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The Other ‘F’ Word

The Other ‘F’ Word

thegblogteam 1 comments

by Aina Salleh 

Do you remember your first time? You know, your first encounter with good old-fashioned sexism? Could it be that time when you were told to be soft and pretty because you’re a girl? Or perhaps it’s that time you discovered that the class monitor has to be a boy? Or maybe the time that you grudgingly dragged your feet to the kitchen halfway into Zombie Kampung Pisang to prepare for a Hari Raya feast while the boys stayed put. I’m sure you’ve been there. We’ve all been there.

I don’t recall my first encounter with sexism but I remember feeling vulnerable in the hands of gender expectations. I remember being told that I must be prim and proper because it’s ladylike. That I must be tough but not too tough because no one likes a bossy girl.  To be pretty but not too pretty or else be mistaken for a bimbo. I remember growing up admiring the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, who was a smart and savvy businesswoman, only to be told that a woman’s place is at home. The thing about gender inequality is, the moment it rears its ugly head, you cannot unsee it.

The issue isn’t so much with the idea of femininity or domesticity but rather the expectation of it. If women are deprived of opportunities based on the premise that we are the weaker sex, then why are we expected to hold a job and run a household and raise smart, accomplished children and at the same time be gracious about it, because God forbid, we show signs of vulnerability or weakness? No matter how resistant you are, it is easy to give in to social expectations and gender norms because it is only human nature to crave a sense of belonging within your community. Sometimes we allow these prevalent perceptions to be internalised, making them self-fulfilling cycles.

It became clear to me that we need feminism more than ever. It’s safe to say that many share the same sentiment, but would stop short of calling themselves a feminist. Feminism, the fight for gender equality, is an inherent good. It is not about bringing men down, but lifting women up. It’s a fight against patriarchy, not the opposite sex. So why is the F-word often said with much disdain and disgust? An ensuing conversation reveals that many still buy into the idea that feminists are an angry, elitist, buzz cut-rocking bunch who hates men as much as they hate shaving. This is simply not true. Not that there is anything wrong with being an angry, elitist, buzz cut-rocking bunch who hate men as much as they hate shaving, but there is more diversity to feminism than that. I was determined to understand why feminists are seen as such.

Immediately I recalled an incident when one of the most empowered and eloquent women I know was told that she cannot possibly be a feminist because she chooses to wear the hijab. She responded with a beautifully written article called “The Hijabi Feminist: Am I A Walking Contradiction?” The result? More came forward to dismiss her as a feminist for the exact same reason. Perhaps they assumed she did not hear them the first time because of that oppressive piece of clothing over her ears. And of course it was only a matter of time that the online religious police chimed in and painstakingly mansplained to her that she cannot be a Muslim and a feminist at the same time. (Side note: Mansplain has got to be my favourite word of 2016 because it captures the collective frustration of women who are constantly being talked down to by a well-meaning albeit misguided misogynist who assumes that he must know more about a particular issue than the woman who is personally affected). Needless to say, she did not get the meaningful discourse that she was hoping for.

What’s unfortunate is that this is not an isolated incident. A quick browse online will uncover many of such battles where a woman’s seemingly harmless choice is deemed un-feminist. The battles between stay-at-home mums and working mums, the makeup or no makeup debate, and so on. Feminism, which at its heart promotes equal opportunities and equal access, is misconstrued  as a righteous idea with a condescending undertone, creating a false binary between women and alienating those who don’t identify with certain ideals.

I later discovered that there is a name for this. It’s called internalised misogyny. It is not the outright belief that women are inferior. Instead, it refers to women subconsciously internalising the sexist views that exist within our culture as a result of socialisation. It manifests in women judging, shaming and minimising other women and the choices that we do not identify with. In other words, we become misogynists ourselves.

Internalised misogyny is alive and thriving, existing even amongst the most socially conscious of us. This is when we condemn women for the “un-feminist” way they dress, or criticise their decision to be a housewife.  Recently, a notable feminist condemned Beyonce’s brand of activism, calling it “feminism lite” as it does not fully represent the movement. But what is ideal feminism anyway? Who gets to define the standard? Shouldn’t we allow each other the space to advocate for feminism in ways that we are capable of? Beyonce may not be the ideal feminist, whatever that is, but that also means that she reaches out to a different audience; those who may not find feminist essays and protests relatable.

