February 2, 2018
Standing Up for and Doing what is right–End Discrimination in its all Forms
by Maryam Lee
COMMENT | The last time I was at the Islamic International University of Malaysia (IIUM), the organisers of a Women’s Day event called security on me because I wouldn’t move from my seat.
I was there for a ridiculous debate entitled “Do Muslim Women Need Feminism” where both debaters were men, and they were both anti-feminism.
Apparently, I was seated in the “men’s section” of the hall and so subsequently, I was asked to move to the “women’s section” of the hall.
“Gender segregation in a university?” I thought. What are we? Five-year-olds?
I declined the request to move. I was nowhere near a man anyway and even if I was sitting close to a man, what is wrong with that? We were all adults in a public forum at a public space. What is so inappropriate about that?
The organisers were shocked at my answer. They could not believe that I refused to move. I told them that I would not move for that ridiculous reason.
“I’m sorry, you really have to move, this is the rule,” they said. “It’s a stupid rule,” I replied.
“Sorry that you think it is stupid, but you have to move,” they insisted. “No, I don’t. This is a university, not a kindergarten. I’ll sit wherever I want to sit.”
Still seated, I told them for the last time, I was not going to move. They asked me to move several more times, but I ignored them. They threatened to move me by force, I warned them I’d fight back if they touched me. I guess that was when they started calling the security.
To be honest, it felt like a Rosa Parks moment. But instead of it being a racial segregation issue, this was a gender segregation issue.
It was the year 2016 and a publicly funded international university still has such a baseless ruling. Adults who are smart enough to be enrolled into tertiary education are treated like children who are told where to sit their butts in a public lecture hall.
I’d like to think that this does not happen all the time at IIUM, but apparently it was an actual policy at the university, and normal classes also segregate men and women, not just public forums.
I looked at the lecturers who were right at the front and centre of the hall. There they were, seats mixed, men and women side by side. Classic authoritarian set-up – always a different rule for those in power while the mass majority abide by a different, discriminatory ruling unquestioningly.
Eventually, they gave up on me. Angrily.
Doing the right thing
I could understand the anger of the event organisers, and I certainly did not go there as an outsider to be a women’s rights hero.
It was simply the right thing to do. To stand up (or sit, in this case) for your right to question authority, especially on baseless rules that discriminate based on something you cannot control, be it race or gender.
IIUM, a university famous for its crackdown on students who think differently, had punished a friend of mine, Afiqah Zulkifli, simply for organising a forum on the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) together with Hanif Mahpa, Afiqah’s fellow colleague in the Student Representative Council at the time. They pleaded not guilty and defended themselves at a university trial, but lost the case and were suspended for one semester.
It is not far-fetched to say that public universities in Malaysia are authoritarian in nature. Hence, it is no surprise that they treat their students like primary school children.
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This has been the case since then Education Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad amended certain sections of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 in 1974 to ban university students from being politically active, or more accurately, to ban university students from criticising the government.
He was the Education Minister from 1974 to 1977, and he did not regret making that move because it was for “our own good”. Mahathir, doing the thinking and decision-making for us since the 1970s. As if we have no self-determination.
This is the Mahathir I know. And yet we are forgetting that. We are forgetting how much damage has been done in the name of “controlling the peace”. Mahathir even joked about it in his so-called satirical piece, “I, dictator“.
No, it was not funny. It is not satire if it’s true. My friends and I suffered long years of authoritarian rule in university because of what Mahathir did in 1974.
How many more decades of youths being actively silenced do we have to experience before we realise that bringing Mahathir back into the picture is never the solution?
We have ceased to nurture the ability of university-going youths to mobilise for social causes, and often those who do make it have to carefully toe lines set by the government. Which is why you do not see them actively challenging the status quo, but merely promising to “reform it from the inside”.
It is only a matter of time before Mahathir’s past catches up with him again, and students begin to regain lost memory.When that time comes, authoritarian universities will no longer be relevant. Till then, I say, long live student autonomy, long live freedom of thought and conscience.
MARYAM LEE is a writer with a chronic tendency to get into trouble. What she lacks in spelling when writing in English is made up for with her many writings in Bahasa Malaysia. She believes in conversations as the most valuable yet underrated cause of social change. She wants people to recognise silence and give them a voice, as she tries to bring people together through words.