Understanding Society

Invisible barriers: The challenges faced by Muslim women in Malaysia

Malaysians are optimistic about the future of gender equality. Ipsos research found that most women (54%) in Malaysia believe that gender equality will be achieved in their lifetime, among the highest of the 27 countries surveyed (the figure was just 24% in Japan)19 . And globally, Malaysians are among the least likely to say there are more advantages today to being a man than a woman20 .

But there is arguably a long way to go. A recent study by Ipsos on behalf of Sisters in Islam – a Malaysian civil society organisation that aims to promote the rights of women – looked at the what equality means to Muslim Malaysian women, and how the intersecting identities of gender and religion impact on equality.

Although the official religion of Malaysia is Islam, and this is practiced by the majority (61%), Islamic law applies only to Muslims. Civil law applies to the rest of the country, who practice Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism21 . This means that different laws are in place between Muslim and non-Muslim women in areas such as divorce, inheritance and custody of children. Yet, in general, Muslim women who participated in the Ipsos study considered that Malaysia is just and equal in providing basic opportunities to all members of society, such as opportunities in education, employment and voting.

“My definition of equality is something that is balanced or even. If in Malaysia, you can take education as an example. Everyone, regardless of race, gender has a right to education.” Liberal Malaysian Muslim woman

Instead, Muslim Malaysian women pointed to the importance of cultural biases and stereotyping as barriers to women’s equality. This starts early; expectations tend to be different for women and girls than for men and boys. Growing up, girls have less room to define their personal lives, with stricter rules with regards to curfews and ways of dressing. The family’s respectability can be judged by the actions of the women of the family, whether it’s in terms of physical appearance or their behaviour in public. Both in private and public life, women feel a pressure to present the image of a “Proper Muslim girl”, carrying the weight of the family’s image and reputation.

“Daughters need to always watch what they do as they carry their parents’ and the family’s image. Girls are usually watched by society, so their movements are limited, and they always have to say the right thing so that they look just right.” Strict Malaysian Muslim woman

Cultural biases against women in the workplace impact on equality as well. For Muslim women, expectations of their role in the home may conflict with pursuing a career. This can have real impacts on women’s economic participation. With 55% female economic participation in 2016, Malaysia ranks behind regional peers such as Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam22 .

Even women in employment are affected by this stereotype; Muslim women described feeling that they must work extra hard to prove that they can manage commitments both at home and at work. Muslim women can feel they have to project a high degree of professionalism at work, while male colleagues will be taken seriously without having to put in the same effort.

Women must work extra hard to prove that they can manage commitments both at home and at work

“My behaviour with the male staff is more pronounced and stricter so that they’ll accept my opinion and I can’t be left behind.” Liberal Malaysian Muslim woman

But are these issues unique to Muslim women in Malaysia? Many pointed to equality being a key tenant of Islam. While there is a strong emphasis on the outward manifestations of Islam, many women felt that religion was sometimes manipulated to support unfair treatment.

“The concept of equality from an Islamic point of view is in faith and piety. Islam judges men and women from their levels of faith. The amount of good one carries out doesn’t depend on what organ they have between their legs, rather the actions they have done.” Strict Malaysian Muslim woman

While Islamic law and these outward traditions create unique barriers for Muslim women in Malaysia, gender stereotypes that transcend religious and national identities were therefore the most salient examples of inequality to women in the study. Muslim women in Malaysia face unique issues, but they may find common cause with women of other religious identities and elsewhere – and that’s something we can all be optimistic about.

With a population of 32 million23 , Malaysia is a diverse country; 69% of the population belongs to the Malay ethnic group as of 2018, 23% are Chinese, and 7% Indian24 . The majority of the country (61%) practices Islam, while 20% practice Buddhism, 9% practice Christianity, and 6% Hinduism25 .

Lars Erik Lie
Ipsos Malaysia

Nik Tasha Nik Kamaruddin
Ipsos Malaysia