The moment there was an inkling that Dyana Sofya would be DAP’s candidate for the Teluk Intan Parliamentary seat, a picture purportedly of her (it wasn’t) in a bikini was circulated on the Internet. She has since been subjected to wolf whistles by her own supposed supporters and called cheap candy by extremist group Isma.
Sexist and misogynistic politics
These attacks and hurdles that Dyana faces stem from the same sexism and misogyny that women politicians who walked before her faced and continue to face.Leading up to GE13 last year, pamphlets depicting a constituent saying “You’re going back to suckle. If we have a problem, whom should we look for?” were distributed in Kulai, directed at the woman candidate Teo Nie Ching.
Surely many women have been discouraged from pursuing careers in politics because of this rampant sexism. Worse, many women have been actively denied the opportunity to run.
Last year, Pahang PAS committed to field at least 40% new faces at GE13. However, none of these candidates were women, with the party claiming that women were not ready “due to work and other commitments”.
It’s no surprise then that there are so few women elected representatives in Malaysia, both at the state and federal level. Only 10% of Members of Parliament and 11% of state assemblypersons are women, according to an analysis by the NGO Empower.
Sexism in politics is not unique in this country. Nevertheless, we have reason to believe that it is particularly bad in Malaysia. The 2013 Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum ranks Malaysia the 110th lowest in percentage of women parliamentarians among the 132 countries it studied.
Kick sexism out
How can we end sexism faced by women politicians? Well, stopping sexist attacks is a good place to start. Political parties, politicians and supporters must stop making sexist attacks against their opponents, directly or through proxies. Political leaders must also swiftly condemn sexist behaviour by their peers and supporters to send the message that such behaviour is not acceptable.
But perhaps the most effective thing we can do to kick sexism out of politics is to elect more women into office.
In 1993, India amended its constitution to require that one third of India’s village councils be reserved for female chief councillors – only women candidates could run for chief councillor during an election in these chosen villages. A 2009 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Poverty Action Lab used this situation to examine how exposure to female leaders affected villagers’ perceptions of women leaders.
The study found that “repeated exposure to female leaders changed villagers’ belief on female leader effectiveness and reduced their association of women with domestic activities”, and that “the presence of a female leader in their village significantly increased parents’ aspirations for their daughters and female adolescents’ aspirations for themselves”.
The more women hold leadership roles in politics, the more people will be exposed to women leaders and the more people will start to accept and treat women as political leaders.
And to elect more women into office, political parties simply need to field more women as candidates. Evidence suggests that political parties will not be taking risks by fielding a woman candidate; rather, they may even be increasing their chances of winning.
An analysis conducted by Bridget Welsh, Associate Professor in Political Science at Singapore Management University, found that women candidates in GE13 won more and in bigger majorities compared to men (even if we do not include Teresa Kok’s gargantuan win margin).
The low number of women in elected offices is not because women lose; it is because not enough women are given the chance to run.
We must end sexism and misogyny in politics, so that future Dyana Sofyas will not have to face discrimination due to their gender, but will simply be judged for the calibre of their candidacy. – May 26, 2014.