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Monthly Archives:June 2017

Hello Miss

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M : Hello Miss.
F :  I’m never usually gender identified correctly.
M : Hello Miss.
F : People would usually mistake me for a male; a guy.
M : Hello Miss
F : They tend to only see the hair, the build, the clothes. Mostly the hair.
M : Hello Miss
F : Whenever I go into a public restroom anywhere in the world, I feel the need to prove to is occupants that I belong there.
M : Hello Miss
F : Me, a female. Needing to pee. In a public female restroom.
M : Hello Miss
F : Each and every time, I enter with my breasts pushed out. The need to show them I’m a woman. To prove that i do belong there, the same as all of them. I enter, heart racing, hoping they don’t single me out.
M : Sir, the men’s is over there.
F : Some people don’t speak out. They just stare at me, accusingly. Waiting for me to realize my ‘mistake’.
M : Tandas laki kat situ ler.
F : Others can be very aggressive with me; they assume I’m up to no good. (To M) Saya perempuan la.
M : Oh? Ye ke? Kak ingat lelaki tadi (laughs)
F : What would you reply to something like that?
(Beat)
M : Hello Miss
F : When one does get it right, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Funny how you can get so used to something happening all the damn time.
M : Hello Miss
F : I just don’t like going into public restrooms. It’s too much of a hassle. (Walks off)

 
This piece is part of our month-long collaboration with The VSC Project, exploring the concept of ‘Duality’, which delves into the idea of a gender blind world. How would we act and what would we be if there weren’t preconceived ideas of how a person should be based on what their genitals look like?
 
DUALITY; is based on the lived realities of many who have stayed hidden for decades of their lives, masking themselves just to be accepted in this “normal” world. It is about repressing the person that you really want to be while maintaining a more culturally, religiously and socially acceptable version of yourself. It explores inner conflict and contradictions, and the incongruities that tug at the elements of our identity.

Delusi “Choice Feminists”

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“Feminisme adalah mengenai memberi wanita kebebasan untuk memilih. Ia bukanlah satu peralatan untuk menjatuhkan wanita lain. Ia mengenai kemerdekaan, kebebasan dan kesaksamaan,” kata Emma Watson kepada wanita-wanita disambut dengan sorakan gemuruh di seluruh dunia. Jika terdapat contoh feminis abad ke-21, Watson merupakan wirawatinya dan kata-katanya merupakan motivasi kepada para feminis.

Choice feminism (salah satu cabang dalam feminisme yang mengutamakan kebebasan wanita untuk memilih) begitu dipuja dalam budaya kini sehinggakan apabila terdapat wanita yang mengkritik sebarang industri, institusi, dan konstruk sosial sebagai berunsurkan partriarki, wanita-wanita ini akan dituduh menyerang wanita lain yang memilih untuk menyertainya. Tidak kira apa pilihan mereka, bahagian komen akan sentiasa mengaitkan hak peribadi dia untuk memilih. Mengatakan perkara sebaliknya dianggap sebagai menghentam kebebasan peribadi dan pilihan dia sebagai anti-feminis. Tuntutan mereka mengenai wanita berhak memilih itu betul, tetapi adakah semua pilihan merupakan pilihan yang baik untuk kebebasan kolektif semua wanita?

Kesilapan rangka tindakan feminis ini adalah ia menganggap kita hidup di era selepas patriarki di mana setiap pilihan yang dibuat oleh wanita merupakan pilihan yang dibuat secara bebas tanpa pengaruh patriarki yang melemaskan. Ia menganggap bahawa pilihan kebebasan yang dibuat wanita dalam demokrasi dunia pertama tidak mempengaruhi dalam menguatkan lagi institusi-institusi patriarki untuk menghalang kebebasan untuk memilih wanita dalam negara-negara dunia ketiga. Paling penting, ia menganggap bahawa sesetengah pilihan dibuat tanpa mengorbankan kebebasan kolektif semua wanita.

Tonggak utama kepercayaan choice feminism adalah setiap pilihan yang dibuat untuk keinginan sendiri adalah gerakan feminis. Cerita di belakang tabirnya adalah mulia: pilihan wanita dibuat ketika mereka dipengaruhi patriarki masa lampau yang lebih teruk, jadi keupayaan untuk memilih merupakan suatu bentuk kebebasan. Kelemahannya adalah apabila pilihan-pilihan yang menghambakan wanita kini diberi nafas baru kononnya sebagai pilihan peribadi yang membebaskan; dengan mengenepikan hakikat bahawa patriarki, budaya popular, peruncitan korporat dan media massa semuanya beriya-iya menyalahgunakan pilihan wanita untuk keuntungan mereka sendiri.

Pornografi dan pelacuran telah dijenamakan semula sebagai kebebasan seksual. Pembedahan kosmetik dan solekan telah dijenamakan semula sebagai keinginan peribadi. Sexual objectification (layanan terhadap seseorang hanya sebagai alat untuk kepuasan seksual) telah dijenamakan semula sebagai pemerkasaan peribadi. Malah perkahwinan, dan tindakan mengambil nama suami, kini sedang dibina semula sebagai pilihan feminis. Semua ini berlaku namun wanita masih menjadi mangsa diskriminasi sistematik pada dasar yang sama yang digunakan untuk pemerkasaan.

Wanita masih terpaksa menghadapi tahap keganasan seksual yang tinggi dan berjuta-juta wanita di seluruh dunia masih tidak mempunyai perlindungan undang-undang yang logik seperti rogol dalam perkahwinan. Aktivis masih berjuang di seluruh dunia untuk hak wanita dan gadis untuk tidak dicacatkan (mutilation) dan diekspoitasi. Pornografi dan pemerdagangan wanita dan kanak-kanak perempuan berkembang pesat terutamanya dalam eksploitasi seksual. Menyokong pilihan yang mengukuhkan institusi-institusi ini bermaksud untuk  mengabaikan jumlah tinggi wanita di seluruh dunia yang masih menjadi mangsa kepada penindasan dan ketidaksamaan hak.

Kita juga harus mengakui bahawa pilihan tidak muncul dari udara, tetapi dibentuk oleh norma masyarakat yang mengelilingi mereka.

Kami tidak tahu sama ada pilihan peribadi ini dibuat kerana patriarki ataupun tidak. Dalam banyak kes, budaya kini membina pemikiran di mana wanita mendapat keinginan, kepuasan dan kebahagiaan dengan memenuhi peranan yang lelaki inginkan. Walaupun pilihan ini tidaklah dipaksa, kepercayaan bahawa wanita sedang menjalankan hak mereka hanyalah sebuah ilusi, jika dia tidak bertanya pada diri sendiri tentang sebab mengapa pilihan yang “membebaskan” ini dibuat. Walaupun dia memakai solekan untuk keinginannya sendiri, adakah dia sedar bahawa keinginannya dibentuk oleh taraf kecantikan yang menindas yang dicipta oleh lelaki? Misogini boleh disebatikan dalam diri dan pilihan wanita boleh disebabkan oleh hasil pengaruh patriarki terhadap wanita tanpa disedari mereka. Memandangkan tiada cara untuk mengetahui perkara ini, choice feminism menjadi cara mudah bagi institusi-institusi ini untuk menunjukkan kononnya semua wanita sedar akan hak mereka untuk memilih dan membebaskan diri mereka daripada tekanan sosial ini.

Namun, walaupun choice feminism menyatakan bahawa pilihan wanita dalam masyarakat liberal bebas daripada patriarki, feminisme jenama mereka juga telah menerima banyak perhatian dalam budaya kini sehingga memasuki masyarakat di mana kaum wanita sememangnya masih lagi dibelenggu oleh budaya patriarki ini. Video “My Choice” yang dilancarkan oleh Vogue India telah menjadi popular dengan ikon popular, Deepika Padukone menggambarkan pemerkasaan wanita melalui beberapa pilihan. Ini sangat ironik kerana video itu dilancarkan oleh industri yang menyokong taraf kecantikan yang seksis; dan membingungkan, kerana India mempunyai budaya keganasan seksual dan epidemik rogol yang tidak terkawal. Sesetengah pilihan itu bukan setakat mengukuhkan lagi penindasan wanita dalam masyarakat yang konservatif, tetapi wanita yang terperangkap dalam persekitaran ini sering tidak diberikan kebebasan untuk memilih.

Kita tidak patut menyokong kerangka feminis yang mempersoalkan pilihan yang mengukuhkan lagi penindasan wanita dan dikecualikan daripada kritikan. Kritikan ini bukan serangan peribadi terhadap sifat wanita ini, tetapi langkah untuk memeriksa pandangan dunia feminis mereka.

Realiti yang tidak dapat dielakkan adalah semua wanita melalui liku-liku kehidupan yang berbeza dan ini membataskan kita daripada menjadi adil kepada wanita lain yang tidak melalui pengalaman yang sama. Pergerakan feminis kita mempunyai keluk pembelajaran di mana ramai wanita berjuang untuk didengari dan dimasukkan ke dalam naratif feminis. Choice feminists mempunyai alasan untuk berhati-hati terhadap keluk pembelajaran ini: para feminis perlu diwajibkan untuk mengkritik satu sama lain kerana membuat pilihan yang secara tidak sengaja tidak feminis.

