The Women’s Parliamentary Caucus today called for a 30 per cent female representation in both political and administrative decision-making bodies, in an act sure to re-instigate debates about the need for State-regulated quotas – the debate about the NEP; arguably the most recognisable manifestation of Ketuanan Melayu in the public’s eyes (largely due to the State’s failure to perfect the art of Gramscian hegemony by putting a convincingly national face to the NEP), has been ever-present in Malaysian socio-political discourse over the past decades.

One can be certain that the NEP will loom in the background of any discussions about this recent call from the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. Yet the matter of quotas along the lines of gender is qualitatively distinct from the NEP; for one, there does not appear to be a risk of the proposed policy being fused with any ideology of supremacy or rightful reclamation.

For socio-political observers, it will be very interesting to see the response of those at the forefront of the liberal project – I use the term loosely of course, to describe the movement of young urban professionals who largely voted Opposition last March – who have long despised the NEP. In all likelihood, many in this section will be unsure how to engage the issue since gender has never truly been on the forefront of the liberal project. On the other hand, the traditional defenders of the NEP – UMNO and other Malays on the Right of our political spectrum – will likely be the first to reject the call. Grounded in patriarchy, I would not be surprised if this sentiment finds expression in chauvinistic remarks chastising the proposal as unwarranted and unnecessary since ‘perempuan memang terlalu beremosi untuk buat keputusan penting dalam isu politik atau pentadbiran.’

I believe that at least amongst the former group, there is an intuitive awareness that gender equality in Malaysia is an issue that needs addressing. For example, in the context of political decision-making bodies, the infamous “bocor” (leak) comment when a male Parliamentarian poked fun at a female counterpart’s menstrual cycle indicate a serious lack of respect for women amongst elected representatives. It is no wonder then, that in the UNDP’s 2007/2008 Human Development Report for Malaysia, the gender empowerment measure (GEM) – which reveals whether women take an active part in economic and political life by tracking the share of seats in parliament held by women; of female legislators, senior officials and managers; and of female professional and technical workers- and the gender disparity in earned income, reflecting economic independence – saw Malaysia ranked a lowly 65th out of 93 countries.

Gender-based affirmative action would thus appear to be justified, and whilst quotas do come with baggage, any critique of the proposal must be based on its effectiveness and not its spirit.

If put into practice, this measure would represent a significant step in changing the way in which women are viewed in Malaysia, and also the dominant public consciousness that currently still ‘legitimises’ and ‘defends’ the outlook that views women as primarily sexual beings – statistics in 2007 show that 6.6 women are raped every day in Malaysia.

To be sure, as with many other traditional social inequalities backed by stereotypes, entrenched patriarchy elicits responses from women that, paradoxically, often appear to reinforce those same stereotypes. The glass-ceiling is ever present and women in decision-making positions may on occasion feel the need to go the extra mile to exert authority, at times appearing emotional or overly stubborn. Even romantic relationships or processes of courting – at first glance seemingly trivial to this debate – increasingly project the same phenomenon, where girls assert power through inflated sensitivity to respectful sexual advances by males.

Equally significant is the expression of “girl power” amongst adolescent females who increasingly find it ‘cool’ to be single – I have on many an occasion found myself amused upon hearing female friends or acquaintances, when in numbers, utter remarks like “who needs a boyfriend?” (which doesn’t help me of course!). But the Fatwa Council need not be alarmed – far from being an indication of lesbianism on the rise, this, I believe, is one of the many expressions of the female voice; and like any other voices of marginalised groups, it is not always immediately comprehensible to the ‘outsider’ or the ‘dominant’.

And it is precisely because such voices are not always comprehensible, that it is incumbent upon liberal Malaysia, if its members are indeed progressive and educated, to delve deeper into study of the female experience in Malaysia, hear clearer the female voice, and finally take up gender equality as a primary agenda of struggle.