How the Role of Malay Women Has – or Hasn’t – Evolved

More women are entering into the public sphere in contemporary societies than they have before. However, events such as the Women’s March in January 2017 continue to highlight the frustrations that women feel: that despite the progress they have achieved, struggles continue over gender roles, sexuality and representation as still many women around the world have not achieved parity and equity at every level of society.

In Singapore, Malay women are increasingly pursuing higher education, achieving management positions and taking on more leadership roles. Many are also contributing financially to the household; some are even the main breadwinner of a household, on top of performing their traditionally subscribed caregiving and housekeeping roles. One would think that changes in the socioeconomic realities of a Malay household in Singapore would entail a corresponding change in the ideas of what it means to be a woman or a man in today’s contemporary society. However, Malay women still find themselves, overtly or otherwise, subjected to longstanding cultural ideas of gender roles and gender-related expectations that restrict and hold back their progress and potential.

Despite having made significant progress in education and at the workplace, the marker of ideal womanhood for Malay women is still highly dependent on marriage and motherhood. Single, unmarried women wishing to pursue a PhD or focus on their career development are commonly dissuaded on the basis that by the time they obtain that doctorate or career success, they will be labelled an “anak dara tua”. This term carries the stigma of an old maid, with few prospective partners. Additionally, her “overqualification” brings about the concern of intimidating potential suitors. Successful role models in the community are often one-sided representations of married women who are outstandingly capable of fulfilling the duties of the kitchen and office. However, women like world-renowned architect, the late Zaha Hadid, who conceptualised Singapore’s One-North and remained unmarried until her passing, have shown that having an alternative life trajectory can be equally celebrated. Thereby, showing that women are responsible agents of their futures and their identity should not be dictated by their marital status.

Within the family, rigid gender roles that marked the households of our foremothers remain largely dominant. Women are expected to take on the primary roles of caregiving, extending from childcare, elderly care to the physical space of the home itself. This is on top of holding full-time jobs and contributing to the household income, a role traditionally designated to the husband. A 2013 survey on social attitudes of Singaporeans done by the Ministry of Social and Family Development showed that women spent overwhelmingly more time on household affairs such as caregiving and chores than their spouses did. Hence, while the role of women has greatly diversified in today’s society, this same diversification is slow to catch on among the populace. Current policies such as the short period of paternal leave fathers receive, do little to encourage or allow men to shoulder more caregiving roles. This results in most women having to bear the responsibility of homemaker and caregiver alone. The 2015 General Household Survey found that 50.4% of Malay women are economically inactive compared to the national rate of 40.9%. 78% of women in general, aged 25 to 54 who are economically inactive choose to remain so due to family responsibilities, namely housework, childcare or caregiving to families or relatives1. This leaves many women financially dependent on their husbands or male relatives and is a contributing factor to the lower economic profile of the community. For women to continue to progress in the workforce, there must be more policies that encourage gender equality and a renegotiation of gender roles at home.

The unequal power dynamics of gender relations in the household, despite it being nuanced and subtle, can have disastrous effects on the community. In the 2013 International Violence Against Women Survey conducted in Singapore, nearly 1 in 10 of the female respondents surveyed experienced at least one incident of violence by a man in their adult lifetime. The Sexual Assault Care Centre saw 338 cases in 2016, an increase of 26% from the previous year. Additionally, PAVE, a family violence specialist centre in Singapore, reported that victims of domestic violence from the Malay community are overrepresented2. There is a strong link between attitudes towards violence and attitudes towards gender. Traditional gender roles and notions have been the most consistent predictor of attitudes supporting violence against women3. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between men’s adherence to sexist, patriarchal, and/or sexually hostile attitudes and the likelihood of being violent against women, while women who express traditional gender role attitudes are less likely to report violence and abuse by their partners4.