To be fair, I don’t believe that there is any malice intended. Years of oppression and overwhelming expectations have put women on survival mode. We fight to be taken seriously and denounce anything that we feel hinders progress. In our personal struggle to break glass ceilings and escape sticky floors, we unequivocally reject anything that resembles the traditional caricature of a woman, be it that of a homemaker or a sexual being. This is a natural response to marginalisation and it is not unique to women. Social distancing is a common reaction amongst minorities who strive to disprove prejudices about themselves in order to escape the social disadvantages associated with the group that they belong to.

But somewhere along the way, we have forgotten to be kind to one another. We forget that even though individually we are on the receiving end of our own share of microaggressions, we are fighting the same battle. We become careless of our demands of each other. As rightly pointed out by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – a Nigerian novelist, activist and all-round kickass feminist – the problem is, when it comes to setting standards for ourselves, we start off with men as the reference point. In doing so, we neglect the fact that women are complex, complicated and colourful beings made up of our own choices. This explains why power suits are deemed more respectable in board rooms than dresses and why some women feel the pressure to be aggressive and assertive in the corporate world (but don’t be too bossy, remember?).

Of course there is always room for debate and discourse. But in a country where feminism is still very fragile and feared, where the narrative is often hijacked and undermined by those who are comfortable and complacent with the status quo, shouldn’t we unite against the common enemy? You know, patriarchy, sexual violence, gender discrimination? When we place conditions and prerequisites, we make feminism an exclusive club, feeding into the stereotype that we are indeed an elitist bunch.  We turn people away when they come knocking at our door, preventing them from meaningfully engaging with the movement. This is dangerous because we risk alienating the very people we seek to protect. When we portray feminism as a distant and disconnected idea, we deprive women who are seeking refuge from patriarchy the support system that they need.

Worse still, we create expectations of what it takes to be a feminist, which is just as harmful as the gender expectations that we vow to eradicate. Turning against a woman because her choices do not resonate with yours means you are largely ignoring what feminism is about: Choice. A woman’s ability to decide for herself, to choose who she wants to be as opposed to what is dictated to her. Of course we draw the line when there is a clear harm; for example, when a woman is forced into making uncomfortable choices or when she is objectified. But if her decision is her own, an exercise of her free will and expression, why is it any of our business? Why do we assume that a woman who dons the hijab is un-feminist because it feeds into patriarchal demands but we don’t say the same about a woman in a bikini? There exists a cognitive dissonance amongst feminists who are unable to draw the line between traditional caricatures of a woman and a choice that she willingly made for herself.

As a result, women fear owning up to the label. They fear embracing the title and the movement because they feel that they simply cannot live up to the expectation. This is rather personal to me, because I, too, have bought into the idea that there is an ideal feminist, even though intellectually I know better.  I felt an inexplicable excitement when Mindy Kaling rose to fame. Yes, Mindy Kaling, the girly girl with that TV show who loves pretty dresses and everything glamorous. Mindy Kaling, the proud Indian woman who also happens to be a Dartmouth graduate currently taking over the comedy scene which, until recently, was dominated by white men. Mindy Kaling, who uses her TV show as a platform to highlight the pressing issues facing women, under the guise of comedy. I was ecstatic that she is celebrated as a feminist despite her unapologetic girly ways. I no longer felt the need to hide that side of me in order to be taken seriously.

So how do we move forward? Perhaps we go easy with the tagging gun and try to be more supportive and inclusive. I remember reading a gem of an advice from Amy Poehler’s gem of a book. She discusses the importance of sisterhood solidary and she advocates that women live by the motto “good for her, not for me” when confronted with the choices of others that are different from ours. Rejecting makeup? Good for you, not for me. Natural birth? Good for you, not for me. I have since applied this in my everyday life and I can assure you that it did make me less of a judgmental prick.

Let’s regroup and focus on the battle against what’s really un-feminist. Women are a force to be reckoned with and together we are stronger. In an era where victim blaming, sexual violence and casual sexism is rife, where movie critics claimed that an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters was the worst thing ever (seriously, if that is the worst thing to have happened in your life, please let’s trade lives), where an openly misogynistic man and his grabby hands has just been put in charge of running the free world, God knows we need feminism more than ever.

