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Feminism and the Invisible Capitalist Leash

Feminism and the Invisible Capitalist Leash

thegblogteam 1 comments

 

Feminism is synonymous with the emancipation of women and other oppressed minorities from all aspects, be it within social contexts and cultures or economic and political spheres. Since its emergence in the 1980s, the feminist movement in Malaysia has worked very hard, from providing shelters to protect women and children from domestic violence, to creating systemic legal reforms such as the passing of the 1994 Domestic Violence Act and the inclusion of “gender” under Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution in 2001 to fight against gender discrimination.

While these are big milestones, victory is far beyond our reach. At the very core, Malaysian women are still expected to be feminine and to aim for marriage and motherhood; while our men are taught to be masculine and to be strong, superior figures devoid of sentiment and weaknesses. We are taught that gender and sexuality only exist in a binary and any deviation from that accepted binary is unnatural. In the previous general election (GE13), one of the Barisan Nasional party manifestos was “to provide women with the choice of being at the forefront of business and innovation, without giving up their natural instincts as homemakers”.

Unfortunately, our toxic and ignorant political landscape is not the only challenge faced by the Malaysian feminist movement in the ongoing battle to create an egalitarian state. The silent yet deadly mercenary that is the capitalist nature of our economy not only hinders our ability to create systemic change, but also creates new forms of exploitation and inequality in Malaysian society.

 

Feminism has now become a vehicle for capitalist organisations to further entrench their efforts to build a free-market society. Feminist ideals used to be radical notions; these days, however, you can see feminist narratives being tossed around like confetti at parties, not just by famous public figures and celebrities, but also by profit-oriented organisations. Last week, our very own Malaysian feminist, Thulasy Suppiah wrote about the opportunistic nature of brand feminism which exploits the feminist narrative as a profit-making tool,  while at the same time being an effective platform to un-demonise the feminist label.

Honestly, that debate is quite advanced for Malaysia, as Malaysian companies have yet to even recognise the potential value of feminism; nor do we see our celebrities being aware of gender and identity politics.

But as feminists, do we celebrate the mainstreaming of feminism by western corporations and media?

Should we simply be grateful that people don’t look at feminists as crazy people? Or do we actually have a say in what portrayal of feminism is positive and supportive, and which will bring negative, latent harms to the cause as a whole?

 

Image via Free Malaysia Today: [http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/09/29/wao-slams-slimme-white-ad-on-domestic-abuse-victim/]

 

State-managed capitalism in Malaysia has made it far more difficult for feminists to fight against injustices because it gives corporations and private entities huge room to exploit femininity and  perpetuate misogynistic beauty standards, while creating a 500 billion USD cosmetic industry around it. Degrading advertisements which use women as subservient sex objects have been allowed just so corporations can sell burgers, tongkat ali drinks and slimming products. Sexist discussions have been allowed to take place on air on local radio stations. Television series which normalize domestic violence and movies which romanticize rape have been allowed to be shown to millions of viewers. All these happen without any form of government intervention, because god forbid, government regulations stop businesses from making profits.

To make things worse, capitalism also creates various splinter factions of feminism, or self-proclaimed feminists who are extremely individualistic in nature. Take choice feminism, for example. As writer Mai Mokhsein argues in her article The Choice Feminist Delusion, the personifications of women’s subordination are now being repackaged as liberating personal choices and hijacked by corporations and all arms of the media to gain profit. And because they are smart enough to brand their actions with the illusion of agency and empowerment of women, we will never know if these personal choices are made by women because of the patriarchy, or in spite of it.

Indirectly, capitalism takes away the responsibility of the government to create change and to fight for the emancipation of women, and places these burdens on individuals. To paraphrase writer Anna Leszkiewicz, mainstream feminism manipulates us into thinking that politics is personal. Worried about rape? Buy this nail polish that can detect drugs in your drinks. Concerned about unfair standards of beauty? Buy this expensive makeup and wear it for yourself, not for men. Troubled by the continuous oppression of women? Buy these t-shirts with feminist slogans on them for RM99 and beat the patriarchy in style. This takes away the awareness that politics and public engagement are necessary to create long-lasting and meaningful change.

The biggest harm in all this is that state-managed capitalism has rebranded the image of feminism into one where women comply with predominant feminine traits and cultural expectations, as exemplified by celebrities, and use their voices to speak up on easy, shallow subjects, in the vein of corporate campaigns. Sure, this makes feminism more sellable, but at the same time, it makes non-mainstream feminists who choose to propagate tough, sensitive issues look extremely unnecessary, distasteful and objectionable – thus, diluting the importance and depth of other issues on the feminist agenda. It makes it way harder for feminists to obtain support and fight for the other things that matter.

History teaches us that capitalism in Malaysia has entrenched social injustices in the past. Post independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman adopted the British laissez faire model of capitalism. This system, also known as free-market capitalism, allowed private businesses to flourish with minimal government intervention, in the hopes that corporations would self-regulate within the natural, unobstructed market forces.

This had allowed the British to dominate commercial agricultural production and export. While it managed to tremendously increase our per capita income to the third largest in Asia at the time, the people were extremely unhappy as poverty rates had increased amongst the locals. It took Malaysia one bloody racial riot in 1969 to realise that market regulation is necessary to ensure equitable wealth distribution for the people and avoid exploitation. The government then introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1970s to focus on thorough socio-economic restructuring of society in an attempt to reduce poverty and promote national unity.

Fast forward to almost 47 years later, one would argue that Malaysia has yet to achieve a desirable level of national unity, nor have we successfully eradicated poverty. The World Bank ranked Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) at number 37 out of 195 economies in 2016. Sadly, we also ranked 30th out of 150 economies on the Gini Index, which measures the extent of income and wealth inequality in society. Worse still, the Global Gender Gap Report 2016 ranked Malaysia at 106th position out of 144 countries, a testament to the magnitude of disparities and inequalities between women and men in our country.

This begs the question: does our unique capitalist economy really balance the rights of private businesses while focusing on wealth distribution to the people, as alleged by our former Minister of Finance II Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop? Is our capitalist economy failing Malaysians, particularly women and other minorities, as we witness the widening gender gap despite improvements to our overall GDP?

Is our capitalist economy bribing Malaysian politics with the promise of profit to shut down criticisms forwarded by the feminist movement on the manipulation and exploitation by the media and corporations?

The government has intervened before to put certain regulations in place in an attempt to address poverty. We don’t know how long it will take before we see certain forms of government intervention to address the current inequalities and injustices perpetuated by capitalist structures. Not that we’re all fond of government intervention, but it’s naive to assume that corporations will self-regulate and position themselves as change agents within society. After all, they are not accountable to the people. Corporations may try to sell feminism, but the purchasing power lies in our hands which should be held together arm in arm, to create a louder, coherent voice in demanding for a more equitable and just state, because we have a long way to go.

1 Comment

Elaine

October 12, 2017 at 10:26 am

This reminds me of the ideas written by Canadian authors Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in 2004 in the book The Rebel Sell. The thesis of the book is that counter-cultural movements have failed to effect any progressive political or economic consequences; thus counter-culture is not a threat to “the system”. Instead it becomes co-opted, repackaged and sold back to us.

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