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Dealing with Depression: Q&A with Vizla Kumaresan

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Depression is one of the most common mental health problems in the world yet many still find themselves unable to seek help and support in dealing with their depression due to taboo and its intangible nature.  The National Institute of Health, Malaysia classified depression as the most disabling disease as people find it hard to empathize with individuals who suffer from depression.

Clinical Psychologist, Vizla Kumaresan talks to The G-Blog about dealing with depression – from how to distinguish depression from common sadness, what should you do if individuals around you are depressed, and more.

1.What is depression?

Depression is a mental health problem characterised by persistent sadness and low mood. Depression affects how a person looks at themselves, the world, and their future. They tend to have a negative outlook about these things. While people with depression can be pessimistic, it is different from pessimistic people. People with depression want to look at things in a more positive light, but are unable to do that.  Meanwhile, pessimistic people tend to believe their negative perceptions and consider it as the truth.

2.I’m still in school. Could I possibly be depressed?

Yes. While most people are diagnosed with depression as adults, juvenile depression also exists. However, diagnostic features for children are slightly different from adults. For instance, being sad for a period of 10-14 days is an important diagnostic criteria for adults. This period is shorter for children.

3.How to be sure that it is depression? I mean, doesn’t everyone have bad days or lose motivation?

There is a vast difference between common sadness, which everyone experiences and depression. A bad day is just that. Sometimes a bad day could be due to certain incidents that upset or anger an individual. Once the matter is addressed the sadness or anger will most likely go away. For common sadness, it is possible to feel better, and to alter that mood. One can do something they like, watch a comedy, hang out with friends, go for a walk in nature or anything else and they may be able to feel better.

This is not the case for depression. There can be absolutely no trigger for depression. Sometimes people feeling depressed may find difficulty finding the cause of their sadness as it is an ongoing lack of motivation  and low mood that affect them without specific reasons.

4.My friend says she’s depressed. But her life is seriously so good. Good career, healthy relationship, supportive family, stable finances. Is she just being a brat?

It is a myth and misconception that people with depression must necessarily have messy lives, or be totally un-functioning. People with depression can, to some extent, function “normally”. Some people with long term depression, or known as dysthymia, can exhibit high levels of functionality and be successful. When people speak about their depression, it is important to listen to what they are saying rather than watching what their lives are like.

5.My father was severely depressed and had attempted to take his own life. Will I be more prone to depression or is genetics not related to depression?

There is compelling evidence to show that mental illness runs in families, and depression is one of them. However, while an individual might be more prone to depression due to their family medical history, the severity of the depression and its symptoms may not be genetic.

Other social factors such as political and economic factors, social support, personality factors, attitudes about life in general and the ability to develop appropriate problem solving skills may affect the severity of each’s individual’s depression. This could worsen if the person also suffers from other mental health problems, especially substance abuse.

However, do remember that biology is not destiny, as the feminist saying goes. So, there are many things one can do to stave off the worst effects of depression, even when there is a genetic predisposition.

6.Ever since I self-diagnosed myself with depression, I’ve noticed physical changes like I’ve stopped having menses for a few months and have lost weight. Is this possible?

Yes. Depression is a condition that affects the whole body. For women, long term depression can lead to cessation of menses. Other physical consequences of depression include drastic weight loss or weight gain, hair loss, aches and pains in the body and joints, and headaches.

7.Can medication really cure depression? I mean, how does eating pills make me happy?

Medication has been clinically proven to alleviate symptoms of depression. People with depression who take medication have shown improvements in functionality as measured and indicated by positive changes in sleep patterns, appetite, the ability to perform activities of daily living, and an overall improvement in physical and psychological states.

Feeling happy however is not a consequence of medication. Happy is not a psychological state. Instead, it is one that is socially constructed and means different things for different people.

There is a wide range of medications available to treat depression. Each of these affect people in different ways. Also, different people react or respond differently to medication. What works for your friend may not work for you. It is extremely important to work closely with your psychiatrist so that the best decision on the right kind and dose of medication is prescribed. Report all and any side effects you may be experiencing. Some medications can be taken at night, and some during the day. If the medication you take during the day makes you sleepy and unable to pay attention at school or work, speak to your psychiatrist. It is possible to alter the dose or even prescribe different medication.

8.If I think I’m depressed, what should I do?

In Malaysia, one can seek help in the public or private healthcare systems. For private healthcare, you can contact any hospital that has a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist employed there and make an appointment. Mental health professionals are also available at private psychology or counselling centres. A referral letter is not needed for an appointment. Just call the mainline to make an appointment.

For the public health care system, a referral is necessary in order to consult with a mental health professional. There are different ways to go about this. You can go to a clinic and speak with the doctor there stating your symptoms and requesting a referral for a mental health professional. This letter will have to be sent or taken to the nearest public hospital with mental health services (most general hospitals have them). You will then have to wait to be given an appointment.

The other option is to go to the Accident and emergency (A&E) department at any large public hospital. Inform the person in charge that you would like to meet with a psychiatrist. You will have to wait for a while (A&E departments have a triage system where patients are prioritised according to severity of their conditions). After consulting the psychiatrist, you can ask to be referred to a clinical psychologist.

9.If someone says they’re depressed, what should I do (even when I really don’t think so)?

