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Leaning In to the Patriarchy?

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There are a lot of universal truths in Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s brand of feminism for the working woman, #LeanIn. In 2013, she published a book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead’ that asks women to “sit at the table”, or “lean in.” She laid bare the hard-hitting truth that women are socialized into being less successful at work through the effects of gender-normative behaviour.

Lean In highlighted the troubling leadership ambition gap between the sexes. Unmistakably, this gap manifests when women learn that they are being socially taxed for displaying the same “bossy” traits that men do in order to get ahead in the workplace. In response, Sandberg asks that we “lean in” by being more assertive, and to move towards a leading, rather than a following, role. With her establishment of Lean In circles, perhaps Sandberg’s biggest contribution is that she has empowered many women to admit that they want career success and helped them build the confidence that it takes to get there.

At a time when feminist discourse is not popular, Lean In has dominated the bestseller charts worldwide and made subtle gender discrimination within the workplace far more visible. With her easygoing, agreeable nature and her commitment towards being both a business leader and a full-time mother, Sandberg singlehandedly humanized the image of the “boss lady” who is stereotypically perceived to be an emotionally barren, unmarried, and unforgiving woman. With over 21,000 Lean In circles across 97 countries, Lean In feminism has taken off and soared amongst a following of quintessential 21st century working women. Oprah Winfrey goes as far as to dub Sandberg as “the new voice of revolutionary feminism.”


Image via Huffington Post


Aside from Sandberg’s palpable role model effect, perhaps the reason why Lean In resonates so well with the current generation is because it places the autonomy back in the hands of women, and gives them assurance that they could change their own fate. Lean In asks women to question their internalized sexism and modify their own behavior to adapt to the system. It doesn’t ask of them to dismantle the patriarchy that entraps them, nor its capitalistic structure that further ensnares them in their own oppression.

It is telling that the definition of feminism within Lean In begins and ends with achieving gender equality within the system. We need not challenge the structures of the imperialist, racist, capitalist patriarchy we live in; instead, we feed into it.

While the impact of Lean In, as well as Sandberg herself, has been positively admirable, as a feminist blueprint it is deeply flawed. As a self-proclaimed feminist manifesto, its approach makes it seem as if women’s lack of endurance and adaptability were the problem, rather than the systemic inequality. Structural barriers to access equal opportunities do not just disappear when women set their minds to do something with gusto.

It is rarely the case that privileged men within the system will merrily extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to women if only they had the determination to “lean in”.

For every Sheryl Sandberg, we have an Ellen Pao who leaned in, played by the rules of the system and ended up losing a gender discrimination suit against her Silicon Valley firm. So, as far as being a model for gender equality, Lean In is a small patchwork on a disintegrating quilt.


Image via Wall Street Journal


What is also glaring about advising “all women” to work within the confines of capitalism is that this is a platform that best serves privileged women, who often experience more solidarity with privileged men, than they do with poor women or women of colour.  With a personal worth just shy of USD 1 billion, two Harvard degrees and having been declared by Forbes as the fifth most powerful woman in the world, Sandberg’s approach to workplace empowerment is decidedly privileged as well.

She is privileged enough to be able to successfully negotiate her paid maternity leave plan, a closer parking spot and better working hours by leaning in. Women in low-income professions simply do not have the bargaining power that a corporate executive may hold with their superiors. OECD reports that 73.8% of the Malaysian workforce is composed of low-skilled labour and with female labour participation at only 53.6%, the majority of female workers would not be able to access such workplace benefits by leaning in.

Sandberg is also privileged enough to have had a supportive spouse who was willing to share the household work and the raising of their children (up until his untimely passing a few years ago). Findings from research up to the year 2000 show that almost 1 million families in Malaysia are being raised by single mothers who cannot access that same support structure. In fact, many women with spouses still do not have the privilege of support; the Malaysia Human Development 2013 report evidenced that most women had to quit their jobs in order to take care of their children and household.

