by Ishtiaq Ahmed
Strong political leadership should be accompanied by an equally determined commitment to education, economic development, gender and communal integration and a firm rejection of populism and jingoism. Too long a strongman’s rule without progress in education and development can spell disaster. The medievalists can then stage a comeback because they are always waiting in the wings
It is my firm belief that the level of civilisation a society has attained can be gauged by a litmus test: how does it treat women and religious minorities. In this article we will look at the position of women in the Malaysian society.
I and my wife, Meliha, arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in the early hours of July 23, 2006. The main reason for the visit was to give a series of seminars at the Political Science Department of one of the leading Malaysian universities, the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), with which my department at Stockholm University has an exchange programme.
The first thing we noticed was that Kuala Lumpur Airport was a class by itself. We had seen nothing of the sort in any part of the developed or the developing world. A huge banner proclaimed ‘The most beautiful airport in the world’; we had no hesitation in concurring to the claim.
The beauty was not only architectural; overall organisation and cleanliness were superb. The airport had been completed ahead of the Commonwealth Games in 1998, but its maintenance is of such high standard that everything felt brand new.
At the immigrations desks we found both women and men — smartly dressed in their uniforms — checking the papers of people entering their country. The women wore a scarf covering their head, which we found out was common among Muslim women in all sectors of society. The Chinese and Indian women do not wear the scarf.
Professor Nidzam Sulaiman had instructed me to hire a taxi from the stand inside the airport. There too we found young women helping customers. We paid a fixed amount and in a few minutes were off to Kuala Lumpur. The new airport is 75 kilometres away from the city. On the way the driver stopped twice or thrice to pay a road charge; in almost all the cabins it was young women who took the payment and let us pass through the barrier. A little before six in the morning we arrived at Hotle Cititel, thoroughly exhausted and terribly hungry. We were told that breakfast would be served in a few minutes when the clock struck six.
At the hotel, too, we found young men and women working side by side. Everything functioned smoothly and efficiently. From my point of view, Malaysia had progressed very well, and I said a silent prayer hoping that this was not something limited to airports and hotels where tourists and visitors go, but applied to the society in general.
The next three weeks were to confirm that Malaysia had indeed progressed well and there was as yet hope for the Muslim world. Thus far we had only found Turkey successfully thwarting the bid of reactionary Islamism to undermine the secular basis of Turkish development. We learnt that the long premiership of Dr Mahathir Mohammad (1981-2003) had also withstood pressure from the Islamists; albeit with an alternative interpretation of Islam, which made minor concessions to traditional piety while maintaining a policy of integration of women into the workforce. The current prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, is committed to the continuation of the policy.
In fact while I heard some criticism of Dr Mahathir’s alleged strongman style of government — although well-informed and sensible Malaysians readily admitted that his leadership had virtually transformed Malaysia from an agrarian-rural society into a modern-industrial one — the general consensus was that Mr Badawi was more tolerant of dissent and therefore good for democracy.
My own theory is that in the transformation of Muslim societies from agrarian-tribal to modern-individualistic a long period of strong rule by an enlightened moderniser is a blessing. Where would modern Turkey be without Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Malaysia without Mahathir Mohammad? One can easily guess — in the lap of medieval-minded men who think that marrying minor girls and having four wives is an inalienable human right.
However, strong political leadership should be accompanied by an equally determined commitment to education, economic development, gender and communal integration and a firm rejection of populism and jingoism. Too long a strongman’s rule without progress in education and development can spell disaster. The medievalists can then stage a comeback because they are always waiting in the wings.
We also paid short visits to Penang and Gentings Highland. The cleanliness in public places, especially toilets, was truly remarkable. At least our exposure to urban Malaysia confirmed that women — Malay, Chinese and Indian — were doing very well and the state was integrating them into the labour market very successfully. No doubt Chinese women were more confident and excellent salespersons. By comparison Malay women were subdued while the Indian girls were somewhere in between — but all of them seemed to enjoy their work, wore very radiant smiles and looked very innocent.
We also learnt that while wearing the scarf was not formally required of Muslim women there was strong peer pressure to conform. Yet, there were young educated girls who did not conform to it. Also, combining the headscarf with jeans and trousers was noticeable. Some young men and women could be seen holding hands as they walked around. There is a moral police that can intervene to prevent “obscene behaviour”; holding hands was apparently not considered improper.
I was told by a student, Mujib, that Malay men and women — and not their family elders — chose their spouses. Most people met their life partners at workplace or in educational institutions. So, despite the apparent conformity to communal dress code, the processes of individualism and free choice have entered Malaysian social life, which has slowly but surely internalised them.
The most convincing proof that Malay Muslim women were doing well at all levels of society was the fact that in the political science faculty there were several women professors and others who worked in the office. Professor Rashila Ramli and Professor Saliha Hassan invited me to speak to their students. Those seminars and a public talk given to the faculty proved very stimulating. I also learnt that soon UKH was going to have a woman vice-chancellor.
The UKM figures in the top 100 universities of the world. A genuine and concerned well-wisher of the Muslim world should celebrate that.
The author is an associate professor of political science at Stockholm University. Originally published in the Daily Times - Site Edition, Tuesday, September 05, 2006 at http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp