Young Women in Political and Public Life
by Nadia Malyanah
Based on witness testimonies by Alia Affendy and Shakila Zen
1.1 The visibility of Malaysian women in political and public spaces has gradually increased over the years, as they have continued to surpass their male counterparts in terms of educational attainment. However, Malaysia continues to perform poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report, being ranked at 112 out of 156 countries overall. On the measure of political empowerment, Malaysia was ranked at 128 out of 156 countries in the latest Global Gender Gap Report. A decade ago, Malaysia was ranked at 110 for the same measure out of the overall 132 countries.
1.2 Running for elections remains one of the crucial avenues for Malaysian women to participate in politics, and the same structural barriers remain despite various commitments to increase the number of women in active politics and public life. While the idea of 30 percent female representation in politics was popularised in the run-up to the previous General Election (GE14), currently only 33 of 222 (14.86 percent) Parliamentary seats are held by women, while only 8 out of 54 (14.81 percent) Senatorial positions in the Upper House are filled by women. Most recently, the Melaka state election in November 2021 saw only 14 percent female candidates (16 out of 112) being fielded. Prior to the dissolution of the Melaka State Assembly, there were only 2 female Assemblypersons.
1.3 However, women activists, human rights defenders (HRD) as well as political figures in Malaysia continue to face severe violence and harassment, which actively threaten their safety and well-being in and beyond the sphere of work. These forms of violence and harassment include:
(a) physical violence and harassment, in the form of threats of murder, assault and aggression;
(b) sexual violence and harassment, such as rape/unwanted sex, sexual harassment and unwanted sexual contact;
(c) psychological violence and harassment, including defamation, slander, character attack, and harassment via traditional and online media;
(d) economic violence and harassment, which involves coercive or forceful behaviour to control women’s access to economic resources; and
(e) semiotic violence and harassment, which is the use of use of language, images, and other symbols as a means to marginalise and exclude women as political actors.
1.4 Women political candidates must overcome layers of discrimination to run for political office, and election to office does not instantly erase these layers of discrimination. Occasionally, even their fellow elected officials play a role in perpetuating and/or sanctioning such discrimination in official spaces. Selangor ADUNs Jamaliah Jamaluddin and Lim Yi Wei received racist and sexist threats, and violent threats of rape and murder via Facebook in May 2020, a month after MCA Youth chief Nicole Wong reported having faced months of sexual harassment against her and her daughter. In fact, female Parliamentarians from both sides of the political divide, including Teresa Kok and Azalina Othman, have spent many years dealing with sexist remarks from their male counterparts in the Dewan Rakyat.
1.5 Long-time female civil society activists such as Maria Chin Abdullah and Ambiga Sreenevasan received countless death threats, as well as constant vilification in the media, during their respective tenures as the Chairperson of BERSIH. Other instances include the treatment of Maisara Amira who was detained during the May 1 anti-GST rally — she claimed she was threatened with rape and public humiliation by a police officer, to ensure her cooperation. Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi, the Malaysian ambassador for the European Rohingya Council, received numerous online threats when she called for a reversal of the Government’s pushback policy on Rohingya refugees in April 2020, with one user even threatening rape.
1.6 Most recently, the series of #Lawan protests that took place between April and August 2021 saw several female activists and protesters being targeted online and offline. Youth activist Sarah Irdina was arrested during questioning at Dang Wangi District Police Headquarters and subsequently transferred to the Jinjang lock-up 2 days before the #Lawan 1.0 protest on 29 July. She was eventually released at 1:00 am the next day, after mounting public pressure against her detention. She claimed that the police used intimidatory tactics on her and her family, raided her room to search for devices linking her to their investigation as well as forced her to strip down to her underwear before entering the holding cell. Numerous female #Lawan 1.0 protestors also reported being photographed, identified, and doxxed online after attending the protest.
1.7 During the Dataran Merdeka vigil on 19 August, several young women activists were caught on camera being visibly intimidated and roughed up by police. One activist eventually lodged a separate report over physical injuries allegedly sustained at the hands of five police personnel who lifted and dragged her into custody.
