Written by C Ng and Alicia Chin
In the previous article, we discussed the legal impact of marriage towards women. In this segment, we turn to a portion much closer to heart, and easily relatable: how society treats married women, and the interwoven facets of life that surround marriage. The impacts are long-standing,as marriage is an institution across the lifetime, for individuals, households, countries, economies, and ways of life.
The dominant thinking of employers, managers, and employees in Malaysia is to see marriage inter alia, motherhood, as a potential liability and distraction, resulting in the perception that women are less efficient employees should they have children or be married with household responsibilities/spousal commitments.
Although many women make this choice, and yes, women have agency and are entitled to these choices, the principal of the matter is that a woman who wants to work and marry, and chooses both, should be able to work and be considered equal to their peers. This should be regardless of marital status, and by extension although not mutually exclusive, pregnancy status.
According to WAO’s 2016 Workplace Discrimination Survey, more than 40% of women experienced job discrimination due to their pregnancy. Employers were “making their positions redundant, denying them promotions, placing them on prolonged probation, demoting them, and terminating their jobs.” The survey also saw 20% of women having applications rejected or offers rescinded after disclosing pregnancy. 30% of women even delay pregnancy due to the prospect of losing a job or promotion.
One could argue that being a married woman with children also gives employers the perception of them having more to lose, and hence being harder workers who may be more loyal to the organisation owing to the responsibility of a child/family/spouse. Yet this relies on using a person’s marital status as proxy for one’s job performance. Married men, on the other hand, benefit from this perception the most. Since they are often considered sole breadwinners, employers often look upon married men more favorably than single men, single women, and married women.
At present, women interviewing for jobs are often asked “are you married or in a relationship?” or “do you plan to have children?”
Article 8 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia under Fundamental Liberties, Equality states that there shall be no discrimination against citizens on grounds including gender, in any law or appointment to any office or employment under public authority, or in the administration of any law relating to the acquisition, holding or disposition of property or the establishing or carrying on of any trade, business, profession, vocation or employment.
It is discriminatory for a prospective employer to query a woman’s marital status, pregnancy status, plans, sexual orientation, or even age, as presumably interviewers ask questions factored into decision making during the hiring process. Gender and marriage here intersect, creating a hierarchy of hiring decisions. Amid the pressure of getting a job, questions like this go unreported and such hiring behaviour reinforced for lack of a penalty. Malaysia does not have laws specifically banning discriminatory interview questions, and current legal protections under the Employment Act 1955 and the Industrial Relations Act 1967 are insufficient.
Such perceptions of women and of their (in)ability to contribute to the labor force merely by the notion of marital status are detrimental to the lifelong earning power of women as individuals, households, and by extension the economy. They also affect the ability of women to reenter the workforce post-marriage/childbearing and their chances of being promoted. If it is to be argued that women with children are unable to “work overtime, go on business trips, attend after-work functions”, disregarding for now necessity, overwork, etc. because of parental duties, what about married men? What about married women without children? Women with children are able to perform should their environment support them, and they are in many sectors of the economy — sole breadwinners of multi-generational families, entrepreneurs, single-mothers, and are competent.
If there is ever a case of a woman being less able to contribute to their workplace, it isn’t due to marital status alone, but the consequences of a society where the burden of marriage is placed on the woman and resulting false perceptions. Conclusively, marriage has overstepped its function as a commitment of trust between individuals, instead acting as proxy for one’s ability to commit to a job, perform well in it, and how much one deserves to be paid.
Women as property
Marriage law was originally based on the English Common Law doctrine of coverture assumption that the wife is the husband’s property. Her property became her husbands, she was prohibited from signing contracts, or conducting business. It also legally subordinates wives to their husbands, allowing for spousal rape for example, which was eliminated in the United States only in the late 1970s but still remains to be criminalized in Malaysia. Laws in earlier periods meant humans could be enslaved, yet thinking has changed with the times and environment, and we no longer condone or allow slavery or “ownership” of another person, nor seem to require it for human survival.
As societies became more organized, the acquisition of women as the spoils of war decreased. Female status was then determined by the contractual arrangement of “marriage” that sought to enhance social stability. A public ritual, the wedding, acknowledged this legal relationship, establishing that the woman belonged to only one man. Monetary exchanges alluding to the proprietary relationship occur, a “bride/husband-price” is to be paid, a dowry, sum of money, gifts, jewellery, also known in contract law as “earnest money”. These financial transactions may be indirect, and instead of a cash offer, a side of the family pays for the wedding. The more costly the wedding, the more enhanced the individual’s worth. In some marriage ceremonies, the bride’s father “gives her away”, conveying his title to the new owner. She wears a ring, that like a real estate “sold” sign, signals she is now off the market.
Although one could argue that modern marriage is not done with the intention of property transfer, this is what the marriage contract was designed for in the first place; we still use the same institution and are guided by its logic. Today, wives may still be treated as chattel. Before marriage, a woman is the property of her father, and raping her constitutes a crime against the property of the father, while the rape of a married woman is a crime against the husband, but not against the woman herself. This is still upheld legally in some jurisdictions and informally elsewhere. An abuser would beat his own wife and be allowed to do so, even as he wouldn’t touch another man’s.
