The Disgusting Treatment of Women in Malaysia

When I first arrived in Malaysia, I did not expect to find such a wide divide between the value of men and women. I thought the country was modern and sophisticated, and I just assumed that ideas about equality and respect were universal. Unfortunately, I was entirely wrong. Discrimination is more than alive in Malaysia.

The longer I stayed in the country and traveled with my friend Reena, the more I was exposed to overtly rude comments and gestures as well as offensive behavior. You see, despite being born and raised in Malaysia, Reena doesn’t fit the stereotypical “look” of a Malaysian. So when we’re together, people assume we’re tourists and think they can get away with scams, lies or offensive language and behavior.

I was shocked one day when Reena turned around to tell off some taxi drivers. They were soliciting us for a ride in English but we politely declined. When we did not agree to a ride, they apparently made extremely rude comments about us in Chinese, and she turned around and told them how ashamed their mothers would be if they heard what they were saying (in Chinese). The cabbies were shocked that: 1) she understood them as they thought we were tourists, and 2) someone even tried to tell them off. They did not apologize or act remorseful for their behavior. Instead, they went on to comment on how appalling she was for talking to them that way. In my opinion, her tone was quite firm but nowhere near yelling or shouting, which is what I would have done had I understood a word they said. And I would’ve used a few choice swear words to get my point across.

When we discussed it later, she said this is normal behavior for some Malaysians. They were ignorant and just treated women this way no matter what. When I asked why she didn’t shout at them, she said it wouldn’t have mattered. They wouldn’t even understand why we were so angry at them. This concept just floored me! She also added that before she traveled to New Zealand, similar incidents would happen to her and her friends and they’d just keep walking. No one would even address the insulting manner in which some men would address them. But having lived and worked in New Zealand for a year, she had grown more outspoken and was not afraid to stand up and say something. The idea that women commonly experience this type of treatment and did nothing about it was shocking to me.

This antiquated attitude toward women is not only limited to the Chinese population. As I became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed this type of behavior from Malays, Indians and minorities as well. It seemed as though this attitude was prevalent no matter what ethnic group you belonged to and that it was just a universal mindset.

When we were at the train station, guys would blatantly look at our (and all the other girls for that matter) breasts. When you caught them looking, they didn’t look ashamed or try to pretend they weren’t looking. Frustratingly, they just continued staring. And, it was completely focused, utter staring, in my opinion, even when girls weren’t wearing anything provocative. It just left me feeling violated and angry. I wanted to swear at them and tell them off, but Reena said it wouldn’t change anything.

This inability to change anything was the most upsetting thing of all. A society must change and grow with the times, and the idea that Malaysia won’t progress beyond this barbaric behavior saddens me. Is it because society continues to condone it? Is it that the government doesn’t prosecute against it? Or, is it just the way of this particular culture?

I realize that within this country there are limitations on freedoms that I take for granted due to religious, historical and cultural differences. But how can a country allow its women to continue to be treated this way? It’s shocking and appalling and disgusting.

This experience really tainted my view on the country, and if I did not have friends there, I would consider never returning again and tell others to avoid ever visiting. This disgusting treatment of women in Malaysia must stop!

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9 Comments

Filed under Culture, Malaysia, Personal

9 responses to “The Disgusting Treatment of Women in Malaysia

  1. Pat .

    Good post and well said. A bit of a change from your travel and eating posts!
    Unfortunately, nothing will change any time soon – it will take many generations. Even in New Zealand there are plenty of men who behave badly with respect to women; many European men are complete pigs and women are marginalized in Maori and Pacific Island cultures. Still, I am sure there are some advantages in being female…

  2. Yes, I agree that this type of behavior can be found worldwide. However, I just didn’t expect it to be so blatant and unabashed in a country that is so well developed. The fact that Malaysian men could not comprehend why their behavior was unacceptable blew my mind. Has the idea of women’s rights not been introduced yet? If this type of behavior is acceptable, how far does this extend? Violence against women? Gender discrimination in the workplace? The implications are endless.

  3. Kris

    Hard time keeping up with the posts, but this is a good observation.

    While there are some economic limits based on physiology, much of what you see in developing nations are cultural and religious. There are many cross currents. 61% of Malasia practice Islam which views women in certain roles. The developing nature of their economy adds to the pressures, $12K per capita income. This is not an excuse, but an understanding.

    I am just gald my dauters are Americans.

  4. This experience definitely gave me something to think about and made me appreciate my life and upbringing a lot more. At home, you don’t really think of these liberties because they’re expected. Here, the norm is not the same as it is at home.

  5. As much as I love Malaysia (it being my home country), reading articles like these leave me sad and embarrassed because it’s true. A lot of Malaysian men are crude and, worst of all, unapologetic about their behaviour when it comes to women.
    Re: your experience at the train station, it’s not an unusual thing to happen (which is why most girls my age aren’t encouraged to take the trains in the first place – sexual harassment). A businessman even had the gall to approach my friend once and asked, “How much (for her services)?” thinking it a charming pick-up line.

    It’s sad and appalling for this particular cultural mindset but as Pat said, there won’t be much change any time soon.

  6. Amanda

    To be honest, my feelings are left conflicted by this post. Whilst there can be no denying that the country (and I speak this as a Malaysian who has lived abroad and come back) is backwards in many, many ways, complacency being our most stereotypical problem, I don’t think it’s fair to pass such harsh judgement on the country as a whole based on these singular experiences. Malaysia has a long way to go in terms of gender equality, but assuming that you are basing the argument on public incidences like ogling, places from New York to Maldives can be considerably worse (keyword here: can be). Regardless, t wouldn’t be fair for me to warn others from going to these wonderful places based on that. We’re a generally reserved culture without an adequate spread of awareness or education amongst the people. I understand that the point of the post is much bigger than that, but those are my two cents.

    Also, brushing aside the situation as “sad and appalling…but there won’t be much change any time soon” is the exact sort of dangerous complacency that allows a country’s development to stagnate. I truly believe and pray that the youth of Malaysia are slowly becoming more informed and educated, thus paving the way to a better nation, especially in terms of human trafficking and rape culture (the real enemies of gender equality). Hopefully, your next visit to Malaysia (if there is one) will be better.

  7. Thanks for the recent comments on this post. It is good to get insight from Malaysians who are more familiar with these circumstances than I am and who may have differing approaches in dealing with them.

    Another disturbing experience I had while in Malaysia happened with a sales clerk at a well-known shop in a huge mall in the tourist area. She made a comment to her male colleague that she had never seen him jump up so quickly to help a customer at the till and that it must be because the customer (my friend) had big breasts. Then she proceeded to comment on what they looked like, etc.

    This dialogue was in Malay and happened right in front of my friend even though she understood every word. On the positive side, the male clerk chastised the female clerk for her comments, but the woman just shrugged it off as no big deal. When my friend told me about the incident, I encouraged her to return to the shop and get the name of the woman so she could file a complaint with the manager/store.

    As Amanda noted, there needs to be more public awareness and education about gender equity throughout the society. Men are not the only ones who objectify women so blatantly. How many other rude comments has this clerk made about customers who are making purchases from the store that employs her and pays her a salary? Most of them are tourists and would not have the language skills to even understand what she is saying, which makes this situation even worse.

  8. I just arrived a few hours ago and when I took the lift in the airport a man followed me in and took out his penis. I said, “omg, no” he proceeded to swing it around at me. I had been traveling for 30 hours and just missed my flight to tawau bc of customs and immigration taking a while. I was frazzled and then that happened. I got to my hotel connected to the airport and the hotel manager made a suggestive comment when I was booking my room online. He said, “go down” and meant on the webpage and then said, “haha what if I meant for you to go down.” He then followed me to the elevator and offered to give me a free massage.

    I just arrived from a month in South Africa and I literally felt safer there than here. This afternoon is making me reconsider my tour of SE Asia as a solo female traveler. I’m going to get some rest. I can’t make any decisions in my jet lagged, horrified state.

    I found your blog bc I searched “treatment of women in Malaysia.” Thanks for your post. Safe travels!

  9. LoveAmblissador – I’m really sorry to hear about your recent experience in Malaysia. Hopefully, you decided to continue your tour of SE Asia and didn’t let these events hold you back from exploring the region.

    Since this post, I have visited other areas in SE Asia and even returned to Malaysia (Penang). During this time, I did not experience similar situations as I did in the original post, even when traveling with Reena again.

    Perhaps I have become less sensitive to such actions because I have more solo travel experience under my belt and have learned to adapt better to my surroundings, be more open-minded to local cultures and simply take things at face value and don’t let incidents (good and bad) bother me for very long? Although, certainly no one has revealed himself to me as the “gentleman” did to you, and I’m not sure what I would do or how I would feel in that moment . . . .

    It makes me mad that, for the most part, solo male travelers aren’t subjected to this type of behavior, but as women we are put in these situations for no other reason than being a woman. Of course, this type of thing happens across the world – in other cultures and societies – and we are still quite far from true equality among the sexes.

    I hope you continue your solo traveling as I did and meet genuinely sincere people who can change the initial negative feelings that these situations have imprinted upon you. Good luck and safe travels to you too!

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