2.1 Issues of concern
2.1.1 Witnesses Alia and Shakila are both human rights activists who presented testimonies about having experienced severe backlash, both online and offline, after videos of them speaking up had gone viral on social media. In Alia’s case, it was a video of her at a 29 February 2020 rally against Bersatu President and then-Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, asking “Siapa Muhyiddin?”. According to Alia, this video was filmed and uploaded to social media by an unknown individual, without her consent. Shakila’s environmental activism in her personal capacity as well as on behalf of KUASA drew numerous insensitive comments over the years after her first appearance on ML Studios’ videos. She pinpointed the viral nature of her TikTok video on the #Lawan rally and her subsequent appearance on a Clubhouse session entitled ‘Why do environmental activists #LAWAN?’ as the point of escalation in threats.
2.1.2 Both women also faced online and offline threats to their safety and well-being due to the virality of the videos. Alia was doxxed online, and her exposed personal information was subsequently used to augment attacks against her in Facebook and Twitter. The image of her at Dataran Merdeka continued to be made into derogatory cartoons and online memes, months after the initial round of attacks had died down. She also received numerous emails and messages in Facebook messenger from strangers. In the attacks, the narratives ranged from accusations of being disrespectful of and betraying the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Government, to accusations of being a political puppet. Body-shaming and offensive remarks aimed at her physical appearance were also hurled at her along with vicious comments about her being emotional and acting like a deranged woman.
2.1.3 Meanwhile, in August 2021 Shakila received a replica of a bloody hand through the post. The package also included a photo of her, with a written note detailing threats of an acid attack and of her family house being set on fire should she continue her activism work. She later discovered that her image and contact number had also been misused to advertise alleged sexual services via fake posters, which resulted in her receiving messages from random individuals soliciting these services. Prior to these aggressive offline threats, she had also received obscene and body-shaming remarks as well as threats to her safety during her time advocating for environmental justice via ML Studios’ online platforms.
2.1.4 Both Alia and Shakila noted that most of the offline and online violence and harassment they experienced were committed by private actors, namely members of the public who are hostile towards young women activists. The risks they faced as political activists were compounded by the fact that the State was not supportive, and did not protect them and their rights to express themselves freely and safely. There were even instances where the police deliberately took on the role of gatekeepers of access to justice and refused to recognise the rights of these women to pursue and obtain justice.
2.1.5 The weak response of the police was a recurring theme in both witnesses’ testimonies, particularly the lack of any proper investigation into the police reports they had lodged. Alia recounts making a police report concerning the gendered disinformation campaign and online harassment targeted at her, only to later discover that no action was taken on her report. Similarly, Shakila lodged two reports with the police concerning the threats and messages she received, only to be mocked, ridiculed, and dismissed by officers handling her reports. At the time of writing, there have been no further updates on either case since August 2021.
2.2 Rights violated/standards not adhered to/failure of duty bearers (state)
2.2.1 Alia and Shakila were essentially denied their right to equality, and the equal freedom to speak and express themselves as their male counterparts. They have the right to participate in political processes as young women, as actively and safely as their male peers. Having a say in Malaysian policy, and engaging in various spheres within the political landscape is a fundamental right to be exercised equally, not a privilege accorded to a select few.
2.2.2 Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Convention) provides:
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country and, in particular, shall ensure to women, on equal terms with men, the right:
(a) To vote in all elections and public referenda and to be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies;
(b) To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government;
(c) To participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country.
2.2.3 However, the two young women’s rights to personal safety and security were violated, and severely disrupted due to their public activism. The online and offline harassment and threats received adversely impacted their peace of mind, and disturbed the equilibrium of these women's lives, emotionally and mentally.
2.2.4 Malaysia, as a State Party to the CEDAW Convention, should recognise these added — and gendered — barriers that impact Malaysian women’s right to participation in political and public life, and should put in place all appropriate measures and protections to accommodate and ensure the ability of women to exercise their right.
2.2.5 It is important to note that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) “supports women’s democratic voices and peaceful political participation.” According to the Committee, “[w]omen’s voices are not marginal but central, hence their bold role in activism for environmental rights, social inclusion, and public equal participation. Women’s political protest is a strong and vital symbol of their solidarity and active role as agents of progress and development at the national, regional, and global levels.”
