Malaysia has been in partial lockdown, subject to a Movement Control Order (MCO), since March 18 to control the COVID-19 pandemic. Twitter was aflame when the Malaysian government's Women, Family and Community Development Ministry (KPWKM) issued online propaganda instructing women how to shoulder the emotional labour, and hide signs of strain from their husbands during lockdown. The hashtag was #WanitaCegahCOVID19, which translates as #WomenPreventCovid19.
The advice specified that women, who are likely to shoulder the lion's share of childcare and housework, should keep the peace at home by refraining from "sarcastic" requests that their husband do chores when they are enjoying sitting on the sofa, avoiding "nagging" in favour of an infantile, cute voice associated with a cartoon cat named Doraemon, and dressing up and applying make-up while stuck at home. One choice quote reads:
“If you see your partner doing something wrong, avoid nagging – use ‘humorous’ words like saying: ‘This is how you hang clothes my dear’ (imitate Doraemon’s voice and follow up with giggles!).”
Are Malaysian women expected to mother their adult male partners as though they are lazy teenagers who won't pick up after themselves? And then pretend not to be cross when taken for granted and treated like a maid? Surely such demands are a recipe for infantilised, cosseted, emotionally fragile men, and perpetually angry women—neither of which is good role modelling for children?
Astonishingly, to those of us squaring up to the semi-permanent working staycation of lockdown, the government also stated that mothers should endeavour to give up their own jobs and income-earning activities in case their children go outside. Clearly, fathers cannot be expected to shoulder the same responsibility, as their jobs must necessarily be higher earning and higher priority, at least in the eyes of the KPWKM.
“Such a long holiday and need to work from home is something difficult for mothers because oftentimes they lose focus on things... We would also like to remind you, don’t be too focused on work until family members are not monitored, which can result in a violation of the MCO.”
The troubling implication of the advice is that women are responsible if men act out their frustrations in violence against them, that it is within women's power to absorb all of the stress and protect their husband from it. Women are being placed under a duty to work extra hard to sweeten the hardships of lockdown for their male partners.
If shouldering a disproportionate amount of childcare and household chores are not enough, Malaysian women were pressurised to look like sex objects, protect men's leisure time, and even to entertain him, by the very government department which spends taxes to protect their interests. As if these women do not have enough on their plate with the basics of survival.
In my opinion, the advice reads as pure Gilead. Women are still seen, in Malaysia, as commodities and objects for male use. Even by women with bureaucratic power. One tweeter compared minister Siti Zailah Mohd Yusoff—who has a track record of similar pronouncements—to the commander's wife character Serena Joy from The Handmaid's Tale.
With women and men under unprecedented pressure during the pandemic, it would make sense for any such campaign to appeal to both sexes to dig deep into their reserves of generosity and courage for the sake of maintaining harmony at home—not that this should be a state matter to begin with. Yet the Malaysian government identified all the additional emotional and sexual labour as women's work, rather than a shared necessity, reinforcing sex roles which have had to loosen in an era where many households need two earners to survive.
Women's groups were outraged by the poorly-timed, provocative, tone-deaf campaign, stating that "sexist jokes further perpetuate the concept of patriarchy, which is one of the root causes of domestic violence."
Some men were also deeply unimpressed by the anachronistic advice.
Calls to a Malaysian government domestic violence helpline doubled during the lockdown period. Perhaps noting the contradiction between its advice that women take responsibility for managing men's emotional discomfort, and the vulnerability of women housed with violent men, they removed the campaign following an outcry on social media, saying they would "remain cautious in future," but insisting that their advice was intended to "maintain[...] positive relationships among family members during the period they are working from home." The irony was seemingly lost on them.
Malaysia ranks a poor 104 out of 153 countries in the 2020 World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap index, due to scoring low on women's educational attainment (86th), health and survival (84th), political empowerment (117th) and economic opportunity and participation (97th).