Understandably, the under-representation of women in any sector is still a feminist issue. But to the extent that the solution fuels a capitalistic structure that sustains gender inequality in other ways, Lean In bolsters the patriarchal design.


Image via ABC News


Women are far more likely to have household responsibilities than men, but those work will never be compensated in a capitalistic free market. Women are overrepresented in low-paid service industries. Women are more likely to have financial dependants which curbs their ability to pursue educational and skills enrichment for career advancement. Women are more likely to be unemployed altogether and to be fully reliant on social security. Thus, to focus on the plight of wealthy, employed women within the capitalistic structure would not only be short-sighted, it subverts feminist goals by marketing a false sense of equality through abolishing the glass ceiling for women at the very top of their careers.

On top of that, a capitalist feminism pushes for a class bias that does not reflect the diversity of female aspirations in society, nor does it address the sexist attitudes displayed in the everyday treatment of female colleagues in ways that are not reflected by the pay gap.

While Lean In does speak to its male readers by asking fathers to take a bigger role in their home life, at no point does it offer men any admonition on how to unlearn their sexist thinking within the workplace.

The problem with gender prejudice is that it is normalized into one’s subconscious; that without active self-interrogation of one’s decisions, or having their privilege called out by a third party or through structural reform, it goes unchecked. That sexism trickles down to hiring processes, performance assessments, job promotions and the granting of valuable opportunities in the workplace. Lamenting for women to try harder in a system that systematically disadvantages them might be a pragmatic move, but with trifling payoff and a demoralizing milieu.

To lean in is perfectly rational. It pursues self-advancement in a way that is appealing, commonsensical and practicable. But what’s necessary is never easy. The social, political, and economic solution for gender equality has to rest on the elevation of all women through the dismantling of the patriarchy. What will make things easier for all women will remove the structural barriers for each individual woman. But the reverse is not true: what makes life easier for one individual woman will not necessarily make things easier for women at large. Instead, by leaning into the patriarchy, we may end up making it harder for others to revolt against it.


Feminism and the Invisible Capitalist Leash

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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.

Brand Feminisme: Eksploitatif atau Memperkasa?

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Penterjemah: Syahirah Wahed

Adakah anda bersetuju bahawa kesedaran mengenai ideologi feminisme kini semakin meningkat dalam kalangan gadis muda dan wanita? Jika dahulu perbincangan tentang perkahwinan bawah umur amat jarang namun, kewujudan media sosial memberikan masyarakat satu platform untuk mengutarakan pendapat dan kemarahan mengenai hal tersebut secara terbuka. Jika dahulu tertanam di minda masyarakat bahawa golongan adiwira hanyalah dalam kalangan lelaki “macho”, kini wujud pula adiwira yang berjantina perempuan seperti “Supergirl”, “Wonder Woman” dan kesemua ahli “Ghostbusters.” Adakah anda perasan akan kenaikan kadar bilangan iklan yang mempunyai mesej yang mengagungkan para wanita dan dipenuhi dengan pelbagai emosi, pada masa yang sama, mereka mempromosikan produk mereka sendiri? Atau adakah agenda ideologi feminisme ini dicanang oleh selebriti seperti Emma Watson? Atau personaliti terkemuka seperti  Kim Kardashian dan Ivanka Trump yang menggelarkan diri mereka sendiri sebagai usahawan yang menjadi idola wanita muda?

Istilah “feminis” yang digunakan dalam konteks artikel ini atau yang digunakan secara meluas adalah untuk melambangkan idea atau nilai yang berkaitan dengan pemerkasaan dan pembebasan wanita. Gerakan feminisme telah menjalani sejarah yang getir. Namun begitu, kita kini telah melepasi zaman di mana nenek moyang kita yang berani terpaksa berjuang untuk mendapatkan hak asasi manusia yang paling asas untuk golongan wanita. Perkara ini telah menyebabkan feminisme diketepikan dan dianggap sebagai tidak relevan. Feminisme juga telah diburukkan sebagai satu agenda berbahaya yang bukan sahaja setakat memperjuangkan prinsip keadilan dan kesamarataan tetapi juga menginginkan wanita menguasai dunia yang dimonopoli oleh golongan lelaki sejak berabad-abad lamanya.