2.2.6 Additionally, there was a clear failure by the State, whereby the police failed to recognise the discrimination and vulnerability experienced by women activists and take the necessary measures to eliminate the discrimination and protect them. They also failed to recognise or acknowledge the gendered element in the instances of violence faced by both Alia and Shakila, as harassment often becomes sexualised when young women are targeted.
2.2.7 The disregard demonstrated by the police, as well as their inaction, further compounded the impact of violence and harassment these women received in the first place. There is a strong underlying message being sent here, namely that public life — advocacy and activism, in this context — is deemed inappropriate and unsuitable for young women.
2.3 Victim impact
2.3.1 Both witnesses have had their lives adversely affected by the threats of online and offline violence and harassment their public activism and advocacy attracted. These threats not just impacted their personal relationships, but also their own mental and emotional well-being. Both felt depressed due to these threats, and experienced constant fear and anxiety with regard to their safety.
2.3.2 In Shakila’s case, the constant comments targeted at her body and the threats to her safety during her time advocating environmental justice on ML Studios’ platforms eventually led her to seeking psychiatric and counselling help. However, the very help she was seeking in order to deal with the trauma caused by these incidents itself became a reason for her colleagues to boycott and discriminate against her at work, adding to the strain on her. Aside from her colleagues’ hurtful remarks and demeaning slurs relating to her mental health, they had also threatened her with an acid attack. The attention that her case attracted also led her family to pressure her to quit activism, with some family members actively victim-blaming her.
2.3.3 Similarly, Alia felt unsafe in both online and offline spaces due to the initial round of harassment she endured from strangers, as well as former acquaintances and friends. She also began feeling anxious about being recognised in public, and being left alone after the police called her in for an investigation. Being doxxed and having her personal information out in the open also added another layer of anxiety for Alia once she began applying for jobs and had to face recruiters. The unfortunate virality of her image had also led to her being victim-blamed and scapegoated for a separate incident in July 2020, where obscene words were spray-painted using red paint on a mural featuring the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, then-Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Health Director-General Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, and PAS President Tan Sri Haji Abdul Hadi Awang.
3.1 Short term (within one year)
3.1.1 Adopt legislation or revise existing laws to recognise physical, psychological and economic violence affecting women in political and public life. A clear example of this is Law 243 in Bolivia enacted in 2012, which officially criminalises political violence and harassment against women. Similar laws can also be found in other Latin American countries, such as Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica and Mexico.
3.1.2 Train and guide authorities and election bodies to detect, report and respond to violence against women in political and public life. Such initiatives have been piloted in African and Latin American countries — an example of this is the deployment of monitors by Tanzania Women Cross Party Platform (TWCP) to collect information and refer cases of violence against women in elections during the 2015 Tanzanian general elections.
3.1.3 Develop specific parliamentary codes of conduct and procedures for identifying and reporting sexual harassment, as has been adopted by the Parliaments of South Africa, Canada, Costa Rica and Thailand. The Parliaments in these countries have provisions that explicitly protect its Members against sexist remarks, sexual harassment and threats of violence from other Members.
3.1.4 Collaborate with social media companies and relevant CSOs to address psychological, sexual and semiotic violence online.
3.1.5 Experiences of women facing violence in political and public life need to be collectively documented and shared across institutions, countries, and regions on a regular basis, as violence against women in political and public life should be recognised as a subcategory of violence against women (VAW).
3.1.6 The Attorney-General’s Chambers should immediately issue specific guidance to the police on how to classify, identify and investigate online hate crimes against women and girls under existing criminal laws. At the same time, the Government should conduct a holistic assessment of the existing framework to ascertain the gaps and enact further laws necessary to protect the rights of women and girls to participate in political and public spaces.
3.2 Medium term (within two to three years)
3.2.1 The police, specifically, need to play a stronger role to prevent violence against women in the public sphere, such as by actively putting out messages (via public statements, or in other forms) to the public discouraging acts of violence.
3.2.2 There is also a need to develop and provide training on new operating practices and evaluation methods to sensitise police and security forces to violence against women in political and public life and how to take it into account in their work, as well as recruiting more women security personnel. This also includes developing appropriate investigation measures to ensure such cases are acted upon promptly and thoroughly and that identified perpetrators — including, where applicable, defence and security forces — are prosecuted and adequately sanctioned.
