Language, gender and identities in political life: A case study from Malaysia
Researchers investigating gender identities in applied linguistics and sociolinguistics have stressed the need for the field to become more diverse by investigating cultural contexts outside the Western world (McElhinny 2008; Mills and Mullany 2011). With the exception of a handful of studies (Kaur 2005; Yoong 2017), there is little work on language and gender identities in Malaysia. Our decision to focus on the Malaysian political domain is motivated by the continued lack of women in positions of political power in the country. Latest figures from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU 2015) show that Malaysia is ranked 113th out of 190 countries for the overall percentage of women in parliament. The current world average is 21.8 per cent – in Malaysia, it is 10.4 per cent. An applied linguistics analysis can investigate how negative gender identity constructions, created and maintained through the language of the mass media, can be a contributing factor to the complex problem of the lack of women in positions of political power. Researchers have argued that investigations of ‘women’s media(ted) representation’ are needed (Adcock 2010: 136), as the media play such a significant role in shaping and influencing contemporary politics. The UN Secretary-General (2010) reported that voters of both sexes prefer to elect men due to the prevalence of gender stereotypes, including those perpetuated by the media, and deeply ingrained beliefs against the ability of women to lead. There are clear echoes of the ‘double-bind’ in such negative findings: researchers have found that women who occupy professional roles are often deemed as unsuitable if they display characteristics that are perceived to be too feminine, but they are also negatively evaluated if they display characteristics that are judged as too stereotypically masculine (see Mullany 2007; Baxter 2011). In Malaysia, ‘the widespread stereotyping of women as followers and supporters rather than leaders’ has significantly reduced women’s opportunities ‘to develop their leadership and decision-making skills in the public domain’ (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 2004: 24); the media continue to be a critical source of these gender stereotypes. Constitutionally democratic, Malaysia has an ethnicised political system where ethnic considerations dominate political and electoral processes (Saravanamuttu 2001).