Cracks in the (Political) Glass Ceiling
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Last week, a storm of controversy surrounded a sexist statement made by ruling party UMNO’s legal advisor, prompting a heated discussion.
This is the political landscape in Malaysia today. Not two months ago, misogynistic remarks were hurled at DAP candidate Dyana Sofya, with instances as egregious as our Home Minister discouraging support for her on the grounds that she’s “not that pretty [in real life]”. Without a doubt, we are not living in some utopian post-feminist fantasy. The reality is that the barriers are still firmly in place, and male chauvinism is working tirelessly to ensure it stays that way.
As a feminist, this is disheartening. For those of us who are tired of this treatment, who no longer wish to be treated as afterthoughts in a field as important as politics, we turn to feminism. Feminism is ostensibly about gender equality. The shattering of the political glass ceiling therefore seems like a reasonable feminist goal. However, some remain sceptical of this – not whether women should be represented in politics, but whether representation actually contributes to feminism as a movement. I will be looking at both sides of the issue.
Women in Politics
It has generally been made a goal that women should have more representation in politics. There are feminist coalitions that exist purely to propel the advancement of women in politics. Policies and recommended quotas are also set for some countries. The UN has continuously guided countries through resolutions and conferences to record the percentage of women in leadership positions. The results aren’t startling, but when you take into consideration that women are half of our population, there is no logical reason why they shouldn’t be equally represented.
When women are active in politics, they are more likely to use this access to address gender-specific issues such as women’s health, reproductive rights, child care and etc. When men control the discussion on women’s issues, their lack of understanding and experience could derail the conversation altogether and set their women constituents several steps back.
Having women in politics will also set a domino effect where they are in a position to influence the younger generation. The barriers faced by women politicians are many. The political glass ceiling is merely one of the final hurdles she has to go through because before this, her education and upbringing play a big role in encouraging her towards careers away from male-dominated fields like politics. According to this study of 18-25 year old Americans, the political ambitions of these young people are deeply divided according to gender. With women paving the way for other women, young girls with unsupported hopes and dreams can get the inspiration to be proactive.
Women have a voice, and it’s so often shut down by people in power who are trying to maintain the status quo. How can women actually break through those barriers, though? US politician Hillary Clinton said, “[women] have to step up, you have to dare to compete.” Perhaps she did not intend to allude that the only thing standing in the way of women was our lack of courage. Or perhaps she was only addressing a specific group of women?
Women in Politics and Feminism
“Feminism is not a monolith” is something you hear a lot; it means that even amongst feminists, we have our disagreements. However, it seems that most agree that gender equality in politics would be a step in the right direction. We will have power at the top, and ultimately, it will translate to empower those at the bottom, right?
Feminism is supposed to be an ideology that addresses women as a class. It seeks to empower women, yes, but it can be more succinctly defined as a theory of political, economic, and social equality for women. With more women calling the shots at the top, the likelihood of gender-salient issues being addressed is higher. Yet what has happened so far in democratic countries is merely the continuous reinforcement of class divide. Poor women won’t have access to the same resources and opportunities as the elite and highly educated, so they are not represented as a group. How can we have gender equality, when there are fractures regarding what it means to be a woman?
The solution may sound as simple as, “Why don’t the elected female politicians just address the issues of disenfranchised women?” The answer is, however, complicated, but I believe it is best described by a simple term: neoliberalism. It is believed that a developed country will be able to provide more for its citizens, thus we come close to equating a government's interests with a nation's economic interests.
But at what cost? The biggest victims of neoliberal ideology are the working class. Working class women with their additional domestic duties seem to carry the burden of the world on their shoulders. And who is addressing the plight of these women? The elected female politicians?
Politics is a boys club. For centuries, it has left its mark as an oppressive structure. Women who wish to join and lean in to politics are choosing to get a taste of the power previously only reserved for men, but so few seek to actively reform this structure, to destroy the idea of power completely or, in effect, to flatten hierarchies.
There must be struggle for the political, economic, and social emancipation of women, working in tandem. I don’t think barring women access from political space is at all a rational course of action. However, further steps have to be taken to reform not just politics, but economical and social hierarchies as well.