Dengan adanya feminisme dalam kalangan selebriti dan iklan feminis korporat, kini feminisme telah diubahsuai kepada sesuatu yang lebih mudah diterima dan menarik malah terhadap golongan lelaki. Feminisme kini sudah mengikuti arus perdana atau sekurang-kurangnya hampir menjadi kebiasaan di Malaysia.

Mari kita perhatikan iklan korporat yang mempunyai unsur feminisme sama ada baik atau buruk. Masih ingat kempen dalam iklan Dove, #SpeakBeautiful (2015)?

Iklan kempen yang berbaur feminisme ini ditujukan untuk pengguna masa kini. Isi kandungan iklan yang penuh emosi itu berkait dengan tanggungjawab sosial korporat oleh syarikat itu sendiri telah dijadikan lebih mudah untuk diakses dan dikongsi melalui laman sosial seperti Facebook, Twitter dan YouTube. Kempen yang dibuat oleh Dove bukanlah sekadar iklan yang mengandungi mesej sosial yang berkesan tentang bagaimana wanita melihat diri mereka sendiri. Ia merupakan kempen yang mendapat banyak respons positif  daripada khalayak ramai dan seterusnya, kempen tersebut diteruskan dengan kempen Dove yang terkini iaitu Dove Real Beauty Campaign (2017).

Harus diingatkan bahawa Unilever PLC, syarikat yang memiliki Dove dalam kalangan jenama pengguna lain, adalah sebuah syarikat produk pengguna yang mempunyai kira-kira 2.5 bilion orang yang menggunakannya “untuk merasa baik, kelihatan baik dan mampu menikmati kehidupan dengan lebih lag”. Unilever menyertai syarikat-syarikat lain yang telah berjaya memjadikan feminisme satu komoditi dengan menggunakan faktor feminis untuk meningkatkan pendapatan. Usaha Dove untuk meningkatkan keyakinan diri wanita mungkin merupakan salah satu contoh positif pengiklanan feminis korporat, namun kita tidak patut mengabaikan fakta bahawa kempen seperti ini telah dijalankan secara strategik untuk menggabungkan aktivisme penjenamaan (brand activism) untuk mendapatkan sokongan pengguna untuk produknya. Dalam erti kata lain, inisiatif ini akan gagal atau tidak mempunyai masa hadapan jika ianya tidak memberi keuntungan.

Dove, sebagai contoh, tidak begitu mendukung matlamat feminis yang mencetuskan kontroversi seperti kebebasan wanita untuk menamatkan kehamilan yang tidak diingini. Mesej yang diterapkan oleh syarikat sebahagian besarnya ditentukan oleh faktor-faktor pasaran dan tujuan korporat tradisional: kewanitaan dalam pengertian tradisional dan apa yang dianggap sesuai dengan budaya masyarakat setempat. Keyakinan diri adalah komoditi yang mudah dipasarkan kerana ia adalah yang paling mesra pada agenda feminis.

Itu semestinya  bukan satu perkara yang tidak baik – kempen iklan positif dari Dove, kempen “Always’ #LikeAGirl”, kempen Nike Women’s Believe in More yang mungkin cenderung  mementingkan diri, merupakan alat bagi menjana pendapatan untuk syarikat besar dan bukan semata-mata satu usaha untuk mencapai cita-cita feminis untuk mendapatkan hak kesamarataan sosial. Namun, kempen-kempen tersebut adalah jauh lebih baik daripada omong kosong patriarki penuh dengan stereotaip yang pernah digunakan dalam sektor pengiklanan yang sememangnya salah tetapi diguna pakai kerana stereotaip terhadap jantina adalah lebih mudah untuk disampaikan dan digunakan untuk mempromosikan produk. Maaf, atau lebih elok saya katakan perkara tersebut pernah terjadi dahulu – jangan lupa bagaimana syarikat telah menggunakan kuasa pengiklanan mereka untuk mempromosikan golongan seksis dan pembenci waniti walaupun pada zaman sekarang, contohnya iklan Blackface Raya Watson dan iklan Reduction Butt Firefly untuk diskaun tambang penerbangan.