Tetapi ini bukanlah petanda kemerosotan solidariti feminis. Ini adalah pergerakan yang diperlukan dalam merumuskan versi solidariti yang dapat meningkatkan kedudukan wanita. Walaupun feminis mungkin berbeza dalam pendekatan terhadap feminisme, tiada yang menafikan bahawa kita berkongsi matlamat yang sama dalam mencapai kesetaraan sosial, politik dan ekonomi. Satu-satunya cara untuk mencapai kesetaraan yang tulen adalah dengan mengatasi pelbagai penindasan patriarki yang dialami oleh wanita yang berlainan latar belakang. Sebagai sebuah pergerakan, kita tidak boleh sewenang-wenangnya mengenepikan seorang wanita sebagai tidak feminis, namun kita boleh membahaskan pilihan mana satu yang akan membantu perjuangan ke arah kesetaraan kita.

Kritikan ini bukan hanya sebahagian daripada proses pembelajaran, jika dilakukan kepada tokoh-tokoh yang dihormati ramai seperti Emma Watson, akan memberi kesan kepada seluruh masyarakat. Dalam pergaduhan antara Nicki Minaj dan Taylor Swift di Twitter, Minaj telah mengkritik MTV Video Music Awards kerana terdapat unsur-unsur kecenderungan budaya yang memihak kepada taraf kecantikan dan seksual yang dipamerkan supermodel. Dalam apa yang dikatakan sebagai serangan terhadap pencalonannya, Swift yang mengakui dirinya sebagai seorang feminis, menulis: “Saya tidak pernah melakukan apa-apa selain daripada menyokong kamu. Ia tidak seperti kamu untuk melagakan wanita sesama wanita. Mungkin slot kamu telah diambil oleh seorang lelaki…” Ketika Swift menawarkan pengalaman dia sebagai seorang artis berkulit putih, dia mengabaikan pengalaman Minaj yang melalui diskriminasi atas sebab taraf kecantikan dan seksual yang seksis sebagai wanita berkulit hitam.

Apa yang berlaku seterusnya ialah Swift telah diajar semula untuk memahami apa makna menjadi seorang intersectional feminist. Dia kemudian memohon maaf dan menulis: “Saya terlepas pandang dan salah faham, kemudian salah memberi pandangan.” Pembetulan pandangan dunia feminis Swift adalah disebabkan oleh kritikan dan laungan ketidakpuasan hati daripada para feminis dan penyekolahan semula Swift menjadi satu titik pembelajaran bagi ramai perempuan yang telah terlepas pandang penindasan wanita dalam golongan minoriti. Malah ikon feminis yang terkenal tidak terlepas daripada keluk pembelajaran ini. Gloria Steinem membayangkan bahawa penyokong Bernie Sanders yang terdiri daripada wanita muda hanyalah di sana untuk mengikuti lelaki dan Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie memberitahu bahawa perempuan trans bukanlah perempuan. Ianya merupakan reaksi daripada feminis yang membuatkan kedua-dua ikon ini untuk mendalami semula pandangan mereka dan meminta maaf secara terbuka atas keterlanjuran mereka.

Satu-satunya cara untuk kita memastikan tokoh awam dan feminis untuk menyedari  kembali keistimewaan mereka, atau untuk menyedari kesan daripada pilihan mereka terhadap wanita lain adalah dengan mengkritik pilihan mereka. Kita tidak boleh lagi memastikan perkara ini apabila ‘pilihan’ digunakan secara terang-terangan sebagai pertahanan untuk menamatkan perbualan. “Itu adalah pilihan dia,” “Dia tidak dipaksa oleh sesiapa, dia yang memilih untuk melakukannya demi keinginan diri sendiri,” atau “Dia bukan seorang mangsa, pilihan dia telah meningkatkan kedudukan dia” kini menjadi taraf unggul dalam menentukan nilai pilihan feminis.

Pilihan itu mungkin boleh memberi manfaat kepada individu tersebut, namun ia juga berkemungkinan untuk tidak  bermanfaat kepada kebebasan kolektif wanita.

Memandangkan feminisme moden menghargai pelbagai cabang feminisme yang mengakui bentuk penindasan yang dihadapi oleh wanita berbeza bergantung kepada identiti dan konteks mereka, choice feminism yang melemahkan konteks pilihan tertentu adalah membingungkan. Kita mahu membina satu solidariti politik, namun kita enggan bersama dalam membantah pilihan yang mengukuhkan lagi penindasan wanita yang berbeza berbanding diri kita sendiri.

Sekiranya penderitaan kita dikaitkan bersama, maka jalan penyelesaian kita juga haruslah sama. Asal usul gerakan feminis tidak pernah bermaksud untuk kebebasan pilihan hanya untuk individu yang terpilih, tetapi untuk kebebasan seluruh jantina sebagai kelas sosial yang terpinggir. Pilihan yang melemahkan pergerakan ini, walaupun boleh dibenarkan, tidak patut diraikan oleh feminis.

Claiming Space

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When I got called, for at least the second time in just as many months, a Trans exclusionary radical feminist or TERF and a cis-gender sexist, I decided that was it. I’m giving up feminism. Inspired by an article I had read, called ‘Excommunicate me from the church of social justice’, I announced my intentions on Facebook. Where else does a feminist in 2017 go for public validation?

I was accused of being a TERF because I allowed a post that was potentially transphobic, and subsequently enabled a debate about whether or not the post or the person who posted it, was transphobic.

On another occasion, a party flier I designed for a queer women’s party using the word ‘womyn’ instead of women provoked a similar response by someone who quipped in the comment box, “Is this a TERF event? I wasn’t sure if the organisers intended it to be so. ‘Womyn’ is a trans phobic word”, and linked the post to an Everyday Feminism article on transphobic words cis gender women use without knowing it. I thought, well, it didn’t used to be.

It’s not that my group is exclusively lesbian or bisexual, but the people there are majority cis gender lesbians or bisexuals. The group caters specifically to that demographic. I became obsessed with what it meant to be intersectional and ideas around claiming space and why I potentially wasn’t intersectional enough in someone else’s eyes. I googled and read multiple listicles on how to recognize privilege, my own potential privilege, and looked for the answer to the question: do I have a right to claim this space – cis gender lesbian – without being accused of being un-inclusive?

I was having a distinct crisis of belonging. Being accused of being transphobic wasn’t just political, it was personal.

 

 

I run a few community pages and groups on Facebook. One in particular is for queer women, mostly lesbian and bisexual women. The group has never been self-consciously feminist nor has it been overtly politically engaged in LGBT advocacy. Where posts or discussions have covered those topics, it has only been instigated by a few members in between posts about Kirsten Stewart, badminton meet ups and discussions on coming out of the closet. Those posts tend to get one or two likes whereas the Kirsten Stewart memes are far more popular. But regardless of the community’s lack of a political consciousness, they have rightly claimed that space and more importantly, need that ‘safe space’, to live authentic lives. It is their right.

But the space was being questioned – the use of our language, the way we were identifying and defining these identities, even to the extent of how we saw ourselves. The group was never created to be exclusive, in fact the complete opposite, and the labels we use, however limiting are not definitive, they just were of the time and moment and what was important to recognize then.

I have noticed more and more content posted is trans gender related. Perhaps it’s easier to talk about someone else or feel engaged in someone else’s problems when your own are quite heavy. I didn’t question it at first. Maybe exposing lesbians to trans issues would make them more empathetic to the issues of being marginalized, maligned and criminalised, maybe it would inspire them to look at themselves, beyond themselves, to recognize their own issues there and to help them unpack their own prejudices, preconceptions and, dare I say, privileges?

There has been a mainstreaming of trans people’s issues with discussions about LGBTs focusing more and more on transgender issues. Where I think this is an inspiring and completely necessary thing, it has been problematic for me, admittedly, because I felt as lesbians, we were still not being seen or heard by society or even participating and acknowledging ourselves. For all intents and purposes, the lesbian community is still very much in the closet in Malaysia and still desperately need a space to exist as a unique identity and community all of their own and there’s nothing wrong with that. Having one space for a unique identity does not automatically make that space exclusionary.

With the focus on gender, sexual orientation was taking a back seat, especially in terms of identities being represented. After I re-wrote the group manifesto, which states what kind of group we are and what things we are interested in, I realized later, that I hadn’t even mentioned the word sexuality. Tides were changing and I was not sure what this meant for my identity especially since, I observed, that any critique of any discourse other than cis female and lesbian, was accused of being phobic. Was being a cis gender lesbian the new oppressor? Were cis lesbians more privileged than other queer people? Can’t we critique without being automatically labeled as phobic?

 

 

The way we deal with difference and engage in discussions about our differences is problematic. We still rely way too much on mainstream Western narratives and on binary languages. Especially younger people, whose access to feminist ideas is predominantly via an American biased internet. Where just a few years ago, young women were trying to disassociate themselves with feminism, the culture now looks like – “I am an intersectional feminist, your feminism isn’t as pure or good as mine.”

Like normal people, feminists make mistakes too. When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on trans women caused such outrage, I was annoyed because I don’t believe she deserved that kind of vilification. We all have an opinion and can criticize other opinions, but her unpopular views do not mean she is not a feminist and she’s been a feminist way longer than most of us. I’ve done my fair share of calling out and shaming, homophobes and sexist men mostly, and sometimes women who enabled them. But it’s important to recognize that outrage is toxic. Calling out culture, which often comes with public shaming is toxic and anti-intellectual. Feminism is not a one size fits all thing because women are diverse, and to not consider difference actually oppresses more people than liberates them.

