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.