A video taken during a marriage preparation event that went viral recently showed a religious teacher propagating the idea that women should be of service to their husband. This severely undermines a woman’s autonomy within the household and promotes unequal relationships within the marriage. Arguably, the most disturbing was that it seems to condone physical domestic violence in the form of assault and wrongful confinement as justified responses to adultery committed by wives. Unfortunately, religion is often used as the rationale for these beliefs despite the fact that leading religious scholars have repeatedly declared that domestic violence is not acceptable in Islam. The community must continue to recognise and consistently reject attitudes that excuse and enable violence. Dismissing this incident as just an isolated case is extremely naïve because these ideas, which threaten equality, respect and life itself, are not as uncommon as we may think.

It is important that we do not dismiss these as “women’s” issues or “gender” issues. Labelling them as such would only distant ourselves and propagate the idea that it is irrelevant to our brothers in the community. Men, such as those who have been appointed, or self-appointed, as head of their household or as leaders of the community, also have a part to play in challenging and debunking myths of male superiority and stereotypes of masculinities that serve to perpetuate violence against women. Furthermore, Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, mentioned in his speech that “violence against women is unequivocally wrong” and we should work towards “a more equal society”5,6. To do this, we need seismic shifts in our community’s perception of gender roles. Such a change cannot happen if women work on these issues alone. It is a reality that currently, more men are in leadership and positions of influence compared to women in Singapore. Therefore, we need more men on board prioritising these issues and working towards a culture of gender equality. After all, an egalitarian community is a marker of a progressive and inclusive one.

It is also imperative that we have more discussions on gender relations within the Muslim family. Gender equality and justice is not a foreign concept to the history of Muslims. Prophet Muhammad himself has helped out with household chores and his first wife Khadijah was a very successful business entrepreneur. In a talk conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research on marriage education in June 2017, some of the male participants spoke out about the need for more gender equal relations within the family; that it is important for men to also carry the responsibility of the mental load of managing the household and caregiving, a task usually relegated to the women. Other examples that have encouraged conversations about gender roles within the community is the anthology, Perempuan: Muslim Women in Singapore Speak Out, a compilation of essays and poems written by Muslim women in Singapore. These stories introduce alternative narratives that challenge conventional ideas of the role of women in the society.

Even though these harmful ideas of gender roles are not specific to our community alone, they are deeply entrenched ideas justified and perpetuated by problematic patriarchal interpretations of religion and prevailing cultural norms. By using religion and tradition to rationalise these ideas, many have not questioned or challenged them. We assume we have progressed in gender equality, when in reality, we are still subjected to the same restrictive norms as our foremothers. Conversations about Malay women’s role in Singapore are sorely needed. However, the battle for parity needs that revolutionary courage to speak out against injustices in society. Moving forward, we need a paradigm shift in our ideas of gender roles so as not to limit the potential of our future selves and the next generation, who deserve to be free. ⬛

1 Manpower Research and Statistics Department, 2017.
2 Tai, J. (2013). Spousal Abuse Most Common Form of Family Violence in Singapore. The Straits Times.
3 Flood, M., & Pease, B. (2009). Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence Against Women. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 10(2), 128.
4 Flood, M., & Pease, B. (2009). Factors Influencing Attitudes to Violence Against Women. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 10(2), 126-127.
5 Ministry of Social and Family Development, 2017.
6 Speech by Mr Tan Chuan-Jin on the Motion of Aspirations of Singapore Women (2017). Retrieved from


Filzah Sumartono works at The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) as Project Coordinator for the community engagement project called “Gender Equality Is Our Culture” which works to reclaim culture as gender-equitable. Filzah also conducts workshops on sexual health, consent and healthy relationships. She also advocates for an end to the practice of sunat perempuan.

Firqin Sumartono is a recent linguistics graduate and currently works in research on projects related to society and languages. Her ongoing study looks at the evolving speech patterns of the Singaporean Malay community. Her research interests include sociolinguistics, bilingualism and language planning and policies.

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