While we should criticize sexism and homophobia and transphobia but especially as feminists, we should do so in a feminist way because passive aggressiveness and confrontational behaviours cannot be healthy, for anyone. We should also remember to allow for a certain amount of error, for people to catch up with the language and acknowledge that miscommunication occurs especially over social media and texts, and simply, that some people’s opinions may just differ from yours even when they are on the same team.

The point with all of this is – give people some space. Identity politics are changing faster than I can write this sentence.  Identity politics exists primarily to claim rights. Labels like ‘woman’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transwoman’ are tight little boxes that people have been forced into. There are also political reasons people claim these labels and they are not intentionally exclusionary. History, something we must all remember and study, has made them necessary. Instead these labels are protection and a sense of belonging and when the time comes that these boxes are no longer needed, for either safety or control, please give people the space to crawl out and at their own pace.

Because I am _______.

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Where do I start?

At what point of time did this begin?

I would have to take us back to the beginning of civilisation to explain it all

But let’s start from where this lifetime began

For me.

 

I was in mummy’s womb,

my heart started to have its own little beat

in it’s own rhythm that ran parallel to that of her own.

Mummy would work all day and night

Almost oblivious to the fact that I was in her belly.

 

Daddy was always away

Always out of town working hard to make ends meet

Mummy became lonely.

But when she remembered how her mummy had to go through the same thing

she was okay with it.

 

Once,

She lost her balance

Fell off a flight of stairs.

That hurt me.

Mummy was tough

No one to help her, she stood up

Brushed the dust off her knees

Assured that I was okay

And went on with her day.

 

The doctor told them I was a girl

They said,

“We’ll have another one.”

 

When I took my first breath of air

I took my time

Took my time to learn about this world

Savoring it through its smells and its sounds

Before I started relying on my eyes

My eyes that would see and judge those around me.

 

When I finally opened my eyes

I heard daddy whisper,

“She is so ugly, can I send her away?”

I learned that my eyes were too small and squinty

Not pretty enough

Whatever pretty meant.

 

I was bald until I was 3

My grandma would make sure people knew I wee, not pee

She dressed me up in hats with brown ringlets

I learned that girls had to have long hair

Looking like a boy was just an abomination.

 

As I began tottering on my own two feet

Mummy brought me to a store

To buy me my first baby loafers

Immediately, I picked up a purple and a red

But mummy bought me a pair of pink instead

I learned that girls had to wear pink and look impeccable

Mismatched shoes?

That’s unheard of in this time and day.

 

Back in kindergarten on days when the electricity did not work

Boys were allowed to strip naked

While the girls had to stay in their underwear

Because it was indecent and lewd.

 

In high school, my friends started dating each other

Girls and boys, girls and girls but never boys and boys

I always thought that was odd but never questioned it.

 

Another thing that I learned in those years

Was a lock that can be opened by many keys is considered a bad lock

But a key that can open many locks is a good key.

 

I was in a relationship where I strived on the approval of the other

Trying so hard to please

To be the person he wanted me to be,

I learned that a woman should not depend on a man’s approval

To lead the life she wants to live.

 

I was in a relationship where both him and I were equals

We shared all responsibilities but one;

I was the vessel that held all of our tears, angers and frustrations

I learned that a woman has to contain all of the emotional burden

Because men are just not wired that way.

 

I am now in a relationship where I am free

Free to explore, to make choices independent of the other

I was told that exploring my sexuality is inappropriate

So I learned that I should keep my mouth shut.

Legs shut.

They told me.

 

I learned and was told many things in my life

But Daddy told me one thing that really struck me:

I am only able to live this life because I am a girl

That, because I am a girl?

I won’t have the burden of taking care of my family

That, because I am a girl?

I can venture into the Arts

That my 9 year old baby brother

will never be able to make the choices I have made

because he is a boy.

 

Because he is a boy.

Because I am

A girl.

 

The Choice Feminist Delusion

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  “Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality,” said Emma Watson to a chorus of female cheers reverberating across the world. [1] If there was ever an archetype for the 21st century feminist, Watson would be its superhero and those words would be the battle cry for her fellow choice feminists.

Choice feminism has been so fetishized within popular culture that when women criticise particular industries, institutions and social constructs as patriarchal, they are often met with accusations of attacking the women who choose to participate in them. It doesn’t even matter what the choice is, the comments section would inevitably devolve into her personal right to choose. To say anything otherwise is to defeat her personal liberation, and to stampede on her choice is anti-feminist, so they say. They’re right, in so far as women should have the right to choose, but does it follow that every choice is a good choice for the collective liberation of all women?

The pitfall of this feminist blueprint is that it presumes that we live in a post-patriarchal world where every female choice made, is one that is made independent of the suffocating influences of the patriarchy. It presumes that a liberating choice made by women in first world democracies has no effect in entrenching the very institutions that robs choice from women in third world countries. Most importantly, it presumes that some choices are not made at the expense of the collective liberation of all women.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

 

The core belief of choice feminism is that any choice you make towards your self-fulfillment is a feminist action. The narrative behind that is noble: women’s choices were made for them under a more severe patriarchal past, so any ability to choose is a liberating one. The foible presents itself when choices that seem to personify female subordination are now being repackaged as liberating personal choices; despite the fact that the patriarchy, popular culture, corporate retail and the mass media are all clamouring to hijack the promotion of those choices for their own gains.

Pornography and prostitution are being rebranded as sexual liberation. [2] Cosmetic surgery and make-up are being rebranded as personal fulfillment. [3] Sexual objectification is being rebranded as personal empowerment. [4] Even marriage, and the act of taking your husband’s name, is now being reconstructed as a feminist choice. [5] All of this is happening while women are still primarily the victims of structural discrimination on those very same platforms that are being used for empowerment.

Women still face unbearably high levels of sexual violence and millions of women around the world do not even have the limited protection of common sense laws like marital rape. Activists are still fighting all around the world for the rights of girls and women to not be mutilated and exploited. Pornography and the trafficking of women and girls are booming global businesses trading primarily in sexual exploitation. To support choices which strengthen these institutions ignores the horrific number of women worldwide who still experience oppression and inequality.

We also need to acknowledge that choices are not made in a vacuum, they are shaped by the normative social forces surrounding them.

We have no way of knowing if these personal choices are made because of the patriarchy or despite of it. In many cases, popular culture constructs a mindset in which women find fulfillment, satisfaction and happiness from fulfilling the exact roles that men want them to. While these choices are not exactly coerced, the agency that some women believe they are exercising is an illusion, if she does not self-interrogate the reasons why she makes these “liberating” choices. While she wears make-up for her own personal fulfillment, is she aware that her fulfillment is shaped by the oppressive beauty standards perpetuated by men? Misogyny can be internalized and her choice could be a byproduct of patriarchal influences that she is not consciously aware of. Since there’s no way of knowing, choice feminism presents an easy cop-out that paints all women to be self-aware in a way that frees herself from these coercive social forces.

Yet, even if choice feminists can genuinely proclaim that the choices of women in liberal societies are made independent of the patriarchy, their brand of feminism is also taking over popular culture en masse which trickles down to societies where women are definitively not free from those patriarchal forces. The “My Choice” video launched by Vogue India went viral with a popular icon, Deepika Padukone depicting female empowerment through a series of choices. [6] Ironic, considering the video is launched by an industry that reinforces sexist beauty standards; and confounding, considering that India suffers from a culture of sexual violence and a rape epidemic that’s beyond control. [7] Some of those choices not only consolidate the female oppression in conservative societies, but women trapped in these environments are often not in the position to freely make these choices.  

We should not stand for a feminist framework where questioning choices that reinforce female oppression can be inoculated from criticism. These criticisms are not a personal attack to the character of these women, they are stepping stones to recalibrating their feminist worldview.

The unavoidable reality is that all women experience different levels of privilege which potentially barricades us from being fair to other women who do not have the same shared experiences. Our solidarity has a learning curve wherein many women are fighting to be heard and included in the feminist narrative. Choice feminists have reason to be wary of what this learning curve may entail: fellow feminists would have to be obliged to criticise one another for making choices that are unwittingly “unfeminist”.

 

 

But this is not a devolution of feminist solidarity. This is a necessary maneuver in formulating a version of solidarity that could elevate the position of all women. While feminists may differ in our approach to feminism, there is no denying that we share a common goal in achieving the complete social, political and economic equality of all genders. The only way we can accomplish genuine equality is to capture the different shades of patriarchal oppression suffered by women of different backgrounds. As a movement, we are not singling out individual women as unfeminist, we are simply debating which choices serve our cause for equality better.

These criticisms are not only part and parcel of an educational process, doing so to public figures that are greatly revered by many, like Emma Watson, has a spillover effect to the rest of society. In the infamous Nicki Minaj-Taylor Swift Twitter debacle, Minaj lambasted the MTV Video Music Awards for having a cultural bias in favor of the slim, supermodel-type of beauty and sexuality. In what she perceived to be an attack towards her nomination, Swift, a self-professed feminist, tweeted: “I’ve done nothing but love and support you. It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot…” While Swift was offering what was true to her own experience as a white female artist, she is ignoring the intersectionality of Minaj’s experience of sexist beauty standards as a black woman. [8]

What follows next is tremendous, Swift experienced a public re-education on what it meant to be an intersectional feminist. She apologised and tweeted: “I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke.” This recalibration of her feminist worldview was owed to the massive outcries and criticisms levied by fellow feminists and Swift’s public schooling acted as a multiplier force for many young women who have also not considered the complexities of female oppression for minorities. Even renowned feminist icons are not free from this learning curve. Gloria Steinem insinuated that young female supporters of Bernie Sanders are there to simply follow the men and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie purported that trans women are not women. It is the feminist backlash that made both of these figures recalibrate their positions and publicly apologize for their ill-considered stumbles. [9][10]

The only way we can compel public figures and everyday feminists to check their privilege, or to realize the far-reaching consequences of their choices to other women is to criticise their choices. We can no longer access this when ‘choice’ is flagrantly used as a catch-all defense to end conversations. “It’s her choice,” “No one forced her to do it, she chose it to do it for her own fulfillment,” or “She is not a victim, this choice improved her position” has now become the golden standard to determining the value of a feminist choice.

