Women under fire

South-east Asia's women hold high office in business and politics, but they face challenges from gro

In December 2005, uproar erupted in the Malay sian Dewan Negara (Upper House) when female senators from the ruling coalition were forced to vote for the Islamic Family Law (Federal Terri tories) (Amendment) Bill 2005, despite their protests against provisions that curtailed the rights of Muslim women. The government pro mised that after the law was passed, it would request the attorney general to amend the provisions. This has yet to happen.

In Indonesia, women are caught in the crossfire between the more pluralistic secular system of old and the emerging religious conservatism of the post-Suharto era. In 2006, the publication of Indonesian Playboy elicited angry responses from conservative groups. An anti-pornography bill followed the same year, introducing penalties of up to 12 years in prison and fines of up to two billion rupiah (£110,000) for kissing in public and baring of legs or shoulders.

Women in south-east Asia, especially in the Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, are facing the challenges of both modernisation and growing conservatism. Though many women are highly educated and hold public office, including cabinet posts, in both countries, they continue to face attempts to limit their personal lives. In Tangerang, not far from Jakarta, local police patrol the streets at night looking for "behaviour that suggests prostitution". Already, at least one woman, returning late from her factory shift, has been mistakenly arrested and detained.

Across south-east Asia, women are increasingly participating in public life. Women on average make up 60 per cent of students in tertiary education, and Muslim women in Malaysia and Indonesia run companies alongside men. Rohana Rozhan, CEO of Malaysia's Astro TV, is just one of them. And even wearing the hijab is no barrier.

But women's health care varies across Asean. Maternal mortality rates, for example, are 24 per 100,000 live births in Thailand and 470 per 100,000 in Cambodia. Even within success stories such as Malaysia, women face problems. Although Malaysian total fertility rates are 2.7 children per woman, rates are much higher among Muslim women. Fifty-five per cent of Malaysian women use contraceptives, but usage among Muslim women is much lower, leaving them more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

In Malaysia, Malay Muslim men who inject drugs make up some 80 per cent of diagnosed HIV cases. Since 2007, however, female infection rates have been rising, indicating that the sexual partners of these men are now being diagnosed. Though their Aids epidemics are nowhere near as serious as Burma's or Cambodia's, Malaysia's and Indonesia's reluctance to promote condom use has left their women at risk.

Even more vulnerable are the millions of women who leave poorer countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia to work as domestic servants in richer ones such as Malaysia and Singapore. Often isolated, they are vulnerable to abuse. In Malaysia, they are subjected to annual medical check-ups and if found pregnant or diagnosed with an infectious disease, they are immediately deported. Illegal workers, however, have even less access to health services for fear of being detected and arrested.

While shiny towers and miles of highways now characterise south-east Asian cities, attitudes towards women's rights are largely stuck in the early 20th century. Unfortunately for some women, this may prove fatal.

Marina Mahathir is a columnist and chair of the Malaysian Aids Foundation

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Tyranny and tourism

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times