Let’s face it. Women empowerment has never really gotten the biggest spotlight in Malaysia before, unlike issues like affordable housing, unemployment and the rising cost of living.
That is why when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that 2018 will be Women Empowerment Year in Malaysia, it was a big deal.
For most people, the announcement was most welcome, if not overdue. Fast forward five months, Minister Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim says her Ministry, which obviously champions the initiative, already has about 800 programs rolling. They target at least 1,000 this year.
When it is a ‘quota’, there are dangers lurking. A quota means when you reach there, that’s it
But programs and initiatives aside, challenges still abound for Malaysia to reach “the promised land” – the level of women empowerment and total gender equality seen in Scandinavian and Nordic countries.
In Norway for example, it is law that women must make up at least 30 percent of the board of directors of companies.
Malaysia is capable to reach such status. So what’s the biggest challenge holding us back?
“First, it is political will. That’s very important,” says Rohani. On that note, Rohani says her Ministry is looking to tread in Norway’s footsteps and take that bold step – make gender equality a law in Malaysia.
However, she says it’s going to be more of a slowly-but-surely approach, rather than a revolution.
“I still have to do a lot of engagement because I want to be fair as possible. I want to get as much input from everyone as possible so by the time we get this law, it is accepted and we know women will get as much protection from this law as possible, because that’s what laws are for,” she says.
However, she stopped short of sharing any specific dates or targets as to when this law will materialize. She also says we Malaysia may do one thing different compared to Norway.
“I won’t call it a quota. When it is a ‘quota’, there are dangers lurking. A quota means when you reach there, that’s it. I call it a target."
"A target means when I reach there, I’ll strive for more,” says Rohani while adding that 35 percent of public sector employees are currently women.
If they choose to be at home, so be it. But if they choose to have a career but at the same time they also want to balance things at home, help is available
However, because we have model countries in our effort to champion women empowerment and enhance gender equality, it’s easy to end up just emulating. When you take a step back and look at the grander scheme of things, maybe we can’t be like Norway or Sweden 100 percent. Maybe we shouldn’t.
Malaysia is a country and society which is far more culturally-inclined. And with culture comes a barrage of traditionally defined roles: women as home makers, child carers, etc – whether you like it or not.
So in a society like ours, how do we strike this balance between culture and gender equality?
“This is the thing I have to balance. Even when we celebrated International Women’s Day and we had some cooking contests, and some people ask me why we still associate women with cooking in this modern age."
“I don’t want to make (the women empowerment initiative) very feminist-oriented. We have our values, we have our tradition. As (Malaysian) women, we are expected to act as the women that we are.
“But this does not mean we forego opportunities that are available in the country. That’s (the balance) I wish to strike. Opportunities are there, but women will make their choice. If they choose to be at home, so be it. But if they choose to have a career but at the same time they also want to balance things at home, help is available,” says Rohani.
Watch Luqman Hariz’s chat with Datuk Seri Rohani Abdul Karim below. They also talk about some interesting programs the Ministry is championing, including some that may surprise you.