Malaysia: End gender segregation for artistic and cultural performances

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about a proposal by officials in Terengganu, a Malaysian state, to regulate entertainment and cultural performances according to a conservative interpretation of Islam that discriminates on the basis of gender. State authorities should withdraw the proposal and allow performances, which have been halted while the guidelines are being finalised, to resume without delay.

On 18 February, Terengganu Tourism, Culture and Information Technology Committee chairman Ariffin Deraman told journalists that an 11-point policy on arts, cultural and entertainment performances will soon be gazetted and will be enforced by the end of the year. According to Ariffin Deraman, the guidelines ban mixed performances by men and women, prohibit women from performing in front of male audience members—but not vice-versa—and require that women wear a headscarf during performances. Further restrictions will be imposed on the type of music and lyrics used in performances. The committee chairman said that the policy contains guidelines for both Muslim and non-Muslim performances.

The proposed guidelines, if implemented, would violate the human rights of people in Terengganu, including rights guaranteed by treaties to which Malaysia is a state party.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a treaty ratified by Malaysia in 1995, requires states to take all appropriate measures to protect women from discrimination, to repeal or reform laws or policies that discriminate against women, and to refrain from official acts of discrimination against women. The Convention also guarantees men and women equal rights to participate in the cultural life of their communities. Malaysia has entered a reservation to the Convention stating its intent to interpret the treaty in line with Sharia law and the Malaysian Constitution.

The proposed policy will further violate the right to freedom of expression and the right to culture of people in Terengganu. Malaysia has not signed or ratified the key treaties protecting these rights—the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, respectively—and has given no timetable for doing so, despite commitments by the Pakatan Harapan government to ratify outstanding human right treaties.

Following a visit to the country in 2017, the United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights Karima Bennoune urged Malaysia to, among other actions, remove its reservations from CEDAW, ensure the women can participate equally in cultural practices, and lift bans on women performing in public. She also stressed the need for state authorities to uphold the rights to culture and non-discrimination.

ARTICLE 19 echoes these calls, and in particular urges the Pakatan Harapan government to withdraw its reservations to CEDAW, ensure the Conventions’ full implementation through national law and policy, and ratify other outstanding human rights treaties. In addition to withdrawing its proposed policy on cultural performances, the government of Terengganu should adopt a human rights based approach to policy making that incorporates meaningful public consultation and promotes the rights to non-discrimination, culture, freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.

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