Women delegates flex muscles

"Salam 30!" was the battle cry for the women's wing at the Umno general assembly this year.

This nifty greeting was shorthand for the female delegates' demand: for Malaysia's ruling party to set a 30 per cent quota for female participation in the next general election, in management of state-linked firms and in the party's leadership council.

Umno has long been a Malay gentlemen's club. Despite women making up over one-third of the party's 3.5 million-strong membership, men remain the party's decision-makers.

Wing chief Shahrizat Jalil drove the message home that Umno women mean business.

"We work so hard for men to be MPs, and they order us around? No way!" she said, to booming cheers from the women delegates.

Umno women have long been known as "the backbone of the party", working the ground by forging close personal ties with villagers and townsfolk to gain their trust and their votes.

 
 
 

"It's women who do the work. Look at the assembly, it's women who fill up the halls," said Ms Abidah Othman, 59, from Terengganu state. Women members say they should have more power, commensurate with their efforts.

"We want our rights and women are qualified to lead," said Ms Hashimah Yaakob, 53, from Kedah state.

With 191 divisions nationwide, Umno's strength lies in community work that brings voters to the ballot box. Ms Hashimah said bonds are built when Umno women visit ill neighbours and help out.

Despite Ms Shahrizat's spirited feminist speech, analysts expect little to change. "When it comes to decisions and policymaking within the party, it's still the men who call the shots," said political analyst Shaharuddin Badaruddin.

In 2013, only 9.1 per cent of party candidates were women. With a general election widely expected next year, it is unlikely Umno will rock the boat by fielding more female candidates than it did in 2013.

"Umno has generally been pragmatic in terms of candidate selection," said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre. "I'm not sure if gender quota will be of paramount importance... in the next election."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 03, 2016, with the headline 'Women delegates flex muscles'. Print Edition | Subscribe