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Tag Archives: Writer: Arlene Tan

Young Women: Contesting Patriarchy in the City

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In every era, feminism has penetrated into the hearts and minds of women in their struggle to attain gender equality.

With intersectionality becoming the anchor to today’s feminists, more women of different backgrounds, classes and identities seek to diminish the influence of patriarchy in their own personal contexts, through their individual strengths.

Yet, in our daily lives as young women living in the city, the struggle against patriarchy can be very subtle, structured and real. It can come from the conditioning of our own upbringing, our workplace environment, and the constant bombardment of media that normalises gender stereotypes.

The impact of this social system is felt even more deeply by young women living in economically and politically disadvantaged environments, such as young women from the urban poor, refugees and minorities. The conversation on dismantling patriarchy and achieving gender equality in this country is still very much centred around activists and the NGO circles, while the wider society are not moved from the male-dominated status quo.

As Simone De Beauvoir put it, “One is not born but, rather, becomes a woman”. Unfortunately, the passage of becoming a woman is, for the majority of our young girls, mired in the daily pressure of having to live their lives according to the norms and expectations of society.

In capturing the current dynamic of young women in Kuala Lumpur contesting the cultural and structural norms of patriarchy, I spoke to four women from different backgrounds on their own personal struggles and the way forward towards equality.


 

Ivy

 

Image from http://ppunlimited.blogspot.my/2012/01/

 

1) Can you describe your identity?

I come from a small, middle class Chinese family. Although our family is not rich, my parents took great care to afford us the best education to the best of their ability – that means high expectations on academic results, and a series of planned extra-curricular activities: piano lessons, dance classes, swimming lessons, arts workshops – I’ve done it all!

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

Growing up, I have always been told to pursue excellence and be successful in life. I am lucky in the sense that I was not subject to gender stereotypes as much as the other girls in my social circles – perhaps it was because I was the eldest in the family and I do not have any brothers. Being a woman to me means being able to pursue my life goals freely; to be loved and valued as a human being as much as the other sex.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public? 

I have come across many smart, capable women at work and in life. These women are resilient and they can be assertive when they want to be. Unfortunately, a lot of outdated stereotypes about women still exist – unmarried women are said to be bitter and jealous, stern female bosses are typecast as ‘bitches’ and so on. Sometimes, these stereotypes are even perpetuated by women themselves, which is unfortunate.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?

As I approach 30, I am starting to feel the pressure of ‘being a woman’, with many friends and family constantly reminding me of my ‘biological clock’. I think this is a fact of life that we can neither change nor ignore, but society can be more supportive in helping women make their own choices about childbearing, ensuring a better quality of life for women (which helps in prolonging fertility) and creating more mother-friendly job environments.

Looking back, I think of the lives of many women like my own mother and grandmothers, who have sacrificed so much of their youth for the family and I wonder how their lives would have been different if they had opportunities equal to the boys of their time. Yet, it is these women who have made possible a better life for me as a woman today.

5) How can we can address this?

We need to acknowledge that all women are different and should be allowed various forms of expression, just as no human are the same. At the same time, there needs to be a recognition that women face a gender-specific set of challenges and vulnerability. I think societal values and policy reinforce each other and until the mindset is changed, women will continue to be boxed into gender roles.


 

Aysha

 

 

1) Can you describe your identity? 

I am a woman with ambitions; a mother who hopes to raise a conscious and independent daughter; a person who values the relations in her life; and a truth seeker who wants to make an impact by giving back to the universe. My identity is a sum total of my female existence, my choices, my values, my aspirations and my human connections.

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

It means being the gender that has the privilege to create life and the sensitivity to enrich life for myself and others around me.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public?

I was raised by a strong mother and a supportive father so, generally, my experiences as a woman have been positive. However, once I became a mother, I realised and faced the challenges women face their in personal and professional lives. The challenge of work-life choices, the issues of redefining my personal identity and the struggles of a career break made me realise that women have a lot more to balance, risk, and comprise than men.

The society (and ourselves) see women as nurturers and the caregivers. This social conditioning and unconscious bias affects the way we women think, act and feel. My journey of a career re-launch made me aware of this conditioning and hidden stereotypical behaviours.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?

