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Challenges for Women in Political Parties in Malaysia and Acceleration Strategies to Leadership in Politics

by Ummu Atiyah Ahmad Zakuan

The findings presented in this comprehensive study illustrate that the challenges faced by women in the political parties reflect similar challenges to those faced by women in the past. The reality of women in the political parties have not changed much over time, which shed light on why the political domain appears as the biggest gender gap compared to other domains. Despite educational advancement in the country, women continue to lag behind men in politics.

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This paper discusses the challenges faced by women in political parties in Malaysia. A nationwide study revealed that gender roles, male dominance, gender stereotyping, women’s agency, intersectionality of age and gender, and political efficacy in the parties have emerged as significant challenges to women in political parties, especially those in (or who aspire to be in) leadership positions.

On the one hand, the challenges presently faced by women are not new – they are very similar to the challenges women faced in the earlier periods of Malaysian history, which gives us an insight as to why politics continues to display the biggest gender gap in the country. The most dominant challenges originate from the gendered role of women in the private sphere (family) and the societal expectations on them as mothers, wives and caretakers. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be leaders in the public domain (politics). These gendered roles of men and women have significantly impacted and shaped politics, serving to reinforce male domination in politics and perpetuating gender inequalities in political parties. Data in this study is collected from 109 female respondents from 20 political parties nationwide (in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak), as well as in-depth interviews with 19 selected women leaders holding various positions. 

The paper proposes three main strategies to accelerate women leadership in politics, namely, amendment and/or introduction of new legislation, enhancing of women’s agency and strengthening the structure and policies of political parties. Finally, the study concludes that there is a need for political and legal commitment from the government to introduce legislation which will create an impetus for political parties to break the barriers that challenge the institution of gender equality practices and norms. Concerted efforts need to be taken so the country does not lose out to the benefits brought about by women leadership. 

This study comprises two main components of data collection: a set of survey questions and in-depth interviews with selected women political leaders from various political parties. 

A set of questionnaires was produced and guided by the research objectives. It consisted of several parts: Part 1, Demographic; Part 2, Barriers and Challenges; Part 3, Strategy and Mechanism; and Part 4, Capacity Building. The survey was conducted online and questionnaires were distributed to women members and leaders in various position in political parties nationwide. It was distributed for a period of five weeks (from 4 February to 10 March 2022), and predominantly employed two main strategies. 

First, distribution through current women leaders who shared it with the female members in the respective parties. These women leaders were approached from public information available on their websites or Facebook pages, the researcher’s existing network, via introduction by other women leaders, and introductions from the network of women leaders in NGOs. The second approach was appointing research assistants based in different states in Malaysia tasked with approaching the women members and/or leaders from any political parties in their areas and who were willing to answer the questionnaires.

For the qualitative aspect of this research, women leaders from major political parties were contacted to participate in the interviews. Of all those contacted, 19 agreed to participate. The in-depth interviews were conducted from January until March 2022, either face-to-face or online. The names of the interviewees and their respective parties remain anonymous. The in-depth interviews aimed to take a deeper dive in understanding the barriers and challenges experienced by women in the political parties. The women were asked to share their own experiences as well as their observations on other women in their respective parties.  Suggestions on strategies and mechanisms to empower women in the political parties and politics in general were also discussed. 

The study is intended to be anonymous and all efforts have been made to ensure anonymity. The names used in reference to respondents are fictitious to avoid identification.

The author would like to thank Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) Malaysia for supporting this study. This paper is part of a larger study on Women Empowerment in Political Parties and Political Offices in Malaysia. 


About the author

Ummu Atiyah Ahmad Zakuan is an associate professor at the School of International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia. Her research interests include women in politics, women empowerment and leadership, security and human rights. She has been involved in numerous international and national-level research projects on topics such as women in Asian parliaments, gender equality index, youth in politics and leadership in higher institutions. In 2021, Ummu Atiyah was a recipient of the National Book Award under the category of Best Book in Political Science, for the title, “Women in the House: Leadership in the Malaysian Parliament”, IIUM Press. Alongside her involvement with women's rights advocacy, she serves as the Deputy Chair of WANIDA (Coalition of Kedah Women's Association). She also appears on TV and radio to speak on issues on Malaysian politics and women in politics and empowerment.

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Miriam Fischer

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