While that may benefit the individual, it may or may not benefit the collective liberation of women.

Considering that modern feminism appreciates intersectionality which acknowledges the different levels of oppression that women suffer depending on their identity and context, choice feminism which belittles the context of certain choices is perplexing. We want to build a politics of solidarity, yet we refuse to collectivize against choices that perpetuate the oppression of women who suffer differently than we do.

If our suffering is interwoven together, then our solution must be, too. The origin of the feminist movement was never meant to be about liberating the specific choices of individuals, it was about the liberation of the entire gender as a marginalized class. Choices that undermine that, while they should be allowed, should not be celebrated by feminists.


References

 

[1] Washington, A. (2017, May 3). Emma Watson defines feminism in her response to Vanity Fair topless photo shoot criticism. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/emma-watson-defines-feminism-her-response-vanity-fair-topless-photo-shoot-criticism-983295

[2] Bell, K. J. (2009). A feminist’s argument on how sex work can benefit women. Inquiries Journal. Retrieved from http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/28/a-feminists-argument-on-how-sex-work-can-benefit-women

[3] Neustatter, A. (2014, February 3). I’m a feminist and I’ve had cosmetic surgery. Why is that a problem? The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/03/feminist-cosmetic-surgery-low-body-confidence

[4] Berlatsky, N. (2014, October 7). Beyoncé doesn’t perform for the male gaze. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from https://psmag.com/social-justice/beyonce-91908

[5] Deitz, B. (2015, September 30). Why changing your name after marriage can be a feminist act. Bustle. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/articles/113010-why-changing-your-name-after-marriage-can-be-a-feminist-act

[6] Deepika Padukone – “My Choice” directed by Homi Adajania – Vogue Empower. (2016, February 10). Retrieved from http://www.vogue.in/video/deepika-padukone-my-choice-directed-by-homi-adajania-vogue-empower/

[7] Khan, S. (2016, March 23). What’s really behind India’s rape crisis. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/whats-really-behind-indias-rape-crisis

[8] Armstrong, J.K. (2016, February 1). Taylor Swift’s feminist evolution. Billboard. Retrieved

http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7423962/taylor-swift-feminism-impact

[9] Crockett, E. (2017, March 15). The controversy over Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and trans women, explained. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/3/15/14910900/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-transgender-women-comments-apology

[10] Contrera, J. (2016, February 7). Gloria Steinem is apologizing for insulting female Bernie Sanders supporters. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/02/07/gloria-steinem-is-apologizing-for-insulting-female-bernie-sanders-supporters/?utm_term=.1deec594fc77

 

Marilah Bersetuju Untuk Tidak Bersetuju

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Penterjemah: Azim Allaudin

Jika anda bertanya kepada dua orang individu tentang apakah yang mereka maksudkan apabila mereka merujuk diri mereka sebagai feminis, berkemungkinan besar anda akan mendapat dua jawapan yang berbeza. Ada yang akan berkata yang bahawa ianya adalah disebabkan oleh perbezaan daripada segi ideologi tetapi ianya tidak boleh dirujuk sebagai feminisme yang berlainan ‘jenis’. Perbezaan akan sentiasa ada pada setiap orang daripada segi bagaimana konsep feminisme dipraktikkan, strategi yang mana patut diutamakan dan juga kepercayaan dan pendapat yang mana akan dipegang. Di samping itu, perbezaan daripada segi pengalaman patut diambil berat dan bukan diabaikan. Dogmatisme yang membuta tuli tidak patut dilayan kerana ia tidak menghormati perbezaan antara individu.

Di sebalik perbezaan – perbezaan yang ada, terdapat satu benda yang semua feminis boleh persetujui iaitu mereka semua inginkan wanita mendapat pengiktirafan yang sewajarnya di dalam masyarakat. Sebelum kita menyentuh tentang hak dan maruah, kuasa dan kebebasan; sebelum kita berdebat tentang hak kesamaan, ekuiti dan matlamat – matlamat lain yang memesongkan kita daripada matlamat kita yang satu dan sebenar, kita perlu kembali semula ke perkara yang memulakan segala – galanya iaitu ketidakpuasan hati kita dengan status quo dan pergelutan untuk mencapai perubahan. Tersirat dalam hati semua feminis ialah hasrat yang kuat untuk melihat perubahan. Atas sebab ini, mungkin terdapat sesetengah yang ingin menekankan persamaan dan mengabaikan perbezaan kita.

Jika kita dapat menumpukan perhatian pada usaha untuk mencapai matlamat yang sama, ia akan membuatkan aktivisme secara pakatan (“coalition activism”) lebih mudah dijalankan. Tidak kira perjuangan feminis yang mana satu anda inginkan, anda boleh bekerjasama dengan feminis – feminis yang lain walaupun mereka itu feminis berunsurkan islamik yang mempunyai konsep yang berlainan dengan anda daripada segi jantina dan keperempuanan, ahli – ahli politik yang memakai topeng feminisme demi kepentingan politik, organisasi antarabangsa yang bertindak demi keuntungan kuasa – kuasa besar atau syarikat – syarikat yang hanya didorong oleh keuntungan wang. Isu hubungan feminisme dengan kuasa – kuasa yang berlainan dorongan sebenarnya merupakan suatu persoalan strategi yang menjangkau skop artikel ini. Berdasarkan pengalaman saya mengendalikan keadaan, saya mengakui bahawa perdebatan dan perbalahan antara feminis – feminis harus diketepikan jika kita ingin melihat perubahan untuk berlaku pada masa terdekat. Namun, kesempatan itu jarang-jarang berlaku dan disebabkan itu, usaha ke arah perubahan daripada segi fizikal dan material tidak boleh dijadikan satu-satunya tunjang aktivisme. Banyak usaha telah dilaburkan untuk membuka ruang bagi dialog dan perdebatan untuk membuka minda dan meningkatkan kesedaran umum. Ianya di sini, dalam perkongsian pendapat, di mana perbezaan itu menjadi semakin jelas.

Bolehkah / patutkah lelaki menjadi feminis? Adakah semua lelaki itu mendiskriminasikan wanita? Adakah sistem organisasi sosial yang didominasi oleh lelaki boleh diselamatkan? Adakah ada situasi di mana sistem partriaki itu adalah baik? Adakah kebebasan memilih itu benar – benar mendatangkan kebaikan? Saya sendiri telah terlibat dan menyaksikan debat – debat ini. Pada pengakhiran setiap perbincangan, ia jelas yang kedua – dua parti yang berlawan datang daripada kedudukan yang berbeza. Perbincangan – perbincangan ini seperti tiada pengakhiran kerana kedua – dua parti tidak sedia untuk mendengar dan menerima buah fikiran lawan masing – masing. Kebanyakan perbincangan ini selalunya diakhiri dengan ayat “Ini cuma pendapat saya. Marilah kita bersetuju untuk tidak bersetuju.”. Tanpa bantuan untuk tindakan segera (perubahan segera), perkara ini menggambarkan aktivisme dalam cara yang tidak membuahkan apa – apa hasil.

Saya ingin menerangkan kepada yang belum mengetahui tentang konsep kebebasan berpendapat menerusi kebijaksanaan ahli falsafah John Stuart Mill. Mengikut liberalisme sosial, kemajuan boleh dicapai melalui perbincangan bebas dan sama rata. Di dalam situasi yang bebas berpendapat, semua pendapat individu dilindungi. Mempunyai pendapat dianggap sebagai hak. Apabila hak kebebasan berpendapat ini dilindungi, kita semua akan boleh membentuk individualisme sendiri tanpa dikongkong oleh tekanan untuk mengikuti sesetengah idea dan pendapat sahaja. Mill menyokong pendapat yang setiap permasalahan dan percanggahan pendapat harus diselesaikan melalui perkongsian buah fikiran. Menurutnya, kekurangan perbincangan dan debat akan mengekalkan status quo dan menghalang kemajuan. Secara ringkasnya, perbincangan dan debat adalah bagus. Lebih banyak perbincangan, lebih bagus kerana ia akan membawa kemajuan. Anda boleh tersinggung dengan pendapat orang lain namun menurut Mill, anda tiada hak untuk tidak tersinggung. Apa sahaja perbincangan adalah lebih bagus daripada tiada perbincangan langsung dan semua orang berhak untuk mempunyai pendapat masing – masing.

Debat seperti ini bukannya diadakan untuk menyelesaikan sesuatu masalah. Matlamat yang sebenar ialah untuk mengambil kira pendapat orang lain dan mencari kata sepakat. Anda mungkin berasa yang ianya seperti sama dengan asas advokasi untuk kesederhanaan berpolitik yang semakin popular di Malaysia. Mereka yang percaya dengan konsep kebebasan berpendapat tidak meletakkan diri sebagai konservatif mahupun liberal, mereka mempercayai bahawa terdapat titik yang neutral dan tidak dipengaruhi unsur – unsur politik lain yang lebih sesuai untuk kemajuan.

