Malaysian women fighting for their rights in the digital world – Rabiya Aminuddin

24 June — In 2021, Malaysian schools were rocked by a powerful online movement spearheaded by 17-year-old Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam.

The #MakeSchoolASaferPlace campaign revealed the prevalence of sexual harassment, primarily against female students.

Ain’s story, along with countless others shared online, sparked public outrage and a national debate about the need for reform in education institutions.

High internet penetration in Malaysia (97.4%) and widespread use of social media platforms (83.1%) empower women to challenge traditional media gatekeepers and make their claims directly.

A study has found that social media has made Malaysian women more aware of gender-related issues.

Women’s activists have traditionally relied heavily on mainstream media to raise awareness of women’s issues, but traditional media platforms are often heavily regulated and censored, hindering their work by lack of visibility and representation.

Beyond social media platforms, a range of digital tools are being utilised to raise awareness, influence policy and provide support and care to those who need it.

The power of digital activism

Online crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe and SimplyGiving, and petition and campaign platforms like Change.org, allow individuals and organizations to start petitions and raise support that can be used to pressure policymakers.

Malaysian women’s digital activism can be categorised as individual and collective efforts, both of which play a significant role in influencing the socio-political landscape in Malaysia.

Individual digital activism is often driven by personal experiences, beliefs and motivations to raise awareness of a particular issue. The impact of individual activism on digital platforms can be profound, allowing people to relate on a personal level and foster a greater sense of empathy and solidarity.

Collective efforts involve groups organizing to respond to a particular issue, often in the form of grassroots movements that arise because of a specific problem and rely on the collective energy and passion of ordinary people.

Malaysia has a small number of women-focused grassroots movements working on a range of issues, including environmental protection, political empowerment and civil rights.

However, movements such as #Undi18, Family Frontiers and Klima Action Malaysia are often led by women and see significant female participation.

This digital initiative has borne great fruit.

#MeToo gave an opportunity

The #MeToo movement, which gained global attention online in 2017, presented a golden opportunity for Malaysian activists.

They pressured the government to strengthen legal protections for victims of sexual harassment and gender-based violence and to provide appropriate punishment for perpetrators, which resulted in the promulgation of the Sexual Harassment Prevention Law in July 2022.

In addition to tackling sexual harassment, women activists have also used their digital platforms to highlight issues of statelessness and citizenship.

Family Frontiers is one example of a grassroots movement advocating for the right to equal treatment of Malaysian mothers who seek equal citizenship rights for their overseas-born children.

In August 2022, Family Frontiers appealed to the Federal Court against a Malaysian Court of Appeal decision that overturned a High Court ruling that gave Malaysian women equal rights to grant Malaysian citizenship to their children born overseas.

They are also active on social media, showcasing the movement’s activities, livestreaming press conferences, and sharing content on statelessness and citizenship issues.

Online harassment continues

Although the digital space gives women the freedom to voice their demands, those who use it still face numerous challenges, including online harassment, doxxing and sexism.

Women activists often face targeted abuse, threats and cyberbullying, and online harassment is a widespread problem.

For example, women activists in Malaysia were targeted by cyberbullying following the 2019 International Women’s Day march. Activists who spoke out about sensitive, taboo or issues that challenged the status quo were subject to online bullying and identity theft.

Last year, organisers of the Women’s March were summoned by police for organising the event, in what was seen as part of a “repeated cycle” of investigations into peaceful assemblies.

Government censorship is another major challenge, with the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act frequently used to silence dissent.

Women activists may face the risk of posting content that is deemed harmful or inflammatory, which creates a climate of fear and leads to self-censorship.

Despite these challenges, the rise of digital activism by Malaysian women is bringing about significant change in the country’s social landscape, demonstrating the power of online platforms to empower women to challenge the status quo and demand change.

As Malaysia’s digital space evolves, this trend will play an increasingly important role in shaping the country’s future. — Creative Commons by 360info

* Rabiya Aminuddin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the International Islamic University Malaysia. Her research focuses on the role of identity and politics in public policy.

** This is the author’s personal opinion and does not necessarily represent Malay Mail.

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