This is pervasive to the extent that husbands that seem “unable to control their women” are seen as inferior. Phrases such as “you are thoroughly whipped” when referencing a man who listens to his wife, “got your balls in her grip does she?”, “you let her talk to you like that?”, or “you allow her to wear that?”, are symptomatic of the issue. Having a wife that dresses herself, makes her own choices, asks for help, or even argues with her husband, showcases ‘weakness’ on the part of the husband. If marriage was not an instrument of control subjecting a woman’s mind, body, and soul, to their husband, these norms would not exist.
Division of labor
It is often presumed that a woman in partnership should bear the responsibility of taking care of the household, never mind the mentality that women who are married ought not to work in the first place, or the lack of acknowledgement that housework is still, work. In some places, the work of cleaning/cooking/child-sitting is paid work. Malaysia, although in the 21st century, still dwells on 16th century norms.
PAS Ulama information chief Datuk Dr Mohd Khairuddin Aman Razali At-Takiri said in a statement that households in Malaysia were increasingly broken, citing the rising number of divorces as evidence that the institution of the family was growing weaker. “As such, it is appropriate that the institution of the family be restored, including providing room and conducive space for each couple, especially wives so that they may perform their true function at home as wives and mothers,” he said.
Men ought to be the breadwinner of the household, and women ought to stay home and manage the household. Why are women judged on their ability to cook, mend, and raise children, while men are not? Should people exclaim in surprise when a man is able to feed himself and others, fix things, look after the welfare of children, or keep their surroundings clean? Men who can ought not to be rare unicorns, they ought to be the norm — as every decently able human being should know how to do the aforementioned things.
This attitude is largely based on the belief that men are stronger and more capable of earning, harkening back to neolithic times where presumably males would hunt and women would forage. In modern society, this particular division of labor is obsolete, especially since most modern paying jobs require skill sets that can be performed by men and women equally well. Bringing home the dough is no longer something only a man can do.
DAP’s Teresa Kok gave a strong rebuttal, saying “His views are dated, archaic and unacceptable. Today, women have done well in many sectors and many have held powerful positions like prime ministers, presidents and company CEOs.” Women are an essential part of industry and the labor market, and are able to lead and pioneer initiatives as functioning, dignified, intelligent human beings. Perhaps one should analyse the grounds for divorce before pointing fingers at women. Marriage has tangible implications for the labor market and individual here if women and men are expected to take on specific jobs solely based on one’s perceived gender and marital status.
Single motherhood is often frowned upon, with hardly a second look at circumstance, context, or to consider the possibility that marriage to a male is no prerequisite to bringing up healthy children. The point here isn’t that everyone ought to be encouraged to raise children in single parent households. Rather, it is not an impossibility to do so, and that people choose to do so, while knowing that it comes with its particular set of challenges.
Frequently pregnant women (and this includes children/teens), are told to marry or risk being ostracised by family, neighbors, society at large. The stigma and shame associated with single parenthood points to one’s personal failure, morality, and sense of responsibility. Some would rather a woman stay in an abusive, damaging, relationship, including one with a rapist, rather than risk raising a child alone.
Thus being told that marriage is a prerequisite for effective motherhood perpetuates attitudes towards single mothers that are neither helpful for them or their children’s growth. It also reinforces the belief that women need to be married to men in order to be successful in life and parenthood.
Marriage, once again, becomes proxy for one’s ability to be a proper parent, notwithstanding the many cases where parents who are well and duly married, subject their children to negligence instead. Tangentially, one could also look into figures of single mothers versus single fathers to understand how society places the burden of child-raising on women disproportionately.
Child bearing, abortion, and marriage
Hand in hand with childbearing is abortion, and hand in hand with abortion is marriage. Malaysia allows abortion for a few reasons as stated in the Penal Code Section 312-315, for example to save the life of the woman, and to preserve mental and physical health. Important to note is that ‘an abortion may be carried out if the practitioner is of the opinion…’, which makes it not solely the choice of the woman in question, reducing their say in the matter. If the medical practitioner is not of the opinion that an abortion is permissible, the woman may be criminally charged with illegal abortion if they choose to abort.
This begs the question of bodily autonomy. Do women not have the final say in what happens to their bodies? Ideally, practitioners would prioritize the interests of their patients, even as their personal beliefs deny them the practice of abortion. Notwithstanding physicians, parents play a large role in deciding whether their pregnant child gets to abort a baby. Even if we change the law, stigma against abortion still exists. The reasons for abortion are many and varied, and although many women can safely and legally obtain abortion procedures, many choose not to.
“It is not so much the law, as it is capacity building, and no so much the capacity building, as it is the attitude towards abortions,” states Dr. S.P.Choong, ASAP Steering Committee Chair, a safe abortion provider in Malaysia, and the co-chair of the Reproductive Rights Advocacy Alliance of Malaysia (RRAAM).
As previously mentioned, frequently pregnant women including children and teenagers, are told to marry or risk being ostracised by family, neighbors, society at large. Abortion is often off the table entirely, and pregnancy whether intentional or not leads directly to marriage. Consequentially, many women are forced to enter into marriages they do not choose, or are forced to choose prematurely.
In conclusion, one could argue that marriage in its present, “modern”, romantic form is purely symbolic of love and commitment between two individuals, but the reality remains that it has never been just that, and certainly isn’t today. Marriage is used as a tool of power, as a bulwark against shame, as a shield against stigma, as a way of absolving guilt and violence. Marriage has ramifications in today’s workplaces, households, in the ways wives and husbands interact with one another, the way humans interact with one another, as laws and common practices benefit or discriminate against people based on their marital status.