The Malaysian Government says it is committed to promoting women in decision-making positions. A key element of this commitment is the government’s target of having women fill at least 30 per cent of decision-making roles in both the public and corporate sector. This focus on maximizing economic outcomes placing women in leadership positions is a fairly orthodox, and restrictive, way to view the goal of women’s empowerment and leadership.

A review of policies put in place signaled that a “business case approach to women’s empowerment and gender equality has become the dominant discourse through which gender equality claims are justified”. Such perspectives present gender equality claims as only valid if they fit within the market logic.

Engaging in conversation about women’s leadership in the public and private sector is of critical importance. At the same time, we must question whether and how these conversations tend to revert towards a “business case” justification for gender equality in the public and corporate sector, with diminished support for women in civil society.

Over the years, female leaders in civil society have played critical roles in mobilizing grassroots participation, promoting gender justice, enhancing good governance and addressing human rights violations.

While Malaysia’s development plan has reiterated the importance of women’s leadership, there is limited consideration of what women’s leadership capacities actually are. This is especially the case when it comes to civil society.

Female leaders in civil society who are involved in challenging Sharia law or discriminatory Islamic family law, or who are active in the ‘Bersih’ pro-democracy and anti-corruption movement, face a shrinking space to operate.

Specific issues in relation to women’s rights and women in politics are overshadowed by a broader culture of fear, corruption, and restriction of freedom of expression and freedom to information. For instance, in 2014, Islamic Fatwahs have been used to silence and intimidate key women’s organizations supporting Muslim women’s rights and access to justice.

At the same time, domestic legislation, such as the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012and the Security Offenses Bill 2012 (also known as SOSMA) have been used to repress freedom of association and assembly and to detain female critics of the government. The threat of such legislation works to curtail freedom of expression, association and movement of women’s rights activists, despite constitutional protections in these areas.

The rise of systematic attacks targeting leading human rights defenders – many of whom are female – has created a climate of fear, and is affecting the work of civil society groups and women’s rights defenders. Perhaps the most high-profile example has been the arrest of Maria Chin Abdullah, the chairperson of Bersih 2.0, in November 2016.

Grounded in the vision of gender equality enshrined in Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution, there is clearly a need for Malaysia to frame the issue of women’s leadership beyond a corporatised and economic agenda. It is vital that women’s leadership in civil society is also recognized. And it is not enough to view women’s leadership as merely a resource that can contribute to national competitiveness.

The “business case” argument that underlies the government’s current policy framework gives only a weak justification for the value of women’s leadership. We need to ask: how do we advance development that’s good for women and society at large? And how can this be achieved if Malaysia limits its investment in women’s leadership to only the public and corporate sectors?

Leadership implies a commitment to the well-being of others. The commitment to strengthening women’s leadership should also call for an understanding of how the presence and voice of women can be involved in the struggle for justice, peace, and democratic participation.

By thinking about women’s leadership issue from the perspectives of women’s human rights Malaysia has the opportunity to re-conceive the nature of its policy framework. A women’s rights perspective brings attention not only to the economic needs of half the population but also to the social and political circumstances that caused inequality in the first place.

The first step towards a women’s right approach would be to make women a central part of policy and program design. This should involve a more holistic understanding of women’s leadership that encompasses women leadership in the public, private and civil society sectors.

By excluding support for female leaders in civil society groups to collectively mobilize their aspirations and frustrations, Malaysia is replicating the patterns of discrimination that women experience every day in society. If the government wishes to reverse this trend, it should seek to provide an enabling environment for female leaders in civil societies to effectively conduct their daily work,

Malaysia needs to provide strong and coherent policies to help women thrive in leadership positions, not only in the public and corporate sectors but also in civil society. Only by understanding that female leaders in civil society are indispensable for achieving gender equality, can Malaysia claim to be promoting women’s leadership.

The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Policy Forum – Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis, opinion, debate, and discussion.

TNL Editor: Edward White