PETALING JAYA - Would Malaysia be better off with a female prime minister? Must its youth live under a culture of fear? Will hate speech win the war against civil society?
These were some of the questions posed to Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir and Zainah Anwar, two veteran social activists and columnists at The Star's inaugural StarLive talk at Menara Star here Saturday.
In a 75-minute dialogue with "Women of Influence" moderated by The Star Group Chief Editor June H. L. Wong, the two led off with their roles in civil society, particularly that of the Muslim women's rights group Sisters in Islam (SIS).
SIS founding member Zainah said there was a male-dominated approach in Islam, especially when it concerned women.
"What Sisters In Islam has done is to open up public debate on religion and how it is used to govern our lives," she said, adding that everyone had a right to be part of the debate because it affected public policy.
Zainah, who writes a monthly column called "Sharing the Nation", said that while the non-Muslim community seemed to enjoy a certain kind of gender equality, Muslim women had to bear with an apparent "legal authority" over them by the men.
Marina, who writes the fortnightly "Musings" column, concurred, saying it was a struggle that Muslim women activists were willing to put up with, despite the opposition against their cause.
"We've had so many people try to ban us (SIS) ... We were subject to so much harassment. When we spoke out for Kartika (Sari Dewi Shukarno), we had 50 police reports lodged against us," Marina said.
In 2009, the Malaysian woman pleaded guilty to drinking beer in a syariah court which ordered her to be caned. The sentencing led to an uproar. Kartika's punishment was subsequently commuted to community service.
The focus on female leadership was raised during the question and answer session, when an audience member asked about the possibility and benefits of having a woman prime minister. Marina said it was not necessarily true that a female prime minister would be better than a male one.
"For the most part, female heads of governments in Asia have been daughters, sisters, widows of men. Their power was often derived from the fact that the men in their party wanted them to carry on the legacy (of their husband, father or brother)," she said.
Marina added what was more important was for women leaders to bring in other women into the government, something most of them failed to do.
Marina also felt the present political system and party structures created a lot of barriers, adding that women's wings should be abolished as they merely "created little playpens for women to play with."