10 February 2006

Wednesday February 8, 2006
Respect others
IN THE furore over the controversial cartoons in some European newspapers, we should perhaps step back and look at it a bit more calmly. I would be the first to agree that the cartoons are a deliberate provocation and should not have been published. They are disrespectful of people’s faith and beliefs.
But I am wondering whether this really deserves the intensity of the reaction towards it.
I hear some people complaining that Europeans should be more sensitive to the feelings of Muslims about depictions of the Prophets. This is true, but this is assuming that Europeans are all well-educated about Islam and therefore are aware this might be the reaction. (We should note that the Danish paper that originally published the cartoons did apologise.)
Even those who might have deliberately published them in defiance might not have grasped what sort of reaction such an act might elicit.
So, as our religion always asks us to, when faced with ignorance, educate first. I wonder how many people took the trouble to do that.
Not that I’m excusing the newspapers that did belatedly publish the cartoons. If they are making a point about freedom of speech, then it is an overblown one that does not take into account responsibility and accountability to other human beings.
That is such a thing as hate speech and hate crimes and there are laws against these in these very same countries.
The point to be made is are these laws meant to protect everybody or only certain ethnic groups or religions? Laws have to be imposed equally. If they are not, then they are saying that some people have more rights than others.
On the other hand, I also do believe in freedom of speech as one of the basis of democracy. It is no small irony to me that the people most vehemently reacting against the cartoons come from countries that have very little freedom of speech if any at all. Yes, in the whole spectrum of freedom of speech, there is about 2% of that space where such freedom should be restricted because there is no real value in being able to say them.
That, for me, includes any sort of inflammatory speech about race or religion (as in the “mine is superior to yours” variety). But the other 98% should be space where we can exercise our democratic right to say what we truly believe in, to criticise when others are in the wrong, to make our points in rational and safe ways. Yet, how many of us reacting to these cartoons come from countries with that 98% free space?
In our own beloved country, we are free to condemn outsiders who dare to insult us but try expressing our views about our own people and the way we conduct ourselves and see how far that gets us. The laws we have that govern what we can or cannot say can encompass far more than distasteful cartoons.
Then we have this wonderful word “sensitive” in our vocabulary, which in Malaysia, means “don’t talk about it”. We give no quarter to the thought that people might be more mature and resilient than we think, and can discuss issues without resorting to mental breakdowns or violence. Perhaps it is the people who deem things sensitive who do not have the facility to deal with things in a calm and rational manner. That’s why they assume everyone else will be the same.
We also use the word “sensitive” in selective ways. The police, we say, should be sensitive to old people and should not have shaved their heads. Just because they are old? How about not shaving anybody’s heads, regardless of age? I can’t see what exactly it does, unless police tend to worry about lice.
Instead of over-using the word “sensitive” as a codeword for censorship, why not use the word “respectful” and really mean it? We should say that people of all faiths, races and genders should be respectful of one another in every situation. We should be able to discuss anything at all as long as the ground rules are that we speak respectfully to one another.
We do not disrespect one another with generalisations and abusive words. That particularly applies to parliamentarians who sometimes think that parliamentary privilege means you can be racist and sexist.
But most of all, respectful discussion should not be limited to a tiny space only. It should extend to everything that human beings can discuss.
Only then can democracy be meaningful.

02 February 2006

Wednesday January 25, 2006
True equality
One rainy Sunday afternoon, an auditorium at a local college was filled to the brim with people wanting to know more about the amended Islamic Family Law that had just been passed by Parliament amidst much controversy.
Women and men, old and young, filled the seats, the steps and stood through the two hours to listen and express their concerns about how this new law will impact on women. The mood was of genuine anger that this could have happened, that we are retrogressing rather than progressing, and that each person needed to do something to ensure that this law does not pass as it is.
What was interesting was the number of men who turned up. Their wives and daughters had obviously dragged some of them, but there were those who were there on their own volition, and who expressed concern that these laws were an impediment to the type of Malaysian society that they wanted to see in the future, one in which women did not have to suffer discrimination as they do now.
But for every man who was there, there were plenty more who didn’t come, who wouldn’t be seen dead at such a meeting. Apart from the sort of Neanderthals who have knee-jerk reactions to anything that levels the playing field between men and women (you know, the sort who are proud to describe themselves as predators and prowlers), there are a whole lot of men out there who simply don’t get what this is all about and therefore just stay out of it.
I think a lot of men are wondering first of all, why women complain endlessly about discrimination. And secondly, what does equality actually mean.
Firstly, yes we complain about discrimination all the time but that’s because we are discriminated against. It is one thing to have no laws that actively discriminate against women, it is quite another in day-to-day life when women still get penalised in job promotions if they take time off to care for young children. The facts are there.
While some 60% of undergraduates are female, only 23% of administrators and managers in the workplace are women. Malaysian women still earn only 47% of what men earn for the same jobs. In fact, overall, despite what looks like progress for women in our country, the participation of women in the workplace has not changed in 30 years.
Then there’s violence against women. Only recently yet another woman was raped and killed. Immediately you get letters in the papers advising women to be careful. Yes, but what is anyone going to do about the people with the sort of mentality that thinks that women out alone are fair game? Are we really dealing with the problem when we tell women to just stay home? Every time we curb the freedom of women because of the bad behaviour of men, we are not only discriminating against women, we are punishing the victims, not the perpetrators.
So what does equality mean? Some people have interpreted what is good for the goose is also good for the gander in ways that have actually led to less equality. That is exactly what happened with the IFL. Giving men who already have a lot of rights more, just because women had those lesser rights, only meant that the end result was the inequality between men and women got more pronounced.
If we want economic equality, we tax the rich so that we can redistribute wealth to the poor. In this case, we taxed the poor (women) to redistribute to the already rich (men). As a result, the poor simply got poorer.
So the IFL only creates inequality and injustice. Some people think that this is the way it should be, simply because this law supposedly has some religious basis. But this is like saying that religion essentially supports inequality and injustice. Surely this is an insult to religion.
So why should men support laws that provide for equality and justice for women? Would they lose out by doing this, or be seen as a bunch of ninnies controlled by women? I think the men who are against the IFL are intelligent and compassionate men who really believe that discriminating against women is passé, that it is an insult to humankind to treat one half as lesser beings.
This law will affect their mothers, their wives and their daughters. They are concerned because why should there be a way for some other man to treat the women they care about badly? I know men who are incensed that this law will allow some man to cause their daughters to suffer. There are men who have seen their own mothers thrown into poverty because of the selfishness of their fathers.
There are men who are hesitant to sign the petitions against the IFL because they are wary of being associated with women’s groups. This is shortsighted and irrational. Men have so much to gain by promoting true equality and justice for all, and nothing to lose except empty egos. And I’ve never known a woman who has genuinely liked any man who treats women as inferior.