very different ways from its first commemoration by the Socialist Party of America in New York in 1909.
When asked whether I am a “feminist”, I reply “of course, because I believe in individual human rights for everyone, regardless of the various attributes that we happen to possess”. This answer is usually met with approval but occasionally the more militant type of feminist will insist that this is not good enough, due to historical exploitation by men and persistent institutional biases against women, and therefore extra measures or additional privileges are necessary, even if temporarily. In such cases I cannot help but think of the more militant type of ethnonationalist who routinely argues for authoritarian measures to “correct” racial imbalances, usually using the power of the state. Unfortunately the record of well-intentioned affirmative action policies, especially in our country, is discouraging.
As with any highly politicised labels, there are many battles for definition and areas of contention, perhaps most recently exemplified here after former Minister for International Trade and Industry, Malaysia’s “Iron Lady” Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz called for a ban on the word “feminism” and lamented that “women are not quota fillers”. Again in our country, comparisons to quotas based on race are readily available. I thought of former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, who opposed the perpetuation of preferential treatment based on race and wrote that the “‘special position’ is a slur on the ability of the Malays”. As we have seen, his logic has been tragically undone by the hijacking of noble intentions for other personal and political aims.
It remains my conviction therefore that education, especially in the area of human and civil rights as well as individual liberty and dignity provides the best route for the natural eradication of prejudices of all forms. This includes acknowledging the oppressions of the past and contemplating institutional frameworks to prevent their repetition. Some would say that this approach is too slow, and the adoption of quotas and the introduction of laws that enforce pay parity or even require baby creches in offices are necessary to deliver quicker social justice. But there is much persuasive data that shows that more diverse workforces are more profitable (and more diverse parliaments make better laws) that can incentivise employers through market mechanisms without the need for compulsion.
Sometimes it gets tricky for certain quarters when religion comes into the equation, but Muslims in particular should remember that Islam was a religion of liberation for women, and that the Prophet Muhammad himself married his employer, the successful businesswoman Khadijah, resulting in one of the world’s first power couples.
Between points during the BMW Malaysian Open it occurred to me that I was attending two women-only events that weekend: the tennis itself, and Malam Nada Biru – a concert that brought together eight Malaysian songstresses from across the generations. When I decided to attend these events, I made no consideration at all to the fact that they featured only women. I decided to attend because I enjoy tennis and music, and the individuals who were performing whether on court or on stage were exhibiting exceptional skill and talent.
When I pointed this out to a well-known feminist sitting next to me, she teased that I should get a medal. But actually, for so many inspirational figures in my life – my mother, teachers, colleagues in civil society, fellow board members in foundations and companies, favourite athletes, musicians, authors, monarchs and politicians – the specific fact that they are women is of little consequence. They are simply amazing human beings – and I see more logic in commemorating Mother’s Day or Teachers’ Day.
Yet, I do entirely understand the desire of some people to form voluntary associations to celebrate their identity (or identities). Indeed, it is a common human trait to want to seek commonalities with other people. It is the reason why I give speeches for Malay associations – or when I was studying abroad, participated in Malaysian societies – or why I attended the Lean In summit, and also why I was pleased to join last week’s luncheon to commemorate International Women’s Day at the Australian High Commission.
The problems arise when groups rely on their defined identity to capture the resources of the state or enforce policy changes that violate the principles of freedom and justice, undermine the rule of law and violate the integrity of national institutions. In Malaysia today, ethnic identities are primarily blamed for causing such distortions, but we should recognise the role of gender and other identities too.
Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS