Rising Warriors: Women in Opposition Politics

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Rising Warriors: Women in Opposition Politics

Women joining opposition parties shows the trajectory of political empowerment in Southeast Asia.

“She can think, she can articulate, she can write. That’s three up from most politicians already.” – Marina Mahathir on Dyana Sofya

Just as the spotlight in the recent Singapore elections fell on female opposition politicians such as Sylvia Lim, Nicole Seah and Lee Li Lian, attention in Malaysian politics is now focused on 27-year-old Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, the DAP (Democratic Action Party) candidate for the upcoming by-election in Teluk Intan. Female politicians such as Lim, Doud, Lee and Seah constitute a new kind of politician. As women from opposition parties, they represent “double minorities,” underrepresented both in terms of gender and in terms of political affiliation. The emergence of promising female candidates in opposition parties is a relatively new phenomenon in Southeast Asian politics.

From Legacies to Choices

Although there has been no shortage of female leaders in Southeast Asian politics, such as Megawati Sukarnoputri, Cory Aquino, Gloria Arroyo, Yingluck Shinawatra and even Aung San Suu Kyi, these women have tended to represent the legacies of their fathers, husbands or brothers. Part of what contributed to their rise was the implicit (or explicit) presence of a male politician in the background.

In contrast, this more recent crop of female politicians have proclaimed their independence from ruling political parties, relying neither on masculine family legacies or the might of a dominant party apparatus. They are trailblazers of a new political context, where women are finally emerging as political actors in their own right.

Seah and Daud do, however, hail from families with strong feminine role models. Seah’s mother is managing director at the Singapore office of a global media holding company, while Daud’s mother is a former Ipoh division Umno secretary – who made it clear that she did not oppose her daughter joining an opposition party. In a comeback to former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who lamented the fact that a woman from a family of Umno supporters was now running on a DAP ticket, she declared in reference to Mahathir’s children: “I tried to raise her like Mukhriz, but she ended up like Marina. I give all my children the freedom to choose what is right and wrong. Dyana is old enough to think about this.”

Kings, Regents, Courtesans… or Warriors?

In her work on women in French politics, Véronique Helft-Malz used the categories of king, regent and courtesan to describe three types of women: women who took on masculine characteristics in order to succeed (kings), women who acted as “representatives,” filling in gaps left by male politicians (regents), and women whose presence was largely symbolic and supported by men (courtesans). The female opposition politicians emerging in Southeast Asia today do not seem to fit neatly into any of these three categories. Although they are of course not immune to being used as instruments of political parties, they have demonstrated an agency which suggests that they may be able to leave an imprint on politics greater than what was carved out for them. As they seek to create that space and respond to their opponents’ attacks, the role they play is therefore that of a “warrior.”

This can be illustrated by an exchange between Daud and the head of Umno’s women’s wing, Shahrizat Jalil. While Jalil charged that Daud was being used as a “puppet” by the DAP, Daud responded sharply that Jalil’s “belittling” was “indicative of the failure of Wanita Umno in promoting its own members into positions of leadership… My candidacy by DAP heralds a breakthrough for young women in politics, especially for young Malay women, who have long been held back by an inflexible, patriarchal structure in Umno,” she declared. Daud argued that had she joined Umno, she would never have been nominated as a political candidate who, if elected, would be the youngest member of parliament in Malaysia.

If the statement by Jalil indicated that she felt Daud was merely playing the role of a “courtesan,” Daud’s riposte signified that her agency within her party could in fact be greater than Jalil’s. This provides a clue as to why politically inclined women like Daud are choosing to take the “risk” of joining opposition parties instead of the establishment parties. It is out of a strongly held conviction that they too can change society, and because they believe such parties may be less hierarchical, potentially giving women a greater role to play in shaping the party’s future.

The categories of king, regent and courtesan seem to better describe the functions of women in older, established political parties. Conversely, women in opposition parties, or parties in transition, can seize the opportunity as “warriors” to make their mark, as both Lim and Seah did for the Workers Party and National Solidarity Party during the Singapore general elections, and as Daud seems to be doing for DAP. Despite the fact that women in Southeast Asia continue to be underrepresented on both sides of the political spectrum, some have found niches for themselves in opposition, as well as in government. That is a step forward for representative democracy and gender equality.

Yvonne Guo is a PhD candidate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.