Namun, sebenarnya ini merupakan asas penting liberalisme. Dari sudut liberalisme, kebebasan berpendapat datangnya dari konsep kebebasan liberal di mana kebebasan individu haruslah dilindungi selagi ia tidak menyekat kebebasan individu lain.

 Walaubagaimanapun, mereka yang berpegang pada ideal ini dan mengamalkannya dalam perbincangan feminis mengabaikan elemen penting feminisme iaitu kebebasan ini bukanlah matlamat yang harus dicapai. Nilai-nilai murni dan keutamaan merupakan persoalan yang sepatutnya dijawab.

Jika anda menghargai toleransi atau anda mengutamakan perkembangan feminisme agar lebih ramai menerimanya, jadi memperbanyakkan perbincangan ini adalah tindakan yang betul. Tapi, tindakan ini akan memesongkan perhatian daripada mangsa – mangsa penindasan, seperti yang berlaku dengan mana – mana ideologi lain yang mengetengahkan kebebasan individu.

 “Ia adalah pilihan saya untuk memakai alat solek,” mungkin memberikan kebaikan terhadap anda tapi apabila dihadapkan pada ruang perbincangan dan pendapat, ia bersaing dengan pendapat individu yang pernah dimusnahkan oleh industri persolekan. “Saya rasa bukan semua lelaki mendiskriminasikan wanita,” bersaing dengan kisah – kisah wanita yang ditindas secara ganas oleh lelaki. “Saya merasakan yang partriaki itu bagus,” bersaing dengan analisis terhadap sistem yang menindas separuh daripada kemanusiaan. Bagi mereka yang berkata dua pendapat boleh dipertimbangkan dan dihormati pada masa yang sama tanpa bersaing antara satu sama lain, saya ingin menegaskan yang pada masa kini, ruang untuk meluahkan pendapat secara bebas adalah sangat luas, jadi sudah tentu terdapat banyak persaingan daripada segi pendapat. Ada pendapat yang akan didengari dan manakala yang lain pula akan dilupakan.

Apabila kita mengabaikan mangsa – mangsa penindasan, kita sememangnya tersasar daripada matlamat utama sebagai feminis iaitu keinginan untuk mencabar status quo dan berjuang demi perubahan. Jika itu bukan feminisme anda, jadi apakah ia? Jika kita cuma menerima situasi sekarang seadanya dan menyokong pendapat yang membina status quo, bagaimanakah situasi akan berubah? Menjadi seorang feminis tidak menyeronokkan mahupun menyelesakan tapi kita mesti lakukannya demi perubahan dengan membina semula atau membaiki sistem masyarakat melalui pengenalpastian mangsa – mangsa partriaki, keganasan dan penindasan sistem kerajaan dan kuasa besar serta mencari alternatif.

Kita haruslah mencabar diri kita dan tidak berasa terlalu selesa dengan keadaan masyarakat sekarang jika kita hendak berubah. Meluahkan pendapat semata – mata adalah tidak mencukupi kerana akhirnya kita hanya membazirkan masa apabila perbincangan itu diakhiri dengan “setuju untuk tidak bersetuju”. Kita perlulah mencari talian empati yang merapatkan para feminis bersama dan rasa tanggungjawab dalam setiap perbincangan dan debat.

Pengalaman anda adalah kepunyaan anda dan ia menentukan pendapat yang bagaimana anda akan luahkan tetapi kita perlu bersatu atas nama feminisme sebenar untuk mengenalpasti kepayahan wanita, untuk mengetengahkan isu perubahan, dan bekerjasama demi matlamat yang satu. “Itu cuma pendapat saya, marilah kita bersetuju untuk tidak bersetuju” adalah sikap yang degil dan enggan belajar daripada orang lain maka menghalang kemajuan diri dan masyarakat.

Petikan ini hanyalah sebagai permulaan, sebuah penjelasan. Saya telah mengetengahkan kerisauan saya terhadap ruang bicara feminis – feminis dan telah mencadangkan penyelesaian terhadap isu tersebut. Saya sangat – sangat berharap yang kita semua dapat menjalankan perbincangan yang mengetengahkan bahawa semua pendapat adalah tidak sama dan feminisme sepatutnya mengutamakan suara – suara yang ditindas dan jarang didengari. Isu ini mungkin nampak remeh namun sebenarnya ia mampu menjadi masalah besar yang dapat memecahkan ikatan sesama feminis. Namun, apakah strategi yang patut dipraktikkan untuk memajukan gerakan feminisme hari ini dan akan datang? Kita haruslah memahami (neo) liberalisme sebagai satu ideologi kerana jika tidak, kita tidak akan dapat mengatasi semua permasalahan jika semuanya ditenggelami oleh sesuatu yang seringkas ‘kebebasan berpendapat’.

Tapi, ini semua hanyalah pendapat saya. Kita boleh bersetuju untuk tidak bersetuju.

 

**Baca artikel ini versi Bahasa Inggeris, sila klik sini.

Let’s Agree to Disagree

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If you ask two people what they mean when they say that they identify as feminists, you’re more likely than not to get two different answers. Some might say that it’s just a matter of ideological variants but this cannot simply be attributed to different ‘kinds’ of feminisms. From person to person, there will be differences across how concepts are practiced and applied, which strategies are prioritized, as well as what beliefs and opinions advocated. That’s just as well; differences of experience should be our starting point, rather than elided or ignored. Rabid dogmatism can be undesirable, unsustainable, and furthermore, disrespectful to difference.

Maybe, if there is something feminists can agree on, it is working towards raising the position of women in society. Before we get into discussions on rights and dignity, empowerment and liberty; before we split hairs over equality, equity, and other goals we might have been distracted from – prior to all of that, is a recognition that something is wrong here, that we are unsatisfied with the status quo. Implicit in our understanding of ourselves as feminists, is a desire to see change. With this in common, there might be a compulsion on the part of some to emphasize our similarities and disregard our differences.

 

In the launch of the ‘HeforShe’ campaign, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson “extended a formal invitation” to men to join the movement for gender equality. Does this accelerate or undermine women’s efforts?

 

If we focused on what we can do to contribute towards roughly the same goal, it certainly makes coalition activism easier. Wherever you stand as a feminist, you can work with other feminists; whether they are, say, Islamic feminists who have a different conception of gender and womanhood, politicians who take up the mantel of women’s rights to garner political support, supra- or international organizations that act in the interests of a global hegemon, or corporations that are driven by profit. The issue of feminism’s relationship to conflict-driven entities is, in practice, a question of strategy that is beyond the scope of this article. In my personal experience navigating both nominally feminist and non-feminist spaces alike, I will admit that splitting hairs sometimes has to take a backseat in the face of change that can be implemented and effective now. But those opportunities are few and far between, which is why working towards physical, material change is not the end all be all of activism. A lot has been invested in opening up spaces for dialogue and debate, to raise awareness and broaden minds. It is here, in the realm of opinion, that differences become glaring.

Can/should men be feminists? Are all men perpetuators of misogyny? Can patriarchal systems of social organization be salvaged? Are there situations where patriarchy is a good thing? Is freedom of choice empowering? I have myself been involved in and bore witness to these debates[1]. At the end of the discussion, it becomes clear that two opposing parties stand coming from completely different places. The discussion seems politically inert, because the two parties seem to be talking through each other, completely missing the other’s point. To end the debate, dealing the final coup de grace, someone suggests that, “This is just my personal opinion. Let’s agree to disagree.” With no recourse to immediate action (immediate change), this seemingly futile exercise justifies itself as activism in its own way.

 

Here I introduce to those unfamiliar the concept of freedom of opinion, which I will explain through the work of enlightenment philosopher John Stuart Mill[2]. According to social liberalism, progress is achieved through free and equal discussion. In the open market of ideas and opinions, everyone’s opinion is equally protected. Having an opinion is translated into an entitlement and a right. When this liberty is protected, you will be able to develop your individualism, unconstrained by social pressures to conform to an opinion and opened to all possible discussions so they may inform you. Mill calls for a celebration of those who go against received opinions for strengthening our certainty in truth or questioning falsities in our established convictions. Accordingly, it is the lack of discussion that maintains the status quo and atrophies progress. To put it simply, any and all discussion is good. The more there is of it, the better, and the likelier we are to progress. You can be offended by someone else’s opinion, but, as I’ve seen it quoted, you do not have a right to not be offended. Any discussion, after all, is better than no discussion at all, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

Debates of this kind are not held to find workable solutions. The point is to take into consideration everyone’s points of view and to find a middle ground. You might recognize this as underlying the advocacy for political moderation that is fast becoming popular in the country. Those who buy into the abovementioned conception of freedom of opinion shrug off allegiance to ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ alike, believing that there is an apolitical, neutral vantage point better suited to affect progress.

However, this is (and has always been) fundamentally a liberal position. Freedom of opinion is inextricable from the liberal conception of freedom, where an individual’s liberty should be protected as long as it does not infract upon the liberty of another individual.

But those who subscribe to this ideal and apply it to their feminist discussions miss an incredibly significant element of feminism: that this liberty has never been the point. Values and priorities definitely come into question here.

