Dayak women in politics: A token of appreciation

I consider myself lucky because I have the opportunity to meet an extraordinary group of women in my line of work. I have met many bright, intelligent, strong and eloquent women over the years.

Some of them are my colleagues, students, acquaintances, senators, politician, penghulu, tuai rumah, ketua kampung, district officers, mothers and sisters with whom I had the opportunity to meet, and who have inspired me personally and professionally.

Their tenacity, perseverance, strength, intelligence and creativity often make me wonder why despite their exceptional characteristics, politically they are still underrepresented.

If one looks at the number of total eligible voters, women constitute around 51 per cent of Malaysia’s 14,968,304 registered voters in 2018 and they have played a crucial role in the Malaysian political scene, including elections since independence, when Malaysia introduced universal suffrage.

Based on the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum’s Gender Parity Global Index in 2018, Malaysia was reminded to provide greater gender parity in both the Dewan Rakyat and government.

Although Malaysia is ranked quite well in gender parity in health, mortality and educational attainment, its ranking in female participation in political empowerment is relatively low.

And as expected, the previous BN government and the current government and their respective manifestos were designed to expand women’s participation and opportunities in decision-making by ensuring that at least 30 per cent of decision-makers in all sectors are women.

However, the move to increase the current percentage to 30 per cent is proven to be a mammoth task on the part of the government. The previous government (as well as the current government) have been using this issue – increase women’s participation in politics to 30 per cent – to galvanise women’s voters’ support and to win the election. There don’t seem to be any genuine efforts to really realising greater gender parity in politics in Malaysia.

In Sarawak, women have contributed significantly to Sarawak politics. They had successfully galvanised support not only from their womenfolk but also men as well and participated in the anti-cession movement. Nonetheless, independence and statehood did not grant these women the same political status as their male counterparts.

While the men assumed leadership roles, the women were systematically forced to remain in the grassroots or were raised to the glorified status of the Women’s Wing of political parties. Even then their political fate is sealed because aspirations to rise to higher levels are either slow or even if they do succeed, it is usually based on political connections which many are lacking.

Dayak women have been active in politics since Sarawak’s independence, especially at the grassroots level, particularly those in the Women’s wing.  They are the one who goes to the ground, knocking on doors, going from longhouse to longhouse, organised meetings and campaigns related activities and many more.

These women have been working endlessly to ensure their political parties win maximum votes to stay in power. Despite the obvious contributions, Dayak women are still very much underrepresented at the highest echelon of the party leadership compared to their non-Dayak female counterparts.

As of today, there is no Dayak women from the Dayak-based parties have ever been appointed to a ministership position. The highest position accorded to the Dayak women is a Senatorship such as the late Datuk Tra Zendra and Datuk Seri Empiang Jabu, while Dato’ Sri Doris Sophia Brodie, was appointed as a Senator and Deputy President of the Senate. In fact, she became the first Iban woman to be appointed to the position of the Deputy President of the Senate.

A number of Dayak women have also been appointed to the political secretaries’ position to the Chief Minister such as Dato’ Seri Doris Sophia Brodie, Beatrice Kedoh Tajang (both from PRS), Jenny Bangga and Susan Chemerai Anding (both from PBB).  Dato’ Alice Jawan is another Dayak woman who was appointed as a Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Utilities Sarawak. These extraordinary, high achievers’ women possess an impressive credential but yet they are being relegated to a subordinate position, a secretary, a position that be-fitting their female gender.

It makes one wonders, why are the Iban political leaders, the majority of whom are men are not making any effort to include more women into the highest echelon of party leadership? The first attempt to include a woman in politics was made by Parti Rakyat Sarawak (PRS) in the 2018 parliamentary election. Rita Insol was the first Dayak woman to be chosen as a candidate for parliamentary election in 2018.  PRS had never fielded any women in any of the election since their first inception in 2004.

But her candidacy was not without controversies. The party’s president faced a lot of resistance from the male members of the party. Her defeat further confirmed some of the reservations that the party’s members have on woman’s suitability as party’s candidate.

At the end of the day, her eligibility as a candidate to represent the party in the last general election was very much hinged on the fact that she is a woman.  Politically, it is tough for Dayak women to break the traditional role of women within the Dayak society. Women have to prove to their male counterparts that they are as capable as them and must willing to ‘get their hands dirty’ so to speak if they wish to be taken seriously in politics.

I strongly believe that a society that fails to include its women in its development agenda would be at the disadvantage in the highly globalised world.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.