The best thing to do, if they are accepting of the fact that they might need help, is to take them to a mental health professional for a proper assessment and diagnosis. The mental health professional will then either work with them or refer them to appropriate help in order for them to get better. If someone approaches you to discuss about this, it is very important for you to listen and show support rather than immediately jumping to problem solve. However, always remember that depression is a medical condition which is best dealt with by experienced and trained medical professionals.

10.If someone is depressed but refuses to get help, can I report them to some authorities?

Unfortunately, no. If the person refuses to get help there is little you can do. The best you can do is educate yourself and get as much information about depression as you can. You will need to understand their symptoms. As much as this is to empathise with them it is also to help you understand why they behave the way they do, and why they do the things they do. As someone who is helping a person with depression, though, it is important to remember that their mental health problems are not an excuse to treat you badly. Otherwise, you will have to bear with them and talk to them about getting help and hope for the best.

However, if you believe they are at risk of hurting themselves you can call the police or the ambulance. If you think this is too drastic, you can contact their family members. It would be wise for you to have their contact numbers saved and easily accessible.

Also remember that caring for an individual who is suffering from depression is a huge task which can also takes a toll on yourself. You also need to take care of yourself and make sure that you are physically and mentally healthy and fit so that you can do your best to assist your loved ones and friends who are going through depression.

Vizla Kumaresan 
Clinical Psychologist
BSc, MA Applied Social Research (Monash University, Australia), MA Clinical Psychology (UKM)

Depressed with Big Dreams

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“I locked myself in my bedroom with both kids and a knife in hand, ready to kill us all.”

I was only three when my mother wanted to kill my brother and me, and then herself last. Wearing the sweater I threw up in and an IV drip needle buried deep into my right arm, I listened as my mother recounted her suicide attempt to the psychiatrist on duty that night at the ER. The psychiatrist wanted to see whether there’s any history of depression in my family.

Almost nine years later, it was my turn. I was 6 days away from turning 18 when I decided to take my own life. My bedroom was pitch dark and I’ve just stopped crying. The curtains are usually clipped on the sides because I like to be woken up bythe blazing sun when the morning comes. That night, the drapes were shut close. I’ve listened to Fix You by Coldplay for at least 20 times, but I knew something in me had snapped and nothing, and no one, could fix it. I was at peace, no longer afraid to die.

The shock was unbearable to my parents. How did we not see it coming?,  they thought.

 Well, no one saw it coming.

Full of potential and academically sound, I topped the class in all of my exams. President of the English Club, editor of the school newspaper, team captain of the debate team, and well-liked by the teachers. But, no one saw the toilet breakdowns between classes and blades hiding in my phone case. No one saw the nights spent crying and browser history filled with step-by-step methods on committing suicide.

Strangely enough, despite it all, I liked school. My depression, although a demon bigger than me, could never really take away my thirst for knowledge and the sense of competitiveness indoctrinated from years of being compared to more successful and non-depressed cousins in the family. On good days, I was the dreaded know-it-all. On bad days, I would sleep in most classes; tired from crying and cutting the night before. My grades were always more than satisfactory, so my teachers didn’t feel the need to wake me up.

After my failed attempt, my teachers and school principal decided to grant me special permission to leave class anytime I felt too depressed to learn. I was eternally grateful for the arrangement as the breakdowns were frequent and the counsellor’s room was a better alternative than the washroom. But, my newly granted privilege came with a major downside – the bullying got worse.

My classmates were unhappy about the treatment I received. They then took the bullying online, using code words and nicknames to mask the fact that their tweets were about me. When the news of my life-taking attempt got out, the tweets and Facebook statuses got brutal. So much so that I couldn’t bring myself to attend school anymore.

‘You tried killing yourself once, why don’t you give it another shot’

‘Invite me to your funeral, because I would love to throw a party there.’

‘Cutting yourself is sin, YOU DEPRESSED BITCH.’

‘What a cry baby, such a drama queen.’

‘Go kill yourself.’

My parents threatened to file a police report when they saw me curled up in my room, sobbing for two days straight. The thought of death came to visit me once more. However, after a whole weekend of crying, I decided to face it and show up at school on Monday. I didn’t even make it to class before I threw up at the side of the road from stress and anxiety. I swallowed the remaining bile down my throat, turned around, and walked to the direction of the convenience store down the road and bought a pack of blades. When I finally made it to class, they were waiting for me.

They were talking as if I wasn’t there, but loud enough for me to hear. I dropped my bags, immediately went into the toilet and cut three fresh lines on my palms after stopping for two months after being discharged from the ward. I could feel myself regurgitating, so I sprinted to the counsellor’s office and sought refuge in her arms. I told her I couldn’t do it anymore and would like to quit school.

My teachers, the counsellor, and the school principal were unhappy with my declaration and persuaded me out of it by offering the counsellor’s room for me to carry out studying on my own. The proposal was ideal because I wanted to continue studying. For the next 2 months, I studied in solitude. There were times when I wasn’t brave enough to leave the room to go to the toilet as I was afraid of bumping into my classmates. The amount of anxiety eating me up on the inside was ridiculous.

However, because I mostly by myself in that room, it was difficult for me to reach out to my teachers. As a result, I was no longer in the top in class. I remembered precisely the anger bubbling up within when I saw my results. “Why am I cooped up in here with no guidance from my teachers, while the people who made my life hell are sitting comfortably in class, getting the education they take granted for everyday?” I thought to myself. It was that realisation that motivated my decision to go back to class the morning after the results.