Sekiranya pengiklanan yang berunsur feminisme berupaya membangkitkan dan menyentuh emosi para feminis, maka golongan selebriti pula telah menjadikan ideologi feminisme ini sebagai suatu ideologi yang bergaya dan mengikuti perkembangan semasa yang perlu dihargai – atau sekurang-kurangnya brand feminism.

Lihat sahaja Kim Kardashian – selebriti yang mempunyai 100 juta pengikut dari seluruh dunia yang juga dijadikan idola oleh wanita muda kerana kejayaannya yang begitu besar, beliau berulang kali menyatakan bahawa beliau merupakan seorang wanita yang mengenali kekuatannya sendiri – segala perkara yang dilakukan oleh beliau merupakan satu pilihan yang diambil berdasarkan pengetahuan dan kesedaran beliau. Konsep feminisme  yang dibawa oleh Kardashian muncul bagi menyokong wanita untuk memperoleh bentuk badan yang sempurna (dalam DVD “Fit in your Jeans by Friday”) sambil memanjakan diri sendiri dengan makanan manis seperti kek cawan ( dalam Kim Kardashian’s Vanilla Cupcake Mix from Famous Cupcake – dapat diperolehi di atas talian, untuk pengetahuan anda)

Pilihan Kardashian walaubagaimanapun agak anti-feminis. Ayuh kita lihat contoh gambarnya dalam majalah Paper yang mengingatkan tentang seorang wanita Hottentot bernama Saartjie Baartman yang diarakkan dalam pertunjukan aneh kerana punggungnya yang besar pada abad ke-19 Eropah. Berlainan dengan zaman yang sebelum ini yang menganggap wanita yang berpinggul besar adalah pelik, Kardashian muncul di majalah tersebut bagi menunjukkan kebebasan memilih dan mencontohi struktur patriarkal dan misogini yang bercanggah dengan pemerkasaan wanita. Tidak sukar untuk melihat bahawa Kardashian mendapat manfaat sebagai selebriti  seperti yang ditulis oleh Andi Zeisler dalam artikelnya, We Were Feminists Once: “Individual celebrities are great at putting an appealing face on social issues. But the celebrity machine is one that runs on neither complexity nor nuance, but cold, hard cash.” (halaman 132-133) (petikan daripada buku Janell Hobson, “Celebrity Feminism: More Than a Gateway”).

Namun, ianya tidak tepat bagi kita untuk mengabaikan keupayaan menggunakan selebriti untuk membangkitkan isu-isu feminis: contoh positif yang boleh dilihat ialah Patrick Stewart yang menekankan terhadap keganasan rumah tangga, Michelle Obama dalam kempen ‘Let Girls Learn’ dan Emma Watson yang menyokong kesamarataan jantina. Tidak seperti Kardashian, selebrit-selebritii ini tidak bersikap individualistik dan mementingkan diri sendiri. Mereka mengemukakan isu-isu khusus dan sukar yang termasuk dalam lingkungan agenda-agenda feminis yang bukan sekadar masalah yang memberikan keuntungan atau populariti kepada mereka. Mereka telah memberi inspirasi kepada wanita-wanita muda untuk mengikutinya dan membuat pendukungan feminisme dalam isu-isu penting seperti keganasan terhadap wanita dan pendidikan dengan penuh gaya.