Despite being raised as a strong, independent woman, I was exposed to the subtle social conditioning that women are primarily homemakers, which led to me leave my job to follow my husband as an expat wife. Despite being a strong and successful career woman, I couldn’t think of putting my career before my marriage and family. I wonder: if subtle, unconscious conditioning can affect someone like me, how would it affect women who are raised under a different set of rules and expectations?

5) How can we can address this?

We need to raise gender neutral children! Let boys and girls be alike and get rid of the gender stereotyping which starts when we buy blue for a baby boy and pink for baby girl!


 

Kim

 

 

1) Can you describe your identity? 

I am a Korean and have been living in Malaysia for many years. I am working in the entertainment industry and interestingly, living in Malaysia has opened my eyes to diversity and many cultures.

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

In Korea, there exists a stereotype that a woman is vulnerable and the weaker sex in society, but I believe a woman is stronger than what people in general think she is.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public? 

In the business world, people tend to take women for granted, they do not take a woman’s opinion and ideas seriously. We are living in this modern world, but equality between the sexes is not yet a full reality.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?  

It only creates a stronger stereotypical image of women in society, and women are unable to express themselves from the female’s point of view. It occurs even more in East Asia regions like Korea and Japan; even though they are open to accepting different ideas and influences beyond their shores, culture-wise they are still quite conservative which translates into their society and community (where attitudes towards women are concerned).

5) How can we can address this?

We should not take a provocative approach; instead, we should find a wiser way to change societal attitudes and behaviours towards women.


 

Archana

 

 

1) Can you describe your identity? 

I will be 27 in June. I am of the Indian race and Hindu religion. As a humanist and an existentialist, I believe everything and everyone deserves love and respect. My work revolves around youth.

2) What does being a woman mean to you?

It’s all about being present as a person, no less.

3) What are your most common experiences as a woman – be it at home/at work/at school/in public? 

I had a caring upbringing at home, although I’ve had relatives that imposed gender-based rules. I remember having arguments to explain why I should not do something just because my male cousin told me to do so. The argument went on for hours. It was all about girls doing what their brothers told them to. Growing up without a birth brother, I find the situation in contrary to my upbringing.

At school, I have had instances of being told that I was ‘too bold’ or ‘open’ by teachers and fellow students. Female students who exhibited feminine demeanour were more accepted. Thanks to my upbringing, I never felt the need to conform but to stand strong as an individual.

At work, I have been dismissed when faced with sexual assault by a foreign delegate during a conference in my first year of work with comments like, “it’s normal, because you are a girl” or something along the lines of “you pretty, mah” and “you are pretty, so that’s why”. Stereotyped gender roles were often discussed and emphasised, where I was told that women are responsible for the children and home while men work as the providers. We also had to conform to certain dress codes that are deemed acceptable or appropriate – I view this as a form of body policing towards women.

Waiters have ignored my order while in the presence of my father. I have been physically harassed after a car accident. What else? I think I can draw a long list.

However, I have had my privileges over the years, of being, meeting and working with amazing women leaders. Also, having a strong woman figure at home helped me become the woman I am today.

4) How has living in a male-dominated/ patriarchal society shaped you and the women around you?  

It has made me a tougher person, able to stand up for myself and others, be it family, friends or colleagues. I now make more conscious decisions for myself, from what I do, wear and so forth. When questioned about my actions, instead of being upset or bewildered, I turn the question into a constructive conversation to create a better understanding of the choices I make.

At times, I do get tired of having to explain why it’s not wrong for a female to do something that a male would. I have female friends who are psychologically “forced” to conform to wearing the headscarf, for example. There is a serious need to have a conversation about this. It is not merely gender-based discrimination, but it intersects with other forms of discrimination, too.

5) How can we can address this?

We need to stand strong for ourselves and not give in to discrimination just because it takes effort to stand up. In fact, we need to shake up society!

Awareness is the first step. The comes having conversations about the issue, and a solid plan of action to address the various forms of patriarchy in our society.

Among the actions we can take are having a safe space for communities to share their stories, actively debunking gender-based stereotypes in society, and creating an ecosystem that connects collective actions and individual actions. We need corporations and non-profit organisations to take measures on the state of gender inequality in their respective systems. This could potentially make a difference for the generations to come.

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