 

If you value tolerance above all else, or if you prioritise quantitatively expanding feminism so it reaches more people, then proliferation of discussion can only be a good thing. But ultimately, this will shift the focus away from victims of oppression, as any ideology that prioritizes individual liberty and choice tends to do.

“It is my choice to wear makeup,” might be a great thing for you personally, but once it enters the realm of opinion, it competes with the opinions of those who have been harmed by the makeup industry. “I think not all men are misogynists, that’s just my personal opinion,” competes with stories of women who have suffered violence at the hands of men. “I think patriarchy can be a good thing, but let’s agree to disagree,” competes with detailed analyses and proposed solutions to a system that oppresses half of humanity. For those who argue that two opinions can be considered and respected at the same time without competing with another, I say: this is a free market of opinions. Of course there’s competition. Some narratives come out on top, while others get buried.

When we shift the focus away from the victims of oppression, we lose sight of the only thing we might be said to have in common as feminists: the desire to challenge the status quo and fight for change. If that is not your feminism, then what is? If we simply accept things as they are and support opinions that reinforce the status quo, how will things ever change? Being a feminist is not fun, it’s not comfortable, but at the end of the day, if we say we want change, then it comes through a rebuilding, a community-healing; through recognizing the invisibilized victims of patriarchy, the violence this system has wrought, and seeking alternatives.

 

Public discussions on feminist issues are becoming increasingly popular. Are they ‘effective’? Image via [https://japleenpasricha.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/50-shades-of-feminism-a-panel-discussion-on-feminism-and-pornography/]

 

The point is to challenge ourselves, to be uncomfortable, to grow. Merely expressing opinions does not lead us to this. Merely debating does not lead us to this, because we waste resources only to end with an oblique “agree to disagree.” There needs to be a chord of empathy that ties us together, and a thread of responsibility underlying every discussion we have.

Your experiences are your own, and they will inevitably color your opinions, but we come together as feminists to recognize the struggles of other women, to work towards change, to hope for a common goal. “That’s just my opinion, let’s agree to disagree” is, in its worst form, a stubborn refusal to learn from others that prevents us from ever moving forward.

This article is nothing more than a preliminary work, an exposition. I have highlighted the concerns I have regarding trends within local feminist discussion spaces, and have provided no cut-and-dry solution. It has always been my hope that we move ever closer towards more nuanced, critical spaces of discussion that recognize the fact that all opinions are not equal, and that feminism should prioritize the voices of those who have been marginalized. This issue may seem small, as I chose intersubjective disagreement as a starting point, but it can escalate and become a schism that prevent partnership, community, coalition building. But as I said, these are questions of collective strategy – how do we move feminism forward today and tomorrow? It is crucial we understand the totalizing nature of (neo)liberalism as an ideology here, as there is no way to play in the system that is not by the system, no route to groundbreaking change other than holistic revolution because all routes have been subsumed under something as simple as ‘freedom of opinion’.

But that’s just my opinion. We can agree to disagree.

 


 

Footnotes

[1] These debates are near fixtures on most discussion platforms. Regrettably, if you are not familiar with them, this article might not resonate, but I hope to address at least some who have encountered such or similar incidents.

[2] I refer to J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1959). Avalaible online here.

 

*Cover image via Mangal Media [http://www.mangalmedia.net/english//feminism-under-clouds-of-war]

Feminism: Trend or Movement?

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Hilary Clinton: the new face of feminism? Breaking glass ceilings?

 

There was a time around 2008 when the word feminism was met with a certain level of enthusiasm, or dare I say, respect.  The face of feminism, though not labeled as such at the time, was exemplified through great female leaders such as Norway’s first woman Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland whose appointment of a cabinet with gender parity set Norway towards equality reform. Since her bold move, the Norwegian government continues to reflect gender parity. As of 2008, Norway also began enforcing a gender quota requirement of 40% female corporate board membership in all public limited liability companies. Then, Brundtland was famously quoted as saying she had to sacrifice one generation of male leaders to take a step forward for women’s rights.  It is women like her who use their position of power to make changes that affect not only society, but also a generation. Now, let us fast-forward to the present, where the face of a feminist is Hillary Clinton – the same woman who stood by her husband as he committed adultery whilst in public office and lied to the American people and the world about it.

Feminism has entered the lives of everyone through social media campaigns, commercials and through every self-proclaimed semi-famous celebrity pronouncement declaring themselves a feminist for their 10 minutes of fame. In the past 2 years, the rise of advertisements and commercials targeted towards the supposed empowerment of the female demographic is abominable.  How on earth did the decision to show your nipples or shave your body hair give rise to an actual feminist movement? Apparently, a woman’s need to shave her body hair means she has sold her soul, as a female razor is a tool of the patriarchy used to perpetuate a woman’s status as second class.  I still cannot seem to grasp the concept that exposing or covering my nipples makes me more or less of a woman.

 

Is the rejection of feminine hygiene products a pertinent representation of feminist values and ideals?

 

What really riles me up, personally, is when a woman berates another woman for choosing to use these so-called tools of the patriarchy, such as make-up. Is feminism just all about nipples, body hair and make-up? What I find most amusing is labeling the use of tampons and other feminine hygiene products as forms of patriarchal oppression. It is absolutely shocking that some women believe in this depraved notion – and thus began the “Free Bleeding” movement, a campaign suggesting that male-dominated companies secretly market these products to women to shame them for their periods.  This seemed too absurd to be true, until I stumbled upon a few pictures on social media showing mass demonstrations of women menstruating freely. This repulsive display of stupidity is as unsanitary as it is ludicrous, but there it is: feminism, again, managing to turn a depraved idea into female heroism.

I sadly believe that feminism, with all its ideals, unbeknownst to society, has become a trend.  Feminism has lost its way due to over-usage of the mass media and pockets of society that fail to understand its true meaning.

Supposedly, feminism was a movement born to help women gain equal rights with men in every aspect of living.  It was born to help women smash the glass ceiling and also for women to be in more advantageous positions so that their voices can be heard. The movement we witness today seems to deviate from addressing the important issues that continue to pervade women’s lives around the globe, such as female genital mutilation, marital rape, and child marriage, to name a few.

 

Image via Buzzfanzine.com [http://www.buzzfanzine.com/nike-hijab-faces-media-backlash-cashing-subjugation-domination-oppression-women/]

  

Radical feminism has become a Western social movement that places importance on frivolous and tedious issues. It has also become a platform for women to chastise other women for having different opinions or the choice to simply not subscribe to the feminist majority. This has been exemplified, as of late, by Western women criticizing Muslim women for their decision to don the hijab.  Society appears to have begun condoning personal attacks on women who choose to wear the hijab in the West. A woman who chooses to dress modestly is not necessarily under subjugation, but she has made the decision using her faith to unshackle herself from worldly desires. Nuns wear habits, Franciscans wear hooded robes and the Amish don hats and bonnets – so why is it that these women do not receive the wrath of these so-called feminists?

These self-identifying feminists claim they are the saving women of the Muslim faith from their oppression, but shaming someone for their overt modesty or lack of it, whilst boiling their choices down to oppression, denies them the power and faculty in the same way men have been denying women of their agency and humanity for generations.

Feminism, as quoted in the Oxford dictionary is, “The advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”. Equality of the sexes is a battle worth fighting for, for the sake of young girls (and boys). The battle, however, cannot be won if feminism remains a social movement. States play an important role in determining the basic and equal rights of their women. Nations such as Norway, France and Canada that boast gender parity in their cabinets are able to create change for women by creating reforms on matters such as birth control, paid maternity leave, marital rape, and female genital mutilation. Changes will be more impactful from people in higher positions of society who can utilise their political influence to create change in society or, at the very least, increase awareness pertaining to these issues.

Protesting in unison does bring like-minded people together; however, real change can only be implemented if feminism or issues pertaining to feminism are put forth on a higher platform.  A woman’s freedom of choice is indeed important, but does our female society really need help in deciding if they should use make-up, or do we need to raise awareness to inevitably affect change for our generation of women and the attitudes towards us?

Feminism needs to remain a global issue and it is time for people in more developed countries to move forward by lending a voice to women in less fortunate circumstances.  We still need feminism as it is more than a gender issue; it is an issue of our humanity.  If you’re still asking why we still need feminism – as Josh Whedon famously said when questioned on why he captures such strong female characters: “It’s because you are still asking me that question.”

 

The Other ‘C’ Word

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“Makeup doesn’t actually mean anything – it’s simply makeup. It’s about… what makes me happy when I look in the mirror… it’s about the face I choose to show the world, and what I choose to say,” she explains in this promotional video for the makeup brand: [https://vimeo.com/187957816]

  

Last October, No.7, a cosmetics brand of UK pharmacy chain Boots, sent waves through the feminist world with the introduction of its unlikely new brand ambassador—the acclaimed writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her appointment was especially noteworthy as it came right on the heels of Alicia Keys’ public decision to stop wearing make-up. It seemed a little counterintuitive for a renowned feminist like Adichie to endorse make-up so fervently, and so, more than helping No.7 put more lipstick on people’s lips, Adichie’s new position has also revived the debate on the relevance of make-up in the feminist movement, inspiring media outlets to publish articles with headlines like “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the feminist who sells make-up” and “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Proves Feminist Can Rock Make-Up, Too”.

