Malaysia says it will redress the gender bias in its textbooks

Last year, social media helped call out an infographic being studied by nine year olds in a Year 2 health and physical education textbook in Malaysia showing that girls should protect their modesty or risk being shamed and having their family’s honour questioned.

Screenshot 2019-02-12 at 11.00.24The infographic has now been covered up in the textbooks, with a correction page issued to schools.

The graphic on the left taken from the textbook in question is about a girl called Amira who it says would be shamed if she did not look after the ‘modesty of her genitals’ by dressing modestly, if she went to quiet places alone and did not get changed behind closed doors.

The content raised eyebrows for the way that it perpetuated victim-blaming for sexual assault among young girls. As a result of the clamour, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development announced in January that it would take a closer look at the lack of sex education in Malaysian schools.

This is not the first time that parents and the community have managed to use the power of their voices to change textbook content. The 2017/8 GEM Report showed that advocacy efforts in the USA by the Texas Freedom Network, for instance, saw publishers revise questionable text that was distorting climate change facts.

In South Africa, a Pearson textbook in circulation for five years, which included a sexual assault scenario that seemed to promote blaming the victim was also revised thanks to social media. While in Malaysia the viral campaign started in Twitter, in the South African case it was a parent’s question posted on Facebook in July 2016 that inspired a petition on a website and led to a new edition of the textbook being printed.

Malaysia isn’t alone in having outdated content in its textbooks, as we have been showing since a policy paper released in 2016, Textbooks pave the way to sustainable development.

We welcome the news that Malaysia is going to review its textbooks from a gender perspective.  For gender equality to be achieved, textbooks should not confine women to employment that is a simple extension of their domestic and maternal activities. In addition to eliminating discriminatory gendered representations, textbooks should expose common forms of gender discrimination in society and promote the rights of girls and women and the right to gender equality. Textbooks should ensure parity between men and women, girls and boys in:

  • text and illustrations;
  • casting of ‘hero’ characters and minor figures;
  • position and size of characters in illustrations;
  • presenting or referring to well-known figures in the fields of politics, science, literature, sport, the arts and economics.

1 comment

  1. Malaysia has decided to become a conservative islamic society and has enacted laws holding women accountable for men’s attacks. This textbook sensibly prepares young girls for the legal and societal obligations they will face growing up. Particularly effective in that page is ostracism by her friends if she is perceived as violating societal norms.

    Westerners expect equal rights, but some societies have decided and legislated against them. Pressuring countries to remove instruction on the issues girls will face later in life may not benefit girls. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

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