  1. http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/isma-feminism-making-women-forget-their-place-as-homemakers
  2. https://thegblog.org/2016/08/02/the-hijabi-feminist-am-i-a-walking-contradiction/
  3. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/valley-girl-brain/201610/are-female-misogynists-the-rise
  4. https://www.bustle.com/articles/130737-7-sneaky-ways-internalized-misogyny-manifests-in-our-everyday-lives
  5. journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1088868306294790

Aina is the girl with big hair and an even bigger laugh. In her free time, she does a bit of lawyering (ok, it’s her day job). Most of her favorite people are animals; the rest are Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.


1 Comment

Effie Johari

January 28, 2017 at 11:39 am

god knows we need feminism more than ever, and as the author has quite astutely pointed out, feminism is not a monolithic movement or ideology. so the question turns to, which feminism(s) do we need now more than ever?

the premise that feminist is a label women (and people in general) are wary of because it seems like an exclusive, elitist club raises a few questions, such as: ‘seems’ to who? is it actually exclusive and elitist, or merely an appearance read askance by outsiders? is the job of self-identified feminists and feminist spaces then to de-fang their politics and make themselves appealing to the masses? is that not already being done with aplomb via popular women’s empowerment campaigns and its associated footsoldiers, i.e. celebrity spokespersons? besides all these questions, it’s hardly even a central concern. people are not intimidated by the exclusivity of feminism, they would not gladly take up the mantel if only feminists were more friendly and welcoming – people are *threatened*. that is primarily why feminism is unpopular. anti-feminists (unabashed misogynists) wish to create and subsequently attack the most outlandish, unappealing strawman version of feminism possible, and this is the main source of feminism’s shroud of exclusivity, condescension and self-righteous isolation, rather than its actual disposition. so this is the answer to the question of why feminism is often uttered with disdain and disgust.

however, let’s ignore these vile, anti-feminist men for the moment and focus on the author’s concern regarding internalized misogyny, the threads of which i find hard to pick apart merely because it is not much of a coherent analysis on gender as a social (and economic) phenomena. femininity and domesticity, for example, are inextricably linked not just to social expectations of gender, but fundamentally, gender itself. they are symptoms of a society organized on gender, rather than anything inherent to women. it would do well to remember that the patriarchy’s misogyny is not a hatred of femininity, but of women-as-a-class; femininity arises from the patriarchal system, not from without. i’ve always had a bit of a problem with the term ‘internalized misogyny’, perhaps because it is used with no degree of specificity whatsoever. for instance, the idea that these gender expectations/sexist views are free-floating and not tethered to a systemic function that some women can sometimes internalize, while other women are spared.

lack of structure and specificity in the analysis of gender as a system leads to lack of structure and specificity in defining feminism and its goals. is feminism the fight for gender equality, is it about choice, is it abolishing and ‘smashing’ the patriarchy? is it all of them, altogether? say i am reading this correctly and conclude that to the author, feminism is about raising women to the socioeconomic position of men, so that they may be free to make their own choices. the amazing liberal caveat of the harm principle thus comes in to save the day and smooth out any wrinkles: women should be free to make their own choices so long as they do not impose harm unto others. this amazing caveat of social liberalism has existed for centuries, and thus criticism of it abounds for any who are interested, but for now, i would like to focus on the implication that individual women should be allowed to make their own choices even if harms them, as long as the harm is not externalized, and finally come to the point of my anti-thesis.

feminism is a collective struggle, it is a collective fight for liberation. if we were talking about nominal feminism, even in its infancy with the suffragist movement(s), it has always been collective (white supremacist and all). a collective struggle implies some level of exclusivity. it is simply not true that everyone can be feminists, because the fact of the matter is that everyone cannot. if everyone were, we wouldn’t need feminism. we cannot all link hand in hand and fight against the shadowy, abstract monster of patriarchy. patriarchy has names, it has faces. in order to simultaneously fight and protect ourselves, we must be critical. not everyone can and not everyone is a feminist, self-identification be damned. is hillary clinton a feminist after her bloody political track record? is lena dunham a feminist after reports of her being a sexual abuser? is syafiqah othman a feminist after admitting to tacitly supporting trump’s muslim registry? these are self-identified feminists, or at least feminist-aligned people, who have used feminism as tags for their career. are xenophobia, jingoism, the military-industrial complex, murder, abuse, islamophobia, and bigotry all part of internalized misogyny as well?