While Keys’ take on make-up might seem like the more obvious feminist stance, Adichie is convinced that her advocacy and love for make-up is no less feminist than Keys’ rejection of it. According to Adichie, both she and Keys are actually acting on the same (feminist) instinct—being the version of themselves that makes them feel real. While this means a rejection of cosmetics for Keys, it means the opposite for Adichie. The writer concludes almost every interview on her love for cosmetics by saying that, at the end of the day, it is up to a woman to decide if make-up works for her or not. All in all, she seems to argue, all that matters is a woman’s personal Choice, and make-up is in no way anti-feminist as long as this Choice is upheld.

 

Is Keys’ stance against makeup a stronger representation of her feminism than Adichie’s decision to embrace it?

 

This use of Choice as a feminist justification for decisions that might otherwise be considered anti-feminist, like the wearing of make-up, high heels, or the hijab, is becoming increasingly common in mainstream feminist discourse. Undoubtedly, respecting women’s personal choices is important, but it is equally important, if not more, to critically examine these Choices and the desires that inform them.

NO ONE is immune to making anti-feminist Choices, including women and/or feminists. Championing Choice above all else makes it easier for all of us to escape the need for deeper self-reflection and consequently runs the risk of eclipsing the bigger struggle for the equality of the genders. It is perhaps time we turned down the volume of the overwhelming rallying cry that is “Choice!”, and took a step back to consider how we can make better feminist Choices in order to advance the movement more meaningfully.

Many topics come to mind when talking about Choice: make-up, body hair (or the lack thereof), the hijab, high heels, the list goes on, but the topic of choice here will be make-up, as space does not permit for more.

Make-up or cosmetics, by definition, are products used (predominantly by women) to beautify appearances, and women have been applying cosmetics on their skin long before Cleopatra sported the first recorded cat eye in history. Living in an age where advertisers and the media are constantly feeding us happiness-sapping messages served with a dash of body-shaming, putting on make-up has become the quickest, least invasive way to get a boost in self-esteem.

Indeed, it feels good to look good, and some even say that it helps women earn more. So what’s wrong with wanting to feel good about how you look? It makes you more confident, more positive, a better worker, a better friend… it’s all good, right? Isn’t that what make-up is all about, empowering women by providing them with a quick boost of feel-good vibes? Well, yes and no.

 

Is makeup “simply makeup”, as Adichie suggests?

 

Yes, of course there is nothing wrong with doing something that makes you feel good, and it is completely up to anyone to do whatever they want with their bodies, regardless of how that might make others feel. But make-up is so much more than that. For starters, it is a booming multi BILLION-dollar global industry that was valued at “460 billion USD in 2014 and is estimated to reach 675 billion USD by 2020 growing at a rate of 6.4%.” The industry thus outpaces the estimated growth of the global economy by almost two and a half times, and with the average modern woman spending almost 450,000 USD on beauty products in her lifetime, the industry is not showing any signs of slowing down even as the world economy struggles to maintain its current growth. What magical engine spurs this industry forwards? None other than the industries that trade in images and have a track record of the sexual objectification and exploitation of women: advertising and media.

Countless studies published over the past few decades have exposed the detrimental physical and psychological effects that the ideals of beauty disseminated by the beauty and advertising industry have on women all over the world. This is no secret, and rising incidents of eating disorders among young girls are becoming a major concern in many countries. More than just messing with women’s body image (intersectional feminists take note), these industries perpetuate racist, classist, and ageist ideals by concertedly sending out the subliminal message that women need to look white, young, and spend lots of money in order to look good.

No.7 really hit the jackpot when Adichie agreed to be their new face, because now, with a highly influential, non-white feminist known for her incisive critique of sexism, racism, and colonialism endorsing their brand, there’s no way they can be faulted for any of the abovementioned crimes, right? In her interviews, Adichie also reveals that other than the tantalizing prospect of getting lots of free make-up, she got on board with No.7 mainly because she believes that “feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive,” and furthermore, that “it is misogynistic to suggest that they are.”

But isn’t the entire cosmetics industry a misogynistic enterprise out to milk women of their self-esteem and money in a world where we have yet to be paid as much as our male counterparts? Some might argue that looking well-groomed helps women fatten their pay checks and that this in turn contributes to the closing of the wage gap, but is it not a sick twisted world we live in where women have to buy into an industry that hurts them in order to earn a little more?

Are not feminists and feminism here to challenge all of this, instead of telling women simply that their right to feel beautiful should not be challenged?

Image via xojane.com [http://www.xojane.com/beauty/makeup/what-is-feminist-makeupping]

 

Adichie’s comment on feminism and femininity not being mutually exclusive has resonated widely with women, including myself (and being the writer that she is, it is highly quotable too). It is a poignant and liberating statement, but before embracing it wholeheartedly, we should also ask ourselves this: what has makeup (alongside shaving, high heels, and uncomfortably tight clothing) to do with femininity to begin with? Why do high heels, footwear that ironically compromises one’s mobility, express femininity? And why is most female/feminine clothing designed to be so much more uncomfortable and impractical compared to male/masculine clothing?

If we were to take a closer look at the conventional ‘expressions of femininity,’ we will realise that most of it, like the wearing of makeup, uncomfortable clothing, ridiculous footwear, and the like, actually physically inconvenience and, if I may say, oppress women. Yet, many, if not most, self-proclaimed feminists I know wear makeup, with some even wearing more of it the more they proclaim their feminism, saying that makeup empowers them.

But really, what does empowerment mean, if you can’t dig deep enough to look your own insecurities in the face and battle them into the ground until they no longer affect you instead of covering up your face to mollify them for the time being. Also, why is it that femininity and conventionally-defined beauty are almost synonymous? Yes, it is every woman’s right to be beautiful, but why must we want to be beautiful?

Feminism has told us that it is high time women subverted the notion that our value lies in our appearances, and that we need to teach women and girls that being pretty is not a prerequisite to being valued. There’s this quote I love: “If tomorrow, women woke up and decided they really liked their bodies, just think how many industries would go out of business.”

Knowing how toxic the concept of conventional feminine beauty has become, can my Choice to wear make-up still be a feminist Choice? Can it simply be artistic self-expression when it is predominantly used as a means for women to beautify themselves and get closer to the ideal of beauty shaped by insidious images? If it were truly for artistic expression, why aren’t there more people walking about with phoenixes (whatever they may look like; go figure) drawn over their faces? And most importantly, why aren’t there an equal number of people of all genders wearing make-up? Does feminism not urge us to question and challenge such discrepancies?

 

Image via The Guardian

 

To complicate the question of Choice a little more and move beyond cosmetic issues, we could perhaps also ask: whose Choice, exactly?

A grabby-handed man’s choice? That’s a clear ‘No’. A straight, cis-gender, corporate woman’s choice? That’s a clear ‘Yes’ for many. A transwoman’s choice? I think a good number of ‘real women’ might have their doubts (unfortunately).

How do we define this Choice, then?

Some straight, cis-gender women have advocated for appalling policies that restrict women’s access to healthcare, but should we respect their Choice and not speak out against their advocacy simply because they are women? It is undoubtedly of utmost necessity that the feminist movement opens its arms to as many people—especially women—as possible, but in our effort to be inclusive, we must also be discerning. We can’t really believe that women are immune to making anti-feminist choices simply because they are women?

To me, feminism is NOT about Choice + full stop. It is also about making conscious choices that do not aggravate the existing sex- and gender-based discrimination against those who identify as women.

Feminism has been and still is ‘a movement for social, political, and economic equality of women and men,’ and we must strive to keep that in mind before it turns into a movement that fights for women’s Choices first and only.

As mentioned above, I know many feminists who love wearing makeup, and I do not have a problem with that per se, but I do feel a little disappointed knowing that someone who embraces feminism is further perpetuating the societal perception that a woman’s worth lies in her appearance. I personally hate wearing makeup, and that is my Choice, but am I really free to make that choice when my boss implies that it’ll be easier to seal deals with clients if I wore makeup, left my hair long, and wore more dresses and high heels, like my other female colleagues? In a society where some women are forced to cover up by virtue of their gender, would not another woman’s Choice to wear the hijab make it harder for the former to live out her own?

Here, we must again ask ourselves some difficult questions: whose Choice is prioritised more in the above cases, and why? The woman whose Choice so happens to coincide with society’s expectations of her, or the woman who feels constricted by gender roles and societal expectations?

 

Image via Wonderfeminists [https://wonderfeminists.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/i-need-feminism-because/]

 

When Adichie, an empowered, educated, influential woman, decided to become the ambassador of a cosmetics brand, did she not consider what her support of the beauty industry would mean to impressionable young women and girls? As a young woman, I would love to be able to choose to not have my senses assaulted by images that tell me I need to wear make-up to be beautiful and valued, but do I have an option, really?

It would be apt to conclude with a few words a fellow feminist and valued friend, Geetha Anbalagan, has shared with me:

“Looking within is tough work, but it’s often the most important aspect in this fight for equality.

Feminism, as with anything else that requires any critical thinking, will naturally lead us back to the questioning of our personal choices. We’re all capable and should be capable of making choices, even when they hurt us—that’s a right we all get—but when we stop questioning these choices, well then, we have a problem, whether with regard to feminism or not.

If people who embrace feminism think that they’re being alienated because their choices are being questioned, then they need to ask themselves why they are not okay with being questioned. Everything we do, everything we say, and every choice we make in life should be questioned, if not by ourselves then by others. Because that’s the difficult part in life: asking ourselves why we do what we do and what will happen if we changed that. If we’re shaken every time our choices are questioned, then that says something about the choices we make.”

