Women’s voices are systematically discriminated against when it comes to the generation of knowledge that underpins national policies.
The categories used in Malaysian household surveys are gendered, leaving women sidelined from receiving recognition and support.
Malaysia’s household surveys, which encompass income, expenditure and basic amenities, are used as tools to shape society and policies. However, the surveys’ categories introduce a form of injustice described by philosopher, Miranda Fricker, as ’hermeneutic marginalisation’. This marginalisation prevents certain groups—in this case, women—from participating in the generation of social meanings.
However, the categories in household surveys are not confined to Malaysia. The Canberra Group Handbook, which Malaysia references, is commonly used to set the standards for household income statistics and has been applied in other countries. It is an internationally accepted standard published by the United Nations.
The problem arises from using the ’head of household’ as the ‘representative person’ to arrange households into a set of categories, including citizenship, ethnicity, state, age, occupation, and industry.
If the household head is Bumiputera (a term used in Malaysia to describe indigenous groups including Malays, the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, and the Orang Asal of East Malaysia), then the household is classified as a Bumiputera household; if the household head is in manufacturing, then the household is classified as a household in manufacturing.
In Malaysia, the household heads are selected by household members. While there is no clear standard for determining household heads, there is a common understanding that household heads are the main breadwinner. For example, a 2014 report by the National Population and Family Development Board states that ’[c]ulturally, a male is deemed to be the head of household wherein the said head of household is the main provider for the household.’
Indeed, household heads in Malaysia are predominantly listed as male. As such, the construction of social meanings derived from household surveys is premised on categories that are determined by male characteristics. This is not to say that women are not counted; they are, but their realities are arranged using male-centric categories, hidden under the household as a unit of analysis.
The idea of household heads being the main provider is based on the notion that a household is an income-pooling unit. However, in a 1981 study of the household budgets in a Malaysian village, researcher Diana Wong observed that household members, women and men, strictly maintained separate financial accounts. When they do make contributions to the household, their contributions are reflected as gift transfers rather than income pooling.
The effect of these gendered categories is perhaps best illustrated by the issue of citizenship. From 1989, Malaysia’s household income data has been ‘based on Malaysian citizens’ (the published data began from the year 1970).
Nonetheless, not all non-citizens are excluded, nor are all citizens included. Instead, what is omitted from the data is ’non-Malaysian households’ while what is maintained is ’Malaysian households’. Suffice to say, there can be Malaysians in non-Malaysian households and non-Malaysians in Malaysian households.
Given the male pattern of household heads, a Malaysian woman who married a non-Malaysian man is more likely to be excluded from the published data, but a non-Malaysian woman who married a Malaysian man is more likely to be included. This means that whether a woman is included or excluded ultimately hinges on the citizenship of the household head, regardless of the women’s citizenship.
The ’Malaysian household’ that is bound to the male household head also hides the fact that there are often live-in, predominantly female, foreign domestic workers in Malaysian households.
Malaysia’s surveys conceive of households as private residential units, as distinct from non-private dwellings like hostels, hotels, and welfare homes. However, from the standpoint of a foreign domestic worker, the household is neither private nor solely a residential space. The household is also a place of employment in which the boundaries of public and private are not clearly defined.
The ‘Malaysian household’ that excludes some non-Malaysian women, women in non-Malaysian households, and erasure of the realities of female foreign domestic workers is therefore a form of ‘epistemic injustice’. That is, knowledge production, representation, authority and understanding of their own lives is denied to Malaysian women.
The categorical rather than individual nature of the problem highlights how this kind of gender inequality cannot be easily resolved with more sex-disaggregated data, something the UN Sustainable Development Goals may be more prone to.
A practical solution is to release household statistics at the level of household members to enable a more detailed analysis of household dynamics. But gendered categories would still remain at the household level.
Solving the problem requires alternatives to how Malaysia categorises households without being fixated on the male-dominated notion of household heads. Only then, can this form of systemic discrimination be challenged.
Christopher Choong Weng Wai is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick and a recipient of the Chancellor’s International Scholarship. Christopher Choong is also the Deputy Director of Research at Khazanah Research Institute in Malaysia, and a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity at the International Inequalities Institute, London School of Economics. He tweets at @chrischoongww.
The author declares no conflict of interest.