The complicated politics of being First Lady

Sensitivity and compassion are apparently not Rosmah Mansor’s, the Malaysian “First Lady”, best suits. In a recent press appearance, Rosmah intended to buck the trend of the silent and exceedingly proper politician’s wife, by making self-righteous remarks about the recent Japanese tragedy as a well-deserved lesson for all.

In the spirit of freedom of expression, there is a time and place for insensitive thoughts, i.e. in your private chambers away from the press and public. For motivations identified as “attention-seeking,” even the mouthiest of politicians (and indeed their spouses) may still reserve some taste and the little decorum they have and not chastise victims of natural disasters.

To illustrate Rosmah’s eye-wateringly asinine “pearls of wisdom”:

Ini pada diri saya adalah satu pengajaran pada negara-negara lain untuk apa-apapun mereka nak buat ataupun sebarang pembangunan yang mereka ingin seharusnya dikaji dahulu keadaan sekililing dan mengaitkan dengan climate change (perubahan iklim) dan green technology (teknologi mesra alam) termasuk juga negara kita.

This in my opinion is a lesson for other nations where whatever effort done in the name of development must be cautiously approached with reference to climate change and green technology, including our own country.

But the backlash against Rosmah is just as bad. In situations where heavy media criticism is targeted at female public personalities, the highly toxic level of sexism becomes too difficult to ignore. Several examples of Rosmah’s own misjudged public ambitions notwithstanding, her recent insensitive gaffe elicited a bumper crop of undue sexist comments bigger than all the male politicians in Malaysian history put together.

There is no equivalent of sexist diatribe against a male figure when he slips up in the public arena. He can’t be a dumb bitch, a cheap slut, or berated for overstepping his gendered status in the way Rosmah is reminded by Parti Keadilan Rakyat to play her “proper” role as politician’s wife and shut the hell up.

Politician’s wives are made to look like a unique breed of women from another age, a sophisticated Jahilliyah/medieval age. As politicians wives, they are captured in the media eye as women who lunch together while their husbands deliberate on the very fate of the world. They are women whose bland fashion sense (and toned arms) can whip up a media frenzy. They are women whose charity work reinforces What Women’s Issues Are, for they are women who, in the ever reliably “neutral” media, are nothing more than the adjunct/buttock accessory* of her man/leader/master.

So are politician’s wives meant to shut up and smile for the public, and make humiliating official addresses about standing by her husband through thick and adulterous thin? We need not be reminded that today women have become more than their relationship status and that women can be individuals outside their marital set-up who have thoughts worth listening to. Shouldn’t current attitudes about gender apply to politician’s wives as well? What makes politician’s wives become a special category of scrutiny? Why must there be a “role” for the wives of heads of state?

There are several issues at play here; sexism as the public criticism’s arsenal of choice, the retrograde “role” of the First lady, blasé attitudes to devastating catastrophes, and the media’s ambivalent relationship with politician’s wives. Rosmah might never admit to the wrong of her ways, but Malaysians can be better judges of character without the sexism.

*As the saying goes, behind every great man, there is…

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