The critical questioning of women’s choices should not be misconstrued as elitist shaming. We have one common goal—dismantling the patriarchy, and it is our duty to keep ourselves and others in check to make sure that we are moving forwards instead of backwards. No one is trying to push women away from this fight, but we must all take steps to ensure that the fight is strong and from all fronts. Feminism has brought us a long way from where we were a century ago—many things have changed for the better since—and I certainly hope that the obsession with Choice will not push us in the opposite direction.

 


References:

  1.  Feminist writer Chimamanda Adichie is now the face of a drugstore makeup brand. https://qz.com/813708/nigerian-writer-chimamanda-adichie-is-now-the-face-of-british-drugstore-beauty-brand-boots-no7/
  2.  Alicia Keys: Time to Uncover. http://www.lennyletter.com/style/a410/alicia-keys-time-to-uncover/
  3.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the feminist who sells make-up. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-37676472
  4.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Proves Feminist Can Rock Make-Up, Too. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-make-up_us_58135b5de4b0390e69cf7b87
  5.  Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie fronts beauty campaign with an empowering messagehttp://mashable.com/2016/10/20/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-makeup/#ThGPD1lgBmqR
  6.  How a Little Lipstick Could Add Thousands to Your Paycheckhttp://fortune.com/2016/05/19/makeup-more-money/
  7.  Research and Markets: Global Cosmetics Market 2015-2020: Market was $460 Billion in 2014 and is Estimated to Reach $675 Billion by 2020. http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150727005524/en/Research-Markets-Global-Cosmetics-Market-2015-2020-Market
  8.  Global GDP growth in 2015 was 2.63%: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG
  9. Forecasted growth of the global economy until 2020 is just below 3%: https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25823/9781464810169.pdf
  10.  “The Beauty Breakdown.” https://stephns.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/thebeautybreakdown-newsweek.jpg 
  11. SUBDUED DEMAND, DIMINISHED PROSPECTS. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/weo/2016/update/01/
  12.  10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White. http://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/when-beauty-equals-white/
  13.  The Cosmetics Racket: Why the Beauty Industry Can Get Away with Charging a Fortune for Makeup. http://www.alternet.org/story/148140/the_cosmetics_racket%3A_why_the_beauty_industry_can_get_away_with_charging_a_fortune_for_makeup
  14.  “Viral video: Why women pants have good-for-nothing pockets?” http://english.fashion101.in/news/FAS-FEV-women-pants-with-no-pockets-fashion-india-5482706.html
  15.  I can’t remember how many times I’ve watched this and it still gives me goosebumps: “Dustin Hoffman on TOOTSIE and his character Dorothy Michaels.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xPAat-T1uhE
  16.  Women’s Health: Yet Another Issue Sarah Palin is Out of Touch On. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cecile-richards/add-womens-health-to-the_b_131186.html

Handshakes and Empathy: Personal Experiences as a Woman in Corporate Malaysia

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As a woman working in the Malaysian corporate sector, I have mixed feelings about anyone claiming that increased education and labour participation of Malaysian women meant equality.

In the short time that I have been working in Malaysia – about 3 years – I have experienced a range of instances of sexism: some would be categorised as ‘micro-aggressions’ (a casual degradation of a marginalised group) while others were so obvious that it shocked me and my colleagues. The latter came in the form of a meeting with some clients where the predominantly male client team would avoid eye contact with my – predominantly female – team. This was unusual on several levels: i) As a Malaysian professional, I am keenly aware of religious practices that discourage physical interaction between unmarried men and women. My team was aware of this and did not initiate handshakes. However, throughout our meeting, our male counterparts would avoid eye-contact with female team members even when they were leading discussions and negotiations

 ii) Instead of eye-contact or acknowledgement of our presence, the client would instead focus his attention and direct his questions to our male colleagues, while female leaders would respond. It became a game of eye-contact ping pong. Both my male and female colleagues left the meeting feeling out of sorts – what just happened? Was it accidental or was it deliberate? Were our male colleagues responsible for speaking up against it and would it have been appropriate to do so? In my discussions with colleagues from different religious and racial backgrounds since this incident, no one has been able to come to a conclusion about what it was about and what would have been an appropriate response.

 

Image from themalaymailonline.com

However, more often than not, my experience with discrimination in corporate Malaysia have come in more subtle ways – in off-hand remarks about the length of a woman’s skirt, penis jokes at corporate dinners, and calling women ‘bossy’ when they are responsible for dispensing instructions or leading a team. These off-hand remarks do not engender the same reactions as explicit expressions of gender bias (think of your misogynistic uncle – or auntie – claiming that a woman’s place is in the kitchen).

Instead, these remarks change the tone and environment in subtle ways – like an ice pick, it chips away at a woman’s level of comfort among her colleagues, making her self-conscious about issues that may not affect her male colleagues. To the men – and women – making these comments, women see you. We hear you. And we remember.

Nonetheless, in my discussions with men and women on this topic, I am convinced that the majority of people do not make those remarks with malicious intent. Regardless of intent, the women listening will remember these remarks because they were so pointed at a particular gender.

I’ve found a good test to understand whether a comment is sexist or not: Think about the last time you heard someone call a woman ‘bossy’. What prompted such a reaction? Was she being authoritative and unyielding? Did she seem to lack empathy? Or did she simply provide instructions for a task?

Now think about how you’d describe a male manager or colleague providing a similar set of instructions in a similar fashion. Would he be considered bossy? Or would he be considered decisive, assertive, and straight-forward?


 

Image from themalaymailonline.com

 

In view of my own experiences, I was curious to understand what other friends and colleagues thought about sexism in the workplace. I asked several young professional women, “Have you ever experienced discrimination due to your gender?” The overwhelming answer was ‘YES’. Some cited instances of explicit sexism:

Jane*, a female tech start-up founder, detailed to me a situation where she was meeting a prospective partner with her co-founder, only to have the partner talk about being hungover from a late night, calling her ideas ‘irrelevant’ and ‘dumb’ before turning to her male co-founder to insist that they adjourn for drinks at the bar to ‘do business’.

Other professional women were more affected by a lack of female leadership within their teams and, by extension, a lack of female role models. They noted that male leaders were able to help direct and drive their careers, but were still – at least for now – unaware of the significant challenges that they would face as women.

Another woman I spoke to, Karen*, said she preferred female managers and supervisors because she felt she was able to connect with them more, while others like Ee Xin from Ipoh wanted more female role models to help drive her career. To these young professional women, female role models and leaders are critical to their development, as seasoned female leaders can help navigate the minefields around juggling motherhood with a career, being  assertive without coming across as aggressive, and not underselling their capabilities.

 

 

Curious about this feedback, I decided to pose a similar question to young professional men: “Do you think women face discrimination and have you observed it happening?”

The responses were interesting. One respondent, Dom*, could not provide any instances of discrimination occurring to his female colleagues, citing the fact that he was in a female-dominated team. Others like Timothy* were aware of implicit and explicit bias his female colleagues faced, but felt awkward about raising the issue within his teams. This unwillingness to raise – or lack of acceptance of – the issue of gender discrimination was consistent across the men and women I spoke to.

This lack of response begs the question: why are we and the people around us reluctant to speak up against sexism?

I have a few theories. First, perhaps we live in a culture where hierarchy rules and speaking out against colleagues – especially older ones – is seen as disrespectful and could result in jeopardising one’s career. Second, my experience of working in Malaysia has revealed Malaysians to be wary of confrontation. Approaching someone for something they said or did is often seen as disrespectful.

Nevertheless, it remains important for those of us experiencing sexism or observing it to be proactive about raising the issue. In my experience, two methods have worked to highlight when someone is saying sexist things or being sexist: stating the situation for what it is, and questioning someone’s words or behaviour.

Stating the situation simply involves calling out sexist behaviour for what it is – when a colleague passes an off-hand comment about women’s bodies, I simply respond with, “I think that is inappropriate. I would like us to focus on the situation at hand.” For me, this has worked by allowing me to highlight that whatever they were saying or doing is inappropriate (and often, sexist), but also to quickly re-focus the discussion onto what we’re really here for – to do our jobs. By doing this, the person I address realises what they just said, is aware that I do not find such behaviour or language appropriate, and that our current interaction is not the time and place to begin an argument. Similarly, questioning someone’s words or behaviour allows me to highlight their words and behaviour and places the onus on them to respond to my question. It involves asking, “Why?” 

“Why do you say that?”

“Do you think that is appropriate? Why?”

“Is that the right word to use? Why?”

Asking questions allows me to highlight their behaviour without confronting them with, “I think you’re being sexist.” It is subtle but assertive, and suited to an environment where confrontation is frowned upon. Thus far, both methods have worked for me. Then again, I have not had the misfortune of working with colleagues who are staunch sexists and I hope I never have to.

However, my methods of coping are far from the only ones available and may not be appropriate for everyone. I’d like to hear from you about how you’ve coped with sexist colleagues or sexist statements. How did you deal with the incident? What did you say? Were you able to prompt a change in behaviour?

In light of these issues, a recent Harvard Business Review article on how differently venture capital firms speak about male and female entrepreneurs is highly relevant. The authors ended on a rather ominous tone – the gender stereotyping and sexism in VC’s “isn’t only damaging for women entrepreneurs; it’s potentially damaging for society as a whole”. It’s a message we should heed as corporate Malaysians as well.

Note:

* Not their real names

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