I graduated the Sixth Form with flying colours, was given multiple academic awards, and gained acceptance into the best university in the country. My parents refused to let me leave Kuching for fear that I was going to kill myself again. I understood their fear, but relentlessly defended my decision to leave my hometown. I knew I needed a change of scenery – to breathe in a different kind of air, meet new people, and be away from the negativity at home.

My first year in university was extremely difficult. I was poor, sickeningly thin, and depressed; often going to bed hungry. The classes were extremely enjoyable, and I did exceedingly well. The English Department took notice of my grades after a few semesters and decided to list me as a candidate for the Tinggi Foundation Scholarship. That wasn’t enough to stop me from relapsing to cutting, especially for the first two years of uni.

Things changed for the better when I busied myself with debating and travelling, which played a big part in my journey of healing. Though I did not end up being the Asian Champion or made it to the Finals of World’s Championship, I had a great debating career and met friends who accepted me for who I am.

I was terrified that depression will ruin my life one day. But, I was given a second chance to live the life I want. I’ve learnt to accept that the tendency to spiral into depression is always lurking, but it has, over the years, become friendlier to me as I made friends with it. I now have more good days than bad days. And on those bad days, I have friends I could call and rely on. Sometimes I ask myself, if Depressed Me could handle a part-time job to pay for my education, maintain good grades, and be invited to travel for debate tournaments, what would Happy Me be able to achieve?

Hi, I’m from the Future

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Sometimes, I like to imagine that non-cis* folk are the next step in human evolution. Like the cis-person’s genetic future. We are amongst you present-day people, and when you interact with us, you’re interacting with the future – a two-thousand-years-ahead kind of future. We’re the 16.0 to your laggy-as-fuck 6.3 version. We’ve selflessly volunteered to travel back in time to be reborn and save the present-day people from fucking up the future by secretly altering certain world-changing events. How mind-blowingly cool is that?

I think about that when, for the gazillionth time on some hookup app, someone asks if I have a dick or tells me I’m not a real man. When, as the first thing after “Hi,” someone asks if I’ve had the surgery or if I still have my boobs. “Show me your pussy,” is what they say.

“I don’t expect you to understand because I’m from the future,” is what I want to tell them, sighing tragically as I type. I know they won’t even understand that they don’t understand, because they are simple present-day people, victims of our time and their own technological limitations. If they tried to understand, their brains would collapse.

I would shake my head in pity, chuckle and go tsk-tsk, like a grandpa tsk-tsking at a toddler grandkid who defecated all over the fancy family carpet that’s used only for Hari Raya – because babies don’t know any better.

A few months ago, my aunt, in a manner of friendly conversation, told me that some random person is going to feel me up and find out that I have a vagina, and then I’d be screwed. Her exact words were, “Kau nampak macam lelaki tapi nanti ada orang datang kat kau, raba-raba kau, jumpa pantat, baru kau tahu.” (You look like a man but then someone will come up to you, feel you up, find your pussy, and then you’ll know). She’s from Melaka, they talk like that with affection, and maybe she was only half-joking. People from Melaka will cuss at you to show you they care. She says pantat (pussy) all the time. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just my family.

I took it to mean that I could be on a Netflix date, and after three episodes of Bojack Horseman, my sexy date and I would be deep into a heavy makeout session, and then they’d slip their hand down my shorts and …aik? Sapraisss! (At that time of the Aunt Incident, I had not been on a date in 15 months.)

I know she’s worried about my safety and was expressing it in her own special and unique way, so I wasn’t shocked or upset. Anyway, I’m from the future, so how could she ever comprehend?

Instead of explaining the future thing to her, I asked her why she felt random people would suddenly want to feel me up. It’s silly. I demonstrated to her what going up to random people and feeling them up would look like:Ahem, excuse me, boleh raba tak?” (Can I feel you up?)

A distant relative I hadn’t seen in five years thought I was my brother and slapped me on the back when he saw me at my uncle’s funeral. I didn’t correct this distant uncle and humoured him, telling him about my (brother’s) job, when he called me by my brother’s name and asked me, kerja macam mana? (How’s work?) Ok, I didn’t need to be a future person at this particular time. I later told my mother, and she didn’t think it was funny. I assured her I knew enough about my brother’s job, and the information I gave my relative was accurate and up-to-date.

My mother hates my moustache and I don’t want her brain to collapse, so I refrain from telling her about what it is like in the future. The future where no one has diabetes because it has been eliminated and people can eat all the cake they want. She’s diabetic and likes cake, although she shouldn’t.

She hasn’t said anything about my deeper voice or my changing body, but she has told me she wants me to be a girl and get a handbag.

I don’t need to grow my hair long because girls have short hair these days, but I should get a handbag. I told her to specify what kind of handbag so I would remember and not get the wrong one. I declared, these things are important, Mother, these handbags.  

Whenever I tease my mother in English, she takes one key word from my sentence and turns it into Shm-english. “Handbag, shmandbag,” she said, laughing, index finger poised in the air, ready to fake-cane me. She likes to jokingly fake-cane her kids because we’re too big for her to real-cane now.

I love my moustache and hope I eventually get to grow one like a Tamil movie star, or a Gerak Khas extra.

