Now, more than ever, there are more women participating in politics worldwide. After decades of fighting for inclusion and opportunities, the Internet has allowed women to get involved and openly express their views in the public domain.
But this seemingly liberating tool brought another form of violence against women – online harassment. As women’s political participation began to grow, so did the frequency and intensity of violent responses towards their presence. This is one of the reasons why women still remain overwhelmingly underrepresented in politics worldwide.
With their political opinions constantly being met with sexism and hatred on social media, it creates a barrier for women to participate safely, fully and equally. These acts of violence are aimed to exclude women, by using fear and intimidation to discourage their participation.
We spoke to Aliya Ashiqin, the co-founder of StandUp Malaysia, as well as the publicity secretary for DAP Socialist Youth – DAPSY Damansara, to hear about her experience, as well as how we can overcome the online harassment of women in politics.
What pushed you to start StandUp Malaysia?
I always felt that women and girls in Malaysia were not safe, whether online or offline, from catcalling on the street to physical violence, slut-shaming and sextortion (revenge porn/leaked nudes) by an ex-intimate partner. 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced violence in their lifetime – statistics have proved that women are more likely to encounter sexual harassment/abuse compared to men. Recognizing this issue, my co-founder and I decided to start a non-governmental organization (NGO) named StandUp Malaysia. We founded StandUp Malaysia to fight against any forms of violence targeted towards women.
What has your experience been like as a woman in both activism and politics?
Definitely a rollercoaster ride! Besides my involvement in StandUp Malaysia, I do actively participate in politics. Considering my contribution as a Publicity Secretary for DAPSY Damansara, I engage and execute various activities such as creating content, organising political forums for youths, distributing flags on Merdeka Eve, visiting Orang Asal villages, and many other things. Suffice to say, it is quite fun actually, and the best part is that our organising committee recognises gender equality by having a female, YB Lim Yi Wei, as our Chief. (Yay!) However, I found things a tad challenging when everything moved to a digital platform. This is because people are sitting behind the screen, spending 12 to 24 hours on a keyboard, and they start commenting nasty things to you – which they wouldn’t dare to say in front of you. Like I mentioned earlier, women are most vulnerable in an online space. I have experienced a situation where my first “Come Join My Political Party” poster was shared by many on Twitter, and later on Facebook. The misogynists started commenting in a very disparaging manner. They called me things like, Trigger Warning: “DAP whore, untuk jadi barua pelacur??, gundik??” and commenting in lewd tones such as, “standard ni kat petaling street pun banyak, masuk spa etc”. After going through that experience, I feel as though our society is still not ready to have the First Woman Prime Minister of Malaysia. It’s kinda frustrating for women in politics to go through this all the time.
In Malaysia, why do you think that a low number of women participate in politics?
Tracing back the history, I found that there were several women groups – Kaum Ibu UMNO, AWAS, who mobilised and participated in political movements – fighting for national independence. In fact, in 1960, we had the first woman representative in legislature by the name of Ganga Nayar. Over the years, we can see the number of women in politics, and running for office, increasing. However, it still remains low – women’s representation in Parliament is less than 20%. I think the low number of women who participate in politics is mainly because of external factors. Some women perceive politics as “dirty politics” because there is a lot of dirty business going on – corruption activities, political blackmailing scandals. And most importantly, gender inequality and systemic challenges. One pressing issue is gender inequality. Gender inequality exists in families, workplaces, political parties and other situations. Women often being assigned to subordinate roles in rank (gender roles) further hampers them and limits their opportunity to run for office. We have recently seen political forums that put all men as panelists for women topics, which I think is irrelevant. Also, I think women don’t run for office because it is their personal choice. They feel being in politics subjects them to public scrutiny – people check your background, family and others. But women are participating in politics. They vote during the election, participate in online discussions, sign petitions and protest on the streets.
How can we encourage more women to participate – why is it so important?
It is so important to participate in politics because politics deals with our life. The government formulates policies that affect us and we can’t ever run away from that. To narrow down the discussion, we have to determine women to participate in politics or to run for office. We need more women to run for office for our voices to be heard. There are women issues that need women representatives to decide and debate on – men cannot make decisions on behalf of women. Therefore, equal representation of gender in Parliament is crucial. One of the approaches to encourage women to run for office is by providing them with training – public speaking, debating, data analysis and so forth. I feel political parties must set a quota for women to be equally contested in the election. For instance, party A allocates 25 out of 50 seats for women candidates. Women can always partake in discussions about current issues by creating more spaces for them.
What advice do you have for women who are afraid of entering these spaces because of the gender-specific abuse?
Women should live fearlessly.
Why do you think women are targeted in these spaces?
This is because of the patriarchal mindset that has been deeply-rooted in our society for decades.
How do you cope with the bullying and harassment?
I usually ignore, block and report them. But if the degree of harassment and bullying is not tolerable, I call them out on social media.
What measures can be taken to prevent and condemn attacks on women in these spaces?
I think we need to reform and modify some laws to safeguard all genders, including minors. I acknowledge that there are Acts – the Communication and Multimedia Act to protect us, but I think we need to enforce and strengthen it. Secondly, we need to actively advocate a safe space (online and offline) and promote healthier discussions in our community. Finally, I feel we should educate our generation on treating and respecting women, such as implementing gender subjects in schools.
Every year since 2012, the United Nations has observed October 11 as International Day of The Girl Child. The international organisation declared a Day of The Girl to recognise girls’ rights and the unique challenges they face worldwide. They reported that nearly 1 in 4 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are neither employed nor in education compared to 1 in 10 boys of the same age. The International Day of the Girl demands for the commitment to tackle these challenges, boost empowerment and uphold human rights.
This year, following the theme, My Voice, Our Equal Future, the focus is placed on protecting adolescent girls from gender-based violence, harmful practices and HIV and AIDs, as well as providing them with the skills needed to succeed in the future of their choice, and supporting their activism to advance social change. Here are 5 Malaysian women who are breaking the barriers set by stereotypes and exclusion to create a more accessible and inclusive space for future generations:
1. Dr Chan Yoke Fun
The first Malaysian to win the Asean-US Science Prize for Women, Dr. Chan was recognised for her research on developing a single vaccine for both hand, foot and mouth disease, and brain diseases in children. She is the head of the Medical Microbiology Department in Universiti Malaya’s Faculty of Medicine and was picked among 10 national finalists who played promising roles in preventive healthcare.
2. Nor “Phoenix” Diana
Not only was Nor Diana the first hijab-wearing pro-wrestler, she was also the first female winner of the Malaysia Pro Wrestling Wrestlecon championship, beating out five men. The former clinical assistant was featured on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list and has been training with the British independent women’s professional wrestling promotion – Pro Wrestling: EVE.
3. Arinna Erin
Remember when Nike launched their first modest swimwear collection? One of the models who appeared in the global campaign was Malaysian, Arinna Erin. The hijabi-model is signed to BAME Models in the UK, where she received her Master of Science in Business Intelligence and Social Media from Brunel University, London.
4. Yangsze Choo
We were all excited for Netflix’s The Ghost Bride – a Taiwanese/Malaysian drama set in 19th century Malacca. The cast and crew were mainly made up of Malaysians, but the story itself was also written by a Malaysian whose book was ranked on the New York Times’ bestseller list and Oprah.com’s Book of the Week. Yangsze Choo’s second novel, The Night Tiger, was also a success – securing her a spot on New York Times and Publishers Weekly’s bestseller lists, as well as Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club.
5. Steffi Sarge Kaur
Steffi Kaur was a national football player and futsal player known for representing Malaysia in the Southeast Asian Games and South Asian Games. Now she is a FootGolf player, recently representing Malaysia at the FootGolf Asia Cup in Australia. Kaur grew up wanting to be a scientist until she was captivated by the athletes at the opening ceremony of the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
Everyone has the right to a safe, educated and healthy life, but unfortunately, many adolescent girls are denied these guarantees and freedoms. Girls have the power to change the world because they make up almost half of the population – imagine how much more effective problem-solving would be if we all worked together to solve climate change, political conflict, economic growth, disease prevention and global sustainability? In the words of Michelle Obama, “Women and girls can do whatever they want. There is no limit to what we as women can accomplish”. Let’s get it, girls!