3.2.3 Additionally, enacting an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Act or another similar and adequate legislation would be a first step towards addressing the issue of police accountability, and enable the relevant course of action to be taken against the police for their inability and/or refusal to enforce laws, thus shirking their responsibilities.
3.2.4 Normalise the participation of young women in the political and public spheres via education. Gender stereotypes need to be addressed in a productive manner by actively encouraging more young women to be involved in public-facing activities and spaces via relevant capacity-building and skill development programmes, to eventually change the general culture of these environments to recognise equal rights to public participation.
 “Statistics on Women Empowerment in Selected Domains, Malaysia, 2021.” Department of Statistics, Malaysia (DOSM). 17 November 2021. Available at https://www.dosm.gov.my/v1/index.php?r=column/cthemeByCat&cat=444&bul_id=eHMrcHQ4V1Irc0lRN0ZwM09TWDJvQT09&menu_id=L0pheU43NWJwRWVSZklWdzQ4TlhUUT09.
 From page 10, Insight Report: Global Gender Gap Report 2021, World Economic Forum. March 2021. Available at https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2021.pdf.
 Ibid page 19.
 From page 10, The Global Gender Gap Report 2010, World Economic Forum. Available at https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2010.pdf.
 One of Pakatan Harapan’s “special commitments for women” to “democratise the political system to create more female leaders” in their GE14 manifesto (‘Buku Harapan’) is a pledge to increase women’s political representation to a minimum of 30 per cent (see pages 140 and 141).
 Inter-Parliamentary Union data, 2019.
 Zulkifli, Ahmad Mustakim. “Melaka’s women candidates outnumbered but stealing the show”, MalaysiaNow. 14 November 2021. Available at https://www.malaysianow.com/news/2021/11/14/melakas-women-candidates-outnumbered-but-stealing-the-show/.
 Krook, M.L. & Restrepo Sanin, J. (2020). The Cost of Doing Politics? Analyzing Violence and Harassment against Female Politicians. Perspectives on Politics, 18(3), p. 740-755.
 “Two state reps among latest victims of online sexual harassment”, The Sun Daily. 26 May 2020. Available at https://www.thesundaily.my/local/two-state-reps-among-latest-victims-of-online-sexual-harassment-NC2455069.
 “MCA Youth chief lodges police report over threats to self, daughter”, Malaysiakini. 21 April 2020. Available at https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/521886.
 Khairah N. Karim. “Maria Chin says she received death threat, bullet in the mail”, New Straits Times. 29 November 2016. Available at https://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/11/192939/maria-chin-says-she-received-death-threat-bullet-mail.
 Chan, Dawn. “Death threat ‘an act of terrorism’, says Ambiga”, New Straits Times. 18 October 2016. Available at https://www.nst.com.my/news/2016/10/181320/death-threat-act-terrorism-says-ambiga.
 Yap Jia Hee. “Cop threatens to rape detainee, sells video clip”, Malaysiakini. 12 May 2015. Available at https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/298133.
 Vengadesan, Martin. “Activist lodges MCMC report after receiving online rape threat”, Malaysiakini. 28 April 2020. Available at https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/522955.
 Alhadjri, Aliaa. “#Lawan: Youth activist released at 1am, after 10-hour grilling for sedition”, Malaysiakini. 30 July 2021. Available at https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/585162.
 “Youth activist recounts harrowing detention, intimidation against family”, Malaysiakini. 30 July 2021. Available at https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/585276.
 Advocate Statement entitled “Political Participation and Public Life” prepared for the Women’s Tribunal Malaysia by Qyira Yusri.
 Soo Wern Jun. “Return democracy to Parliament's hands, Ambiga urges as power set to change hands”, Malay Mail Online. 29 February 2020. Available at https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2020/02/29/return-democracy-to-the-voters-ambiga-urges-as-power-set-to-change-hands/1842273.
 Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. “Women’s activism in political processes”. OHCHR. 3 September 2020. Available at https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=INT/CEDAW/STA/9245&Lang=en. See also https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2020/09/belarus-un-committee-hails-role-women-political-process-and-protests.
 These recommendations are derived primarily from the Advocate Statement entitled “Political Participation and Public Life” prepared for the Women’s Tribunal Malaysia by Qyira Yusri, along with various other pertinent reports.