the desire to shirk responsibility for critical thought can be alluring, but critical engagement is the only way forward. it is the only way to punch even a small dent in the patriarchy. ‘live and let live’, to each her own choices and to mine my own, is actually a dangerous proposition, now especially. for decades, feminism has created and sharpened tools of attack against the patriarchy. its analysis of patriarchy’s systemic violence is valuable and integral to feminism, it cannot be pushed aside simply because it’s inaccessible to some and offensive to others. for example, criticisms and analyses of the make-up industry, the cult of domesticity, celebrity culture, objectification, and so forth: a critical understanding of these issues is important if we wish for feminism to achieve any significant change. analyses of systemic issues are not personal attacks on anyone’s autonomy, although it is rather sad that it’s constantly read as such. i won’t deny that there’s a lot of actual incidences of personal attacks going around, but the solution is not ‘live and let live’ in favor of shunning critical analysis entirely.

for instance, the criticisms against beyonce are valid. she is an influential woman with a large platform, and if she’s using the label feminist to push her brand, then her actions deserve to be scrutinized and criticized. however, that doesn’t change the fact that she (like many popular icons) is an inspiration to women worldwide, that her music and perhaps also politics provide refuge for many, and that she receives harsher scrutiny and censure due to being a black woman. it’s not as simple as ‘live and let live’. further, the topic of the hijab within feminist discourse is also not quite as simple. mainline rhetoric against the hijab is pushed by an islamophobic west that does not care for muslim women (given their penchant for bombing civilians and whole cities) but uses the hijab as a symbol of an oppressive culture that must be liberated by the advanced, secular west. western feminism has fed into and supported this rhetoric. it’s very easy to see women being told they can’t be a feminist and wear the hijab, and confuse it as gatekeeping activity, when it runs a lot deeper than that. the flip side (you can’t be a muslim and a feminist) is similarly nuanced, but irrelevant to the topic at hand. and to answer the author’s question, there are plenty of articles written about why women who wear a bikini aren’t feminist, if one is so inclined to do a humble google search.

who gets to define the standard of a proper feminist is a great question, but perhaps a bit irrelevant given the givens. personal philosophies and experiences are just that: personal. but feminism is a collective struggle towards achieving a goal or set of goals. it is an action, a work, rather than a passive identity attached to an individual. this discards entirely the discussion of whether this or that person is feminist or ‘un-feminist’ (whatever that even means). as explored above, people can call themselves feminists or they can not, it doesn’t change the fact that some of the things they do are unacceptable, by common decency standards, never mind feminist standards. what’s happening now is that calls for the bare standards of human decency are misread as gatekeeping. given what we know of some of the most visible faces of feminism at this point in time, shouldn’t there be at least some standard to measure against? shouldn’t criticism be encouraged rather than discouraged?

it is nice to pretend, under the current climate, that unity in womanhood is possible. we might all stand back in awe at what women have accomplished at the recent global women’s march events, for example, and crow the value of unity. but then we would be living under some grand delusion. for what we should be doing instead is listening to the voices that have been and are actively being suppressed and pushed aside. when black women criticize the women’s march, when trans women criticize the women’s march, when brown, working class, disabled, queer, indigenous, marginalized, ostracized, disenfranchised women criticize the women’s march, or the concept of women’s unity in general, are you going to call it internalized misogyny?

i can assure you that some voices are being heard and loudly advocated for in feminist circles, while yet others are violently suppressed and rejected. this is the central concern of feminism right at this political juncture in history. it is imperative that we recognize our differences and not just our similarities. it is imperative that we understand feminism as a collective struggle, and not just an identifier. it is imperative that we respect the work of those who came before us, who laid down the foundations for our understanding and created the tools we use today. it is imperative that feminism is re-oriented towards critical engagement (not necessarily in the form of the written essay, but discussion) and direct action (above and beyond protests). this is how we get things done. this is how we can incite change. not everyone can and should be feminists, not everyone who subscribes to its principles and engages in its activity calls themselves feminists (i certainly don’t). collective struggle is not easy, and requires a lot of work, the bulk of which is self-reflection. to pretend it is in any way otherwise simply to increase the number of people who complacently use the label feminist is rather unseemly.

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