By Sinead O’Connor and Jocelle Koh

In 2022 across 14 festivals and showcases held in Malaysia’s thriving live scene, only 16% of onstage performers were women, reflecting the clear presence of entry barriers for local women in music. It was this statistic that fuelled the establishment of Queendom Fest – the nation’s very first all-female music festival held in December 2023. 

Founded by local artist Zamaera, the rapper who has long been an advocate for women’s rights felt a need to take a stronger, community-based stance on the issue after 12 years as an artist in the male-dominated space. 

“We have many talented female artists at the forefront of the Malaysian music landscape. I’m so happy to see many women such as Aina Abdul, Aisha Retno, The Impatient Sisters (to name a few) having their own standalone concerts and tours…That being said, I felt that it was different for live music festivals or curated shows as a vast majority of the lineups for our bigger music fests including Good Vibes Festival, Hausboom, Sunbear, Pesta Kita etc. were male artists. Being in the music industry for almost 12 years now… it just wasn’t reflected in the live music festival space which I felt needed to be addressed.”

The festival, which is supported by the Malaysian Ministry of Communications and Digital via the Digital Content Fund (DKD) and features a fully female lineup including artists Zamaera, Dolla, Hullera, Jovynn, Lil Asian Thiccie and Yunohoo is certainly a promising step in the right direction. However this just scratches the surface of Malaysia’s complex relationship with gender equality over the years. 

In the 2023 Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum, Malaysia ranked 102nd out of 146, placing it squarely in the lower third of entries, ranking the country 13th and 19th respectively in the East Asia and the Pacific Region. It has one of the biggest gender gaps in Southeast Asia, although it has shown significant improvement in the past 30 years, primarily due to reforms in the Malaysian educational system

A 2021 survey conducted by Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) sounds even more alarm bells regarding public education on women’s rights and related issues. Their report found that only 46.3% of Malaysians support gender equality and only 52.7% oppose violence-endorsing attitudes. The survey revealed particularly problematic attitudes around domestic violence where some participants normalised its occurrence (53.3%) and hold women responsible for their own abuse (44.9%), as well as rape, where 51.3% of participants felt sexual crimes happen due to the way women dress.

Several very public booboos made in recent years reflect a troubling lack of understanding of gender issues at an institutional level. In an official Facebook post on March 30th 2020, Malaysia’s Women, Family and Community Development Ministry put out a series of posters suggesting how women should dress and act while at home with their husbands, doling out advice such as to speak to husbands in a Doraemon-like tone instead of nagging, to wear proper clothes when working from home, and to politely remind their husbands what needs to be done around the house.

On a community level, there also appears to be room for improvement. In an 2022 International Women’s Day online survey held amongst their readers, online platform Mashable also found that there remains strong adherence to traditional gender roles and worries about many labour-related issues.Some of these attitudes have filtered down into the country’s music industry, with outdated perspectives cramping female artists and creatives’ diverse array of ambitions. 

Multi-hyphenate artist, producer and associate professor Dr Soo Wincci told APW about her experiences with gender-based discrimination and double standards throughout her 16-year career:

“A lot of men will definitely still look down on me as they suggest [I] just stay as an artist rather than heading further…[the situation for women in the industry] definitely changed with the power of social media [and] more women are standing up [and] being independent in various sectors. However, this leads to more stress as well as more criticism…if we do anything wrong”.

Music industry executive Izelea Ahmad shared her experiences with fighting for a seat at the table, breaking glass ceilings and observing instances of objectification of women in industry settings.

“There have been instances where in a room full of men and I am the only woman (also in most cases I tend to be the younger one in the room), my opinions would not be taken seriously or they would talk over me before I could finish sharing my points….I have also witnessed men who solely judge women based on their physical qualities and how they dress, how beautiful/sexy they look.” 

Zamaera also shared about the creative ceilings she faces as a female rapper in a male-dominated scene. 

“My biggest challenge yet is reaching a ceiling of my creative growth here in Malaysia. I feel like I’m not even fully myself when I’m there, being a conservative Muslim country, I’ve always had to adhere to rules of conduct such as dress codes or not touching on “sensitive” topics in my music such as religion, politics, sexuality which sort of defeats the whole purpose of art.” 

Source: Zamaera

The sensitivity of discussing issues considered taboo or restricted onstage in Malaysia is no secret. As a country where conservative Islam remains the dominant political and cultural force, the government has routinely shown no hesitation in shutting down performances including local festival Good Vibes in 2023, which made global headlines and polarised pop culture fans worldwide. 

Source: Stereogum

The festival was infamously cancelled a day into their three-day event over British band The 1975’s behaviour which insulted the government and their anti-LGBT laws while inebriated amongst other reports of onstage bad behaviour. The fallout and implications from their actions, although not directly related to womens’ issues nevertheless were felt by local female artists such as Lunadira, who shared with NME:

“A lot of the events that were supposed to happen that month were all cancelled. Everyone was giving up. It was a very dark moment…I couldn’t even see Malaysia as a growing point for me anymore. Because of what happened, it was hard for me to visualise myself as an artist, as a female artist, in Malaysia specifically”. 

Source: Malay Mail

Furthermore, women in music in Malaysia face a challenge unique to the local market – a social stigma against women appearing on stage.

 This was addressed by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights as far back as 2017 when they visited Malaysia and were told of social pressures on women performing in cultural contexts. A key case was namely the controversy in Kelantan, a state in the north-east of the Malay Peninsula, which banned the performance of traditional art forms like Mak Yong for many reasons, including restrictions on having women performing for mixed audiences. The ban was lifted in 2019, yet restrictions remain that “there must be a separation between men and women on stage and in the audience, no rituals or worship should take place, and women should not participate in Mak Yong performances”.

While this seems to also be a viewpoint shared by some members of the industry, women of the industry are positive about the overall trajectory of the music scene and its inclusiveness for women.

Veteran and local advocate for Malaysia’s music industry Jenn Thompson shares her belief in equal opportunities for local talents and minimal instances of discrimination across her 40-year long career:

“The business as I knew it 40 years ago was a male dominated business but along the way the opportunities have open[ed] out in areas where we have many women that continue to excel”. 

Izelea Ahmad also seconded this view from a music business perspective:

“In music specifically, we have seen women in power dating back to the 80s and it is refreshing to see more women take on leadership roles and breaking down…gender barriers”.

In terms of solutions, Dr Wincci advocates for forums to unite women in music alongside the building of awareness and scholarship, while Zamaera advocates for increased education in the arts sector to close the gender gap.The existence of events such as the Queendom festival also directly reflect a collective intent to decrease stigma around women on stages while enhancing female representation.

With the voracity of opinions we’ve heard from local female creatives passionate about what they’ve built, this further showcases Malaysia’s complex and nuanced relationship with the gender debate. While there is still a long way to go in Malaysia’s changing perceptions and adoptions of gender equality, we are heartened by the knowledge that there continues to be a diversity of multifaceted, badass women who continue to show up -and create- their own stages to shine on every single day.

Listen to Zamaera’s Ladies of Malaysia Playlist