Tidak perlu diketengahkan lagi bahawa feminisme, tanpa mengira cabangnya, masih belum mencapai hak kesamarataan yang didambakan mahupun masyarakat yang adil dan saksama. Walaupun sudah banyak penambahbaikan telah dibuat untuk wanita dan kanak-kanak perempuan sama ada dalam bentuk kemajuan sosio-ekonomi dan perlindungan undang-undang atau yang lebih baik dari hak asasi mereka misalnya, masih ada perkara yang perlu diperbaiki. Sesetengah orang mungkin melihat pengiklanan selebriti dan korporat sebagai manipulasi prinsip feminis untuk mendapatkan keuntungan atau publisiti. Perkara ini tidak dapat disangkal namun kita tidak boleh mengambil ringan bagaimana jentera korporat dan selebriti juga boleh digunakan untuk melunturkan persepsi negatif terhadap feminisme dan membawa perhatian yang sangat diperlukan kepada subjek yang dianggap taboo atau jarang diperkatakan dalam kalangan masyarakat kita. Feminisme telah dilihat sebagai anti-feminin dan telah disalah anggap oleh ramai orang. Mungkin apa yang diperlukan ialah penjenamaan semula feminisme yang mungkin menjadi trend sementara. Perkara ini perlu diberi perhatian sebelum pihak syarikat dan selebriti beralih ke isu-isu lain pula, tetapi itu tidak seharusnya menghalang golongan feminis daripada memanfaatkan platform yang kini tersedia kepada kita. #MaketheBestOfIt.


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Brand Feminism: Exploitative or Empowering?

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There appears to be a rising “feminist” awareness amongst women and girls in this country – wouldn’t you say? Where there used to be very little discourse on issues  such as child-marriages and child-brides, there is now, thanks to social media who gave people a platform to express their opinion and public outrage. Where traditionally superheroes were generally of the “macho” male persuasion, we now see more female-led superhero flicks: think “Supergirl”, “Wonder Woman” and the all-female “Ghostbusters”. Have you noticed an increasing number of advertisements with empowering messages for women, replete with emotional appeals for a cause, while at the same time subtly pushing a product or brand? Or the feminist agendas that are now being trumpeted by celebrities such as Emma Watson? Or  well-known personalities such as Kim Kardashian and Ivanka Trump, self-proclaimed entrepreneurs who appear to be styling themselves as role-models for young women?

The term “feminist” in the context of this article is used rather broadly: to denote ideas or values associated with women’s emancipation and empowerment. The feminist movement has endured a difficult history. Now, of course, we’re past the times when our valiant predecessors had to fight for the most basic of human rights for women. This led to feminism being cast-aside as obsolete and unnecessary. Demonised even, as an agenda that seeks not for equality and a just and equitable society, but one that desires for women to rule the world and assume the throne of oppression – as men have for many centuries.

With celebrity feminism and corporate feminist advertisements, feminism has now been repackaged, if you will, into something far more acceptable and attractive – to even men. Feminism is now mainstream. Or as close to it as it possibly can be in Malaysia at least.

Let’s consider corporate advertising appropriating feminism, both the good and the bad. Remember Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful campaign (2015)?



Feminist advertising campaigns are designed for the new-age consumer. Relatable content containing emotional appeals that invariably link back to the company’s own corporate social responsibility, is made accessible and shared through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Dove’s campaign was not merely an advertisement with a strong social message about how women viewed themselves. It was an advertising campaign many people reacted to positively and actively participated in and which, to Dove’s credit, it has consistently followed-up with subsequent campaigns such as the recent Dove Real Beauty Campaign (2017).

We would be wise to note that Unilever PLC, the company that owns Dove amongst other consumer brands, is a consumer-products company whose products some 2.5 billion people use “to feel good, look good and get more out of life”. Unilever joins a slew of other companies that have successfully commoditized feminism by employing feminist causes to increase revenue. So whilst Dove’s efforts to address women’s self-esteem may be one of the positive examples of corporate feminist advertising, we would be remiss to ignore that campaigns such as these strategically incorporate brand activism to garner consumer support for its products. In other words, these initiatives would fail or never would have seen the light of the day if they did not promise to be profitable.

