- Published on Wednesday, 28 January 2015 08:53
I am a feminist.
There I said it, without fear of being chastised or reprimanded. Okay, I know maybe you think, is there a need to say it out loud?
The answer is Yes.
Over the years, I learnt that people around me seems to think that being feminist is no longer relevant. Somehow the word ‘feminist’ itself is an “ugly” word.
People say it is provocative, reprehensible and sinister. Evidently, it is hard to be a feminist in Malaysia - where the conservative majority believes that it is too forward-thinking and too “Western”.
Well, if fighting for my rights is considered all of the above, I don’t mind being “it”.
For those who want to judge, please hit the brakes. Perhaps, you hate feminists and feminism because you don’t understand what that means.
The root, I believe, for so much hatred towards us feminists is due to misconception of what it means by being a feminist.
Feminism, for the record is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”
A feminist, quite obviously, is a person who believes in the said theory.
27-year-old Hollywood actress, Ellen Page said: “Why are people so reluctant to say they’re feminists?”
This is the question, which she further elaborates: “Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?”
Yes, isn’t that obvious. Ms. Page is speaking as a young American woman. Can you imagine the extent of patriarchal influence in Malaysia? To deny the fact that, Malaysia is a patriarchal society is like shooting yourself in the foot. It is a denial that is more foolish than that onesies trend (no offence to their fans).
“Well, feminism challenges the status quo in Malaysia. Men now have to share employment and education opportunities with women,” Maria Chin Abdullah, executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) told Malaysian Digest recently, when asked about the reason behind negative perception of feminism and what the word actually meant.
At the start of the feminist movement in Malaysia in 1920s, the fight is unlike in developed countries like United States and Britain, where the early movements focus on women’s suffrage (the right to vote).
Malaysia, being a post-colonial state had given equal opportunity to vote for both men and women from the start.
The early feminist ‘movement’ you will be surprised to know was led by Malay Muslim and male reformer Syed Syeikh Al-Hadi when he wrote a piece published in Al-Ikhwan about the Kemajuan Kaum Perempuan (women’s development). It then evolved to a more “radical” movement headed by prominent feminists like Shamsiah Fakeh and Khatijah Sidek. The focus is first on women’s emancipation and liberation through education, and later emphasized on aggressively questioning women’s inferior status in occupied Malaya.
“Feminism has already been a part of our lives since the beginning (1940s). We just never labeled it. People who condemned feminism forget that this is the very movement that fought for women to receive education. If I remember correctly, my grandmother never went to school.
“If not for feminism, your daughter probably will also not be in school now,” Maria said spiritedly.
Despite all the negative connotation and all those who are not brave enough to come forward and admit that they are in fact, a feminist, hope spring eternal for you, ladies.
Recently, UN Women had launched a campaign called HeForShe Impact 10x10x10 initiative (a mouthful, I know), which a one year pilot project - geared towards advancing women’s empowerment by working with and reaching out to related stakeholders, in particular, men.
What’s interesting about the project is that they decided to enlist Emma Watson, a young Hollywood actress, to be the UN goodwill ambassador and the face of the project.
Perhaps, we need to have a young female role model in the country to gain traction for the fight for Malaysian women - and to bridge the gