Deep rifts over rape and the role of women in Malaysia revealed in parliament

By: Madeleine Keck - Posted on: July 28, 2017 | Current Affairs

New figures on the breadth of Malaysia’s rape problem were released this week, but deeply conservative beliefs among some lawmakers continue to complicate efforts to address the issue

A Malaysian Muslim woman waits for the announcement to mark the start of the fasting month of Ramadan in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 27 June 2014. Photo: EPA/Shamshahrin Shamsudin

Conservative lawmakers in Malaysia have a well-documented track record of retrograde beliefs when it comes to the treatment of women and girls, having defended the notion that rapists may marry their victims and claiming that girls as young as 9 are old enough to marry.  

Although the minister in charge of women’s affairs was called to parliament on Thursday to update lawmakers on the country sexual violence problem, her appearance came just two days after a member of parliament expressed concern that domestic violence legislation might expose men to “psychological and emotional abuse” by wives who deny them sex.

Seri Rohani Abdul Karim, the Women, Family and Community Development Minister, told parliament that the Malaysian state of Johor, one of the most developed and populous areas in the country, had recorded the highest number of statutory rape instances nationwide, with 2,089 cases being reported from 2010 until May this year, according to Channel News Asia.

Responding to a question from opposition parliamentarian Zuraida Kamaruddin regarding child abuse statistics, the minister reported that rapes made up 59.7% of sexual crimes committed against children.

Rohani noted that the ministry had been working to combat the problem with amendments to the Child Act 2016 and the introduction of the Sexual Offences Against Children Act 2017.

“We have also set up a special court to speed up the trial of child sex crimes in the country, which was launched on June 22 and the first case heard was on July 4,” she said, according to Malaysian Insight.

Women’s rights advocates, however, have long said that others in positions of power are not only failing to take necessary measures to combat the problem, but helping to bolster the beliefs that make women and girls particularly vulnerable to abuse in the first place.

This was illustrated on Tuesday during a consultation on amendments to domestic violence legislation, when parliamentarian Che Mohamad Zulkifly Juso argued that women who deny their husbands sex are exposing them to “psychological and emotional abuse” according to BBC.

“Even though men are said to be physically stronger than women, there are cases where wives hurt or abuse their husbands in an extreme manner,” said the lawmaker, who is part of the ruling coalition. “They insult their husbands and refuse his sexual needs. All these are types of psychological and emotional abuse.”

The 58-year-old lawmaker also warned of legislation that might subject men to the injustice of not being able to marry multiple women – it remains legal in Malaysia for Muslim men to have as many as four wives, as long as they a granted permission from a shariah court.

Marina Mahathir, a women’s rights activist and daughter of the former prime minister Mohamad Mahathir, slammed the lawmaker’s comments. “Women have a right to say no to sex, this is an old notion that when you marry a woman you own her body,” she told AFP. “It does not work that way. It is ridiculous to say men are abused if women say no to sex.”

With his comments, Mohamad Zulkifly joined his ruling party colleague Shabudin Yahaya in making international headlines and drawing fierce rebuke for his comments on the rights and protections that should be afforded to women and girls.

In April, Shabudin Yahaya told parliament that some girls as young as nine were ‘physically and spiritually’ ready for marriage.

“They reach puberty at the age of nine or 12. And at that time, their body is already akin to them being 18 years old,” he said during a debate over a law on sexual offences against children. “So physically and spiritually, it is not a barrier for the girl to marry.”