Dove, for example, is unlikely to espouse controversial feminist goals such as a woman’s freedom to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. The messages corporations adopt therefore, are largely dictated by market-factors and traditional corporate goals: femininity in the traditional sense and what is deemed culturally acceptable to the local community. Self-esteem is an easily marketable commodity simply because it is the friendliest on the feminist agenda.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – positive ad campaigns from Dove, Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, Nike Women’s Believe in More may be self-serving, revenue generating tools for big corporations and do not necessarily seek to advance the feminist ideals of social equity and equality. But they are infinitely better than the patriarchal nonsense that advertising used to rely on: gender stereotypes that are false but easy to convey and promote. Sorry, did I say used to – lest we forget how corporations have used their advertising power to promote sexist and misogynistic tropes even in modern times, here are a few select examples: Watson’s Blackface Raya advertisement and Firefly’s Butt Reduction advertisements for air travel discounts.  

If feminist advertising tends to evoke and rally emotional responses to the feminist cause, then celebrities have made it cool and trendy to embrace feminism – or brand feminism at least.


Consider Kim Kardashian – with 100 million followers worldwide many of whom are probably young women looking to emulate her success – repeatedly demonstrates that she has agency and is an empowered woman – everything she does is (or at least appears to be) an informed and conscious choice. Her brand of feminism would appear to advocate for women to strive for the perfect body (try her “Fit in your Jeans by Friday” DVDs) whilst treating ourselves to beloved sugary treats like, cupcakes (try Kim Kardashian’s Vanilla Cupcake Mix from Famous Cupcake – available online, just so you know).

Kardashian’s choices however are quite anti-feminist. Take for example her picture in the Paper magazine which was reminiscent of a Hottentot woman by the name of Saartjie Baartman who, in 19th century Europe was paraded around as a freak show because of her large buttocks. The image, whilst it appears to demonstrate an independence of choice, epitomizes patriarchal, misogynistic structures that are antithetical to female empowerment.  It is not difficult to see that Kardashian benefits from her celebrity and as Andi Zeisler writes in her article We Were Feminists Once: “Individual celebrities are great at putting an appealing face on social issues. But the celebrity machine is one that runs on neither complexity nor nuance, but cold, hard cash.” (at pages 132-133) (excerpt as found in Janell Hobson’s “Celebrity Feminism: More Than a Gateway”)

And yet, it would be nearly criminal for us to disregard the potential of using celebrities as poster-children for important feminist issues: positive examples include Patrick Stewart against domestic violence, Michelle Obama on her ‘Let Girls Learn’ campaign and Emma Watson advocating for Gender Equality. Quite unlike Kardashian, these celebrities are not purely individualistic and self-interest motivated. They forward specific and difficult issues that fall squarely within the ambit of the feminist agenda, not just issues that bring them certain kind of profit or popularity.  They have inspired young women and girls to follow in their stead and make feminist advocacy on important issues like violence against women and education, cool and trendy.

It need not be highlighted that feminism – all waves of feminism – has not yet achieved equality or a just and equitable society. Whilst many advances have been made for women and girls everywhere in the form of socio-economic advancement and better legislative protection of their fundamental rights for instance, there is work yet to be done. Some may view celebrity and corporate feminist advertising as the hijacking of fundamental feminist principles for monetary gain or publicity. This is true but we cannot ignore how corporate and celebrity machinery can also be used to neutralise negative perceptions of feminism and bring much needed attention to subjects that are taboo or under-represented. Feminism has been viewed as anti-feminine and misrepresented by many as misandry. Perhaps, a re-branding of feminism is exactly what is needed. It may be a temporary fad, before both corporations and celebrities move on to the next cause but that shouldn’t prevent feminists from capitalizing on the platform now available to us. #MaketheBestOfIt.

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.

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.



[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


[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


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.




[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.



  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

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