Should I have been upset in those cases and corrected them? I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things about why people say the things they do, or react the way they do. I’ve gently corrected many people, in real life and on apps. Sometimes I run out of gentle corrections. I don’t want to get angry, and tweet angry things in frustration while shaking my fist at God in the fat clouds (as a kid I assumed this God-entity lived there and sat on a throne, genderless and proud, waving their hand to casually create things like cows and planets and Michael Jackson). Some people take longer than others to open up to new things, but sometimes I just get tired of explaining why I am me. This is when I am a super-cool, ultra-advanced, future-person. So, fuck everyone else.

*I used ‘non-cis’ and put that asterisk ‘*’ there because, while this fantasy is for me, a trans man, this is an all-inclusive scenario and everyone along the gender identity spectrum can have a fantasy and feel superior and cool whenever they like except if they are an asshole.

Cisgender (shorthand cis) – a person whose sex assigned at birth ‘matches’ their gender identity OR a persons whose lived experiences ‘match’ their assigned sex at birth.

Cis-temic Oppression

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The radio was blasting pop tunes, my car going 110 km/hour. I was singing along to the songs at the top of my lungs with a huge grin on my face. A cute boy had just invited me to a house party. I was feeling great and looking super cute as I made my way there. My makeup was on point, my outfit took an hour to be picked out and I was ready to party. I got to the Airbnb they rented and we started drinking, smoking and having a good time talking and laughing. That was how the night started: with me, a regular 22 year old girl, going to a regular house party and doing regular things. But little did I know, what started out as a great night turned into the most traumatizing experience of my life.

The police raided the house. One of them whipped out his badge but that one badge didn’t allay our suspicions as to whether they were real cops as none of them were in uniforms and they were behaving incredibly shadily. They didn’t allow us to call our parents and started confiscating our phones as soon as they could. “No recording, we don’t want this going viral.”

If they were truly cops, conducting legal raids and going by procedure, why would they be afraid? Surely they would have wanted our parents to know what was happening to their own children? One girl’s parent tried to call her repeatedly only to have one of the female cops tell her to ignore it. That certainly raised warning bells. Despite that, everything was still under control until they made me hand over my identity card. From there, everything went downhill.

First came the confusion, then the insensitive and downright derogatory questions. “Tulen ke palsu?” they wanted to know. Was I a “real” woman? I looked them straight in the eye and told them that I am transgender. They exchanged looks. Then they laughed at me and called me names. Up till that moment, I was just a regular girl attending a party. Suddenly, I wasn’t a regular girl anymore. I was a ‘bapok’. I was less than human. I was something not worthy of being treated with respect and basic human decency

I was on the verge of having a panic attack but despite the turmoil going on within me, I plastered a bored and dismissive look on my face to let them know that I wasn’t about to engage with low-lives like them. They were not going to have the pleasure of seeing me vulnerable. I tried to get my breathing into a steady rhythm and silently prayed to the Goddess that they would leave me alone.

I later learned that they were narcotics and I felt a little relieved, hoping that they would soon leave as they had found no drugs.

Until they did.

They looked extremely pleased as they announced that they would have to bring us down to the station. “Boys first!” they called out. I remained seated on the ground starting to hyperventilate when one of the cops pointed at me. “That means you too,” he said, with a smirk on his face. I can’t express how much I wanted to slap that smirk right off his face. We were taken to a station about five minutes away and had to be tested for drugs, which meant a urine test. We were numbered and given a container to pee in. No problem, right? Just pee in the container, prove that you’re clean and leave, right? Wrong.

I was worried that my hormones would affect the results as I have heard stories of hormones creating false positives during drug tests.

I was also dehydrated. I had been drinking all night and did not have a sip of water. I asked them to give me some water to drink but they told me that they didn’t have any. After much begging, one of the policewomen opened a drawer full of water bottles and handed me a tiny bottle. I gulped it down but it wasn’t enough. I begged for some more and one policeman brought yet another tiny bottle of water which I immediately chugged down.

I walked to the bathroom, and there was the third problem. I had to pee in front of a male policeman. I stood with my back facing him as he watched. He insulted me with slurs while the rest of them laughed at me. I really tried to pee but I just couldn’t. My anxiety was through the roof and their patience was wearing thin. One of the policemen threatened to beat me up while making violent gestures right in my face. He also threatened to throw me in lockup which scared the hell out of me.

I’ve read enough to know that trans women don’t fare well in prison. They were discussing if they could throw me in jail just for being me and wearing what I was wearing. “Unfortunately, she was in a private place and she didn’t resist arrest, so we can’t throw her in jail,” one lady replied.

I was humiliated.

The people who were at the party with me were people whom I had just met, and they had heard every single derogatory term hurled at me and watched as I was threatened violently. I felt less than human. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to die. I begged and begged for more water only to be told to drink from the tap or from the bucket of water in the bathroom. I couldn’t believe my ears. Were these people really the police? How could they treat people this way? I was trying my very best to cooperate! Everyone else had been cleared and my hopes were slowly fading. I did my best to prepare myself for the worst. I was already hyperventilating at this point and ready to pass out at any second, what with the slurs and threats.

It was then that my friends, who are prominent LGBT activists in Malaysia, showed up. I had used my phone to send them a location earlier, before it was confiscated, and they had managed to find the closest police precinct and found me. They convinced the police to let them give me water and the police finally agreed. A big bottle of water was given to me and not long after I managed to pee. When the results came, the two police officers exchanged looks. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “well, what can we do?”

I was clean.

I got out of there as fast as I could, my whole body shaking. I was in shock till the next day, when the tears finally came. For the next few weeks, I found myself unable to sleep or eat and I was constantly anxious. I would see flashes of what had happened whenever I closed my eyes. I talked till I couldn’t talk about it anymore and cried until there were no more tears. I felt like my world had come crashing down and for weeks after I would not get my life back in order. My room was a mess, my affairs in chaos and my studies took a hit. I felt like the world was not real anymore. My reality and everything I knew had been disrupted, leaving me with a broken dystopian version which made me feel like a freak. I felt like my humanity had been stripped away.

This was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to recover and heal from. The worst part of it all is that there would be no way to hold the police accountable for their actions. No means of recourse. They did whatever they wanted, however they pleased, with no standard operating procedures and that left me broken, angry and filled with hatred. I had to deal with these emotions with no outlet to vent and move on from my trauma. These people didn’t care, they had no training in gender sensitivity and no basic common decency – they were just agents of an oppressive system who got off on abusing their power. This is the same system that degrades and abuses trans people, making us more vulnerable to attacks, abuse and worse.

In Malaysia, I have no validity. I’m not allowed to exist.


Aku dan Cermin Itu

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Sewaktu kecil, tidak pernah aku ketahui, tentang apa itu perempuan, apa itu lelaki, dan juga apa itu gender. Aku bermain sepuas-puasnya bersama kawan-kawan dan alat permainan yang ada di sekelilingku. Aku makan semua makanan kesukaanku sama  ada yang dimasak ibu mahupun yang dibeli dari mana-mana kedai atau restoran dengan penuh nikmat. Aku ketawa terbahak-bahak dengan penuh girang apabila melihat atau mendengar sesuatu yang menggeletek hatiku. Aku juga menangis dan memberontak sepuasnya terhadap perkara yang menghalang kemahuanku. Seingat aku, aku hanyalah seorang kanak-kanak biasa. Sama seperti kanak-kanak lain.

Disebalik semua itu, aku selalu terdengar pesanan dan kata-kata nasihat dari orang sekeliling. Sehingga sekarang, kata-kata yang terngiang-ngiang di telingaku.

“Awak lelaki, awak kena tolong ayah”.

 “Awak lelaki, awak tak boleh buat macam tu”.

“Awak lelaki, awak tak boleh berkelakuan macam tu.”

Dan pelbagai pesanan dan kata-kata lain yang seangkatan dengannya. Kadang-kadang aku terfikir, adakah nasihat ini diberikan kepada semua kanak-kanak yang sedang membesar, atau hanya kepadaku? Aku tidak pernah dengar kata-kata seperti itu diungkapkan kepada kanak-kanak lain. Kenapa hanya aku? Kenapa semua orang di sekelilingku sangat obses dengan tingkah laku, cara pertuturan dan gayaku?

Saban masa berlalu, semakin aku menempuhi liku-liku kehidupan dengan penuh rasa keliru dan tanda tanya. Aku mula pergi ke sekolah, tempat untuk aku belajar dan bersiap sedia untuk menjadi insan berguna apabila aku dewasa kelak. Tempat untuk aku membuat ramai teman baru dan menempuhi pelbagai pengalaman sebagai seorang pelajar. Namun, pengalamanku di sekolah juga sama seperti di rumah.

Aku semakin keliru dengan teguran dan pesanan orang sekeliling tentang jantina, tentang perwatakan dan tentang tingkah laku. Jika dulu aku hanya mendengar teguran seperti itu di rumah dari ibu, ayah, makcik dan pakcik; kini kata-kata yang sama juga diungkapkan oleh guru-guru dan teman sekelas. Bagaimana semua orang seperti tahu sahaja cara yang betul untuk bertingkah laku dan bertutur kecuali aku? Buku apa yang semua orang baca yang aku langkaui? Di mana mereka tahu semua ini?

Sampai di suatu tahap, aku mula merasa tekanan sedikit demi sedikit. Segala apa yang aku dengari, setiap saat dalam kehidupanku, memberitahu hati kecil aku bahawa ada sesuatu yang tidak kena degan aku. Sesuatu yang salah dan lain daripada yang lain. Segala apa yang aku lakukan hanyalah mengundang perasaan hairan dari orang sekeliling. Dan aku? Aku juga berasa hairan mengapa hanya aku yang asyik ditegur sebegitu.

Aku kemudiannya menjadi amat cenderung dan nekad untuk mencari kebenaran tentang segala apa yang aku dengar selama ini. Apakah terdapat kebenaran dalam nasihat dan pesanan dari orang sekelilingku?

Aku membawa diriku yang penuh dengan rasa keliru, ke hadapan sebuah cermin. Cermin yang gah dan besar, yang boleh memberi pantulan tepat supaya sesiapa sahaja yang memandang ke dalam cermin itu, akan dapat melihat refleksi diri mereka yang sebenar. Cantik kah? Betul kah? Senget kah? Salah kah? Mana dia bayangan aku? Mari sini aku lihat, mana yang perlu aku betulkan.

Pelik, lama aku pandang ke dalam cermin itu. Aku pusing ke kiri dan ke kanan. Atas, bawah, atas, bawah. Tidak ada apa pun yang aku rasakan salah. Walau sudah beribu kali aku berhadapan dengan cermin itu, tiada apa yang membuat aku rasakan seperti… di luar tempat yang sepatutnya. Apa yang sering orang bicarakan, sambil menunding jari mereka kepadaku, seolah-olah menunjukkan sesuatu yang tidak kena pada mata mereka, apa yang mereka nampak? Bayanganku di dalam cermin itu tidak pernah memberi kejutan besar. Aku mula bertanya pada bayangan diriku di sebalik cermin itu.

“Kenapa mereka suruh aku jadi keras?”

“Mengapa mereka selalu cakap aku lembut?”

“Apakah itu lembut? Apakah itu keras?

“Mana yang yang mereka nampak lembut?”

Setahu aku, aku cuma melakukan rutin harianku seperti biasa sejak kecil. Di saat itu, secara tiba-tiba berdesing di dalam fikiranku tentang apakah itu maksud sebenar gender, lelaki dan perempuan.

Aku yang selama ini diberitahu oleh semua orang bahawa “sepatutnya” menjadi dan berlagak seperti seorang lelaki, menyedari bahawa aku bukanlah lelaki. Lelaki tidak ada di dalam diriku. Segala teguran yang aku dengar dan serap dari orang sekelilingku selama ini, membuat aku berbisik kepada diriku. Perlahan, tetapi tegas.

“Bukannya salah aku! Aku cuma buat semua benda macam biasa! Aku tidak cuba tiru sesiapa! Aku tak sedar pun aku seperti yang orang katakan!”

Aku mula melihat bahawa bayangan di sebalik cermin itu adalah bukan bayangan sebenar diriku, tetapi sebaliknya bayangan yang telah ditetapkan bentuk dan sifatnya oleh orang sekeliling.

Saban tahun berlalu, aku semakin kenal tentang gender dan identitiku yang sebenar. Aku semakin menerima diriku, dihadapan setiap cermin. Dengan bayangan yang terpantul pada setiap cermin dihadapanku kini, aku berasa semakin selesa dan semakin kena dengan watak yang aku dituduh dibuat-buat selama ini. Tidak perlu lagi bersembunyi. Tidak lagi memenuhi kemahuan masyarakat yang tiada tahap puasnya. Peritnya untuk aku tempuhi saban tahun tersebut, sehingga menjadikan diriku seperti pada hari ini, dengan tahap keyakinan dan keberanian yang di luar jangkaan aku sendiri. Namun, sudah tentunya bosan sesebuah kehidupan itu tanpa sebarang dugaan dan cabaran. Dan ini adalah cabaran aku.

Debunking LGBTIQ Myths and Misconceptions in Malaysia

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The two consecutive anti-LGBTIQ events by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) in Universiti Malaya (UM) and the Selangor State Islamic Department in Shah Alam on October 13th and 14th respectively are a genuine cause for alarm. From their biased content and the use of public funds, to the support by a public university and Selangor state government, the events reflect a slew of problems. Above all, the content disseminated directly discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) persons as they perpetuate harmful stereotypes and misrepresent the realities of LGBTIQ persons.




Myth #1: LGBTIQ Persons are Morally Bankrupt

Both events by JAKIM used the narrative that LGBTIQ persons are lost and confused, hooked on drugs, alcohol and sex, and are morally bankrupt. The event in UM featured two “repented” LGBTIQ persons, focusing mainly on their history of sexual experiences, drug use and other personal choices. While the experiences portrayed had no connection to sexual orientation and gender identity whatsoever, there was no structural and systemic analysis on the factors that may contribute to such experiences.

LGBTIQ persons do not exist in a vacuum. Social, cultural, economic and political contexts affect their experiences, just like everyone else. Consider the continued refusal to recognise their lived experiences; discriminatory laws; and barriers to access basic rights. All these contribute to increased health burden including stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideas; increased poverty; lack of social safety nets; and lack of support and affirmation from family members and friends which further isolate and traumatize LGBTIQ persons.

The assumptions and stereotypes that depict LGBTIQ persons as not religious, spiritual and/or morally bankrupt are completely untrue. The reality is there are many LGBTIQ persons who actively practice and deeply believe in their religion and spirituality. LGBTIQ persons have the same right to religion and spirituality as cisgender heterosexual people. In fact, it is the rejection and ex-communication by religious institutions (not limited to state Islamic departments) that cause deep conflicts within LGBTIQ persons.



Myth #2: Suppression of LGBTIQ Identities is not Discriminatory

In line with JAKIM’s “soft approach”, the organizers highlighted that LGBTIQ persons should be encouraged to suppress their sexual identity rather than be bullied. However, the organizers failed to recognize that suppression of identities is still a form of discrimination, violence and torture. Forcing people to confine themselves to binary constructs amounts to the erasure of their diverse identities. This forced suppression is the very reason many individuals resort to drugs, alcohol and other destructive practices as a way to deal with the mental health issues and rejection that they face.



Myth #3: Five Factors That Make One LGBTIQ

JAKIM claims that there are 5 factors that make one LGBT: parenting, traumatic events (sexual violence), pornography, bullying, and environmental factors. These are myths that have in fact been debunked.

Historical and anthropological evidence show that sexual and gender diversity have always existed across the world. This includes hijra in Indiacalabai, calalai and bissu in Indonesiaasog/bayugin in the Philippinesmukhannathun in Makkah and MedinaFa’afafine in Samoa and New Zealand; Māhū in Hawai’I; two-spirit in North America, and let’s not forget the existence of sida-sidagender-diverse identities similar to present-day transgender persons, in the palaces of Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan, Johor, and other parts of the Peninsula Malaya. It cannot be stressed enough that diversity of sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions and sex characteristics are normal occurrences in life.

There is no evidence to support the claim that childhood trauma, experiences of abuse in childhood, parenting skills, absent fathers and domineering mothers or tension in the family are factors that cause one to become LGBTIQ. In 1975, the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), as “research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology” and “heterosexual behavior and homosexual behavior are normal aspects of human sexuality.”



Myth #4. LGBT Persons can be Corrected or Return to the ‘Right Path’

A central theme in JAKIM’s anti-LGBT messaging and efforts is that sexual orientation and gender identity can be changed through rehabilitation, conversion therapy and suppression.

Mukhayyam, a rehabilitation programme by JAKIM for LGBTIQ persons claims to be a strategy to reduce the prevalence of HIV. However, the Global AIDS Response Progress Report 2016 notes that there is no evidence to prove the efficacy of this programme. More importantly, we need to recognise that rehabilitation and corrective therapy are not just ineffective, but they create more harm. All major national mental health organizations have rejected and expressed concerns regarding therapies that aim to correct or change gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, as there are risks of depression, social withdrawal, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, stress, hostility problems in sexual and emotional intimacy, sexual dysfunction, as well as a feeling of being dehumanised and loss of faith.


Myth #5: LGBT Persons are the Leading Cause of HIV

This claim is not just untrue, but also simply irresponsible. Such statements, especially in an environment where LGBTIQ people are already stigmatized, can lead to rollback of rights of people living with HIV. A media release by the Malaysian AIDS Council in October 2017 can debunk this myth as it stated that of the reported 3,397 new HIV infections last year, 84% (2,864 cases) were sexually transmitted wherein 46% (1,553 out of 2,864 cases) were related to homo/bisexuals  and 38% (1,311 out of 2,864 cases) were heterosexual transmissions.

We also need to examine the correlation between HIV transmissions and anti-LGBTIQ laws in Malaysia. A report by the United Nations Country Team in 2014 shows that the rise of criminalization and anti-LGBTIQ activities increases health risks (including HIV, STI and mental health issues) faced by LGBTIQ persons due to the discrimination, legal, socio-political and economic barriers faced by the community. This shows that LGBTIQ persons are not inherently at risk of HIV.


Reality of Sexual Violence Experienced by LGBTIQ Persons

LGBTIQ persons experience increased risks of sexual violence because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. In some cases, LGBTIQ persons are sexually assaulted as a form of correction and most LGBTIQ persons’ first sexual experiences are sexual violence. In these cases, LGBTIQ persons are not able to share their experiences or report these incidences to the authorities. This creates an environment that disempowers and silences LGBTIQ persons and emboldens perpetrators. The experience of sexual violence do not make one LGBTIQ. These issues of sexual violence need to be addressed regardless of age, sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics.

**The original article was posted on Justice For Sisters. You can read the full version of the article here

Gender: Antara Realiti Yang Dinafi dan Rutin Yang Ditradisi

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Bagaimana anda tahu identiti gender anda, iaitu sama ada anda lelaki, atau perempuan (atau lain-lain)? Pastinya ramai yang akan terdiam dan ambil masa untuk menjawab soalan ini bukan? Selama ini, identiti gender anda diberi oleh surat beranak berdasarkan alat kelamin anda sewaktu dilahirkan. Tapi, benarkah ianya semudah itu?

Sekitar usia 4 atau 5 tahun saya telah menyedari pemikiran dan hati yang sering mengatakan bahawa saya adalah perempuan. Saya gemar melakukan aktiviti yang dilakukan oleh kanak-kanak perempuan, seperti memasak dan bermain anak patung. Malah, saya juga mempunyai perasaan malu dan rasa tidak selesa berada dalam kalangan budak lelaki, saya lebih rapat dan mesra dengan kawan-kawan perempuan.



Image via: https://gendertrender.wordpress.com/tag/jacobin/


Banyak kajian dan perkongsian pengalaman individu telah menunjukkan bahawa manusia boleh menyedari identiti gender mereka seawal umur 4 ke 5 tahun. Lebih menarik lagi, fakta saintifik membuktikan bahawa identiti gender ini tidak terhad kepada lelaki dan perempuan sahaja berdasarkan kromosom XY dan XX. Terdapat konfigurasi kromosom lain seperti XXX, XXY, XYY, dan XO yang wujud dalam kalangan manusia.

Jadi bagaimana boleh kita klasifikasikan manusia sebagai lelaki dan perempuan berdasarkan alat kelamin sahaja?

Seks/jantina dan identiti gender adalah dua perkara yang berbeza. Secara ringkasnya, seks merujuk kepada kombinasi kromosom, organ dalaman, genitalia, hormon dan fisiologi manusia. Manakala gender merujuk kepada pemberian makna sosial kepada identiti lelaki, perempuan dan sebagainya. Masyarakat sering menyalah anggap bahawa seks/jantina dan gender adalah perkara yang sama, dan ini hanya terdiri daripada dua identiti sahaja yang ditentukan oleh organ reproduktif mereka, yang digelar sebagai binari.

Masih segar dalam ingatan, sewaktu darjah lima, ada seorang teman sekelas yang bertanyakan saya mengenai gender saya. Dengan spontannya saya menjawab perempuan walaupun bersekolah di sekolah kebangsaan lelaki. Saya ditertawakan oleh teman-teman. Tetapi, walaupun dalam usia semuda itu, tanpa rasa ragu-ragu saya sudah yakin dengan identiti gender yang dimiliki dan tanpa rasa malu mengakuinya.



Sistem Binari Gender dan Kesannya

Tekanan daripada konstruk sosial dan sistem binari gender menjadi tunjang kepada pergolakan dan permasalahan bagi individu-individu di luar sistem binari ini, terutamanya interseks dan transgender.

Berulang kali individu transgender dilabel dengan gender yang berlawanan dengan apa yang otak dan jiwa mereka tafsirkan.

Sebagai contoh seorang kanak-kanak perempuan transgender yang diklasifikasikan sebagai lelaki pada dokumen rasmi, akan dibesarkan sebagai budak lelaki. Mereka dipaksa untuk melakukan aktiviti harian yang berada di luar minat dan kegemaran mereka. Mereka juga dipaksa untuk menggayakan pakaian dan potongan rambut lelaki. Sekiranya kanak-kanak tersebut bersifat feminin, mereka akan dimarahi, dipukul dan diperbetulkan termasuklah cara berjalan, cara bercakap serta posisi tubuh badan agar kelihatan maskulin.

Masih saya ingat insiden rambut saya dipotong secara paksa sehingga botak semasa kecil. Saya tidak mempunyai pilihan untuk memilih pakaian yang bersesuaian dengan identiti gender saya. Pendekatan ejekan juga digunakan oleh keluarga dan masyarakat sebagai usaha untuk memperbetulkan saya membawa kepada lebih banyak kemudaratan dari segi mental dan emosi. Ini merupakan antara contoh paling kritikal yang kanak-kanak trans alami dalam proses pembesaran mereka.

Sistem binari gender ini juga memberi kesan maha berat seperti pergolakan emosi, masalah penerimaan daripada keluarga dan masyarakat, akses kepada kemudahan awam (seperti tandas awam), kesukaran untuk mendapatkan pekerjaan, peluang membina kerjaya dalam bidang professional yang terhad, permasalahan mendapatkan kemudahan kesihatan dan perubatan yang bersesuaian, dan banyak lagi permasalahan genting yang dialami oleh individu transgender.



Bolehkah Transgender “Dipulihkan”?

Ramai yang beranggapan bahawa individu transgender boleh diubah dan diubati. Tanggapan ini adalah salah sama sekali. Pendekatan ‘corrective’ atau pemulihan akan memburukkan lagi situasi kerana ia akan menyebabkan kemurungan, gangguan psikologi dan pelbagai permasalahan lain seperti kes bunuh diri.

Ketika memasuki alam persekolahan, walaupun ada sekolah kebangsaan campur yang berdekatan, ibu bapa menghantar saya ke sekolah kebangsaan lelaki semata-mata untuk mengubah tingkah laku dan identiti saya. Dari situ kita dapat lihat sebenarnya ibu bapa juga sudah mengetahui keadaan anak mereka yang mengalami “gender dysphoria” atau tekanan yang disebabkan oleh ketidakupayaan mereka untuk mengekspresikan identiti gender yang sebenar.

Saban tahun kita dapat lihat ramai individu yang menyertai program pemulihan kerana mahu “kembali ke pangkal jalan”, namun adakah ianya benar? Adakah perubahan dibuat kerana mereka benar-benar percaya yang mereka sudah tersesat atau ianya hanya sekadar lakonan di mata masyarakat?

Program Mukhayyam dan program pemulihan yang lain menyebabkan individu transgender untuk “berubah” semata-mata kerana paksaan untuk memastikan diri mereka diterima masyarakat dan keluarga. Mereka serik dengan diskriminasi dan peminggiran, terutamanya apabila ditangkap oleh pihak berkuasa dan mengalami masalah ekonomi kerana sukar mendapat pekerjaan. Desakan individu sekeliling yang rapat yang cuba membuat mereka rasa bersalah dengan ancaman dosa dan neraka menyebabkan mereka menyerah kalah. Sebab itulah kita lihat setelah mereka “berubah”, mereka dengan terdesaknya menayangkan aktiviti kebajikan yang dilakukan di media massa agar mendapat kemaafan dan penerimaan masyarakat.

Pernahkah anda fikir mengapa sesetengah individu masih tekad menjalani kehidupan mereka sebagai transgender mahupun dicerca, dinafikan hak, dikenakan tindakan undang-undang, malah dipukul atau dibunuh?

Bukankah lebih senang untuk memenuhi kehendak masyarakat? Ini menunjukkan bahawa isu transgender ini bukanlah melibatkan kecelaruan minda atau pengaruh budaya negatif atau sesuatu yang dibuat-buat. Isu transgender adalah berkenaan identiti gender yang “authentic” kerana setiap manusia mahu menjadi diri mereka yang sebenar seperti mana yang hati dan pemikiran mereka tetapkan. Oleh yang demikian, identiti gender tidak seharusnya dipaksa oleh sesiapa dan haruslah dihormati oleh semua pihak.


Cover image credit: https://hellogiggles.com/news/my-gender-identity-struggle/

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 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.

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