Overview of the Themes of the Women’s Tribunal Malaysia 2021
by Karen Lai, Member, Women’s Tribunal Steering Committee
Women are diverse, and their lives are complex.
The Black American feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw once said:
If you don’t have a lens that’s been trained to look at how various forms of discrimination come together, you’re unlikely to develop a set of policies that will be as inclusive as they need to be.
Recognising this, the Steering Committee of the Women’s Tribunal has set out to organise an event around two core principles: that of inclusivity, and of intersectionality.
Guided by these principles, the eight themes of this Tribunal are:
The constitutional and legal framework, where reclaiming the law as an institutional pillar to uphold women’s rights requires us to address existing loopholes and gaps;
The economy, where violations against women’s right to decent work are prevalent in our structures and systems;
Health, where we see that the worst intersectional barriers are faced by women from vulnerable communities;
Violence against women, which showcases that multiple forms of gender-based violence are part of the everyday experience of women and girls in Malaysia;
Political and public life, where we discuss the barriers against women’s right to equality in decision-making;
Education, where we look into how this basic right, which is often taken for granted, is out of reach for marginalised groups;
Family and marriage, which is a prime site of discrimination against wives, seriously impacting the quality of life for many women and their children; and
Gender identity, where the criminalisation and non-recognition of trans and gender-diverse people are central to the systemic stigma, misinformation and oppression that deeply affect all aspects of their lives, including employment.
Arriving at these eight themes was neither an easy nor a linear task.
I would like to highlight three key challenges that the Women’s Tribunal's Issues and Evidence Collection Committee faced during the process of deciding on the themes. The first challenge was having to accept that we simply could not deal with every single issue affecting women in this country.
Although we acknowledged that women face infringements to their rights in multiple ways — be they civil, political, economic, social, cultural, and even environmental rights — there was only so much ground we could cover, which brings me to the second challenge.
With the limited time and resources that we had, we did our best to reach out to potential witnesses, encouraging them to step forward and testify. This was both a humbling and sobering experience. We discovered, for example, that despite anecdotal evidence of women facing discrimination in the native courts, we were simply unable to get more witnesses to speak up on this issue. This was also the case for women facing discrimination under civil laws on marriage and divorce.
We tried to reach out to women from marginalised communities who are more vulnerable to the climate crisis, but did not succeed. Not only were there issues of accessibility involved; it was also clear that among the limitations we face is the fact that our networks are primarily among those who are urban, middle class, English-speaking, and digitally savvy, to name a few.
What this ultimately means is that those who lack access to such resources, including basic internet connectivity, will fall through the cracks despite our best intentions. The violations covered in this Tribunal are merely the tip of the iceberg. We must strengthen our collective resolve to do whatever we can to reach out and support the others who remain unseen and unheard.
The third and final challenge is an interrogation of our bias, binary social constructs and limitation of our own understanding on sex and gender. The binary view of sex and gender and their conflation underpin the patriarchal world that we live in. Assumptions and norms set by cisgender heterosexual persons not only shape the idea of who women are and how they should be, but also the rights and opportunities that are made available to them at any given time. All women, be they cisgender, transgender, intersex, or others, are women. Let us bear this in mind as we move through the Tribunal.
I would like to end by invoking Crenshaw again, and paraphrasing her thoughts. Discrimination or disempowerment often is more complicated for people who are subjected to multiple forms of exclusion. By recognising intersectionality, we bring to light exclusions which are often invisible. With light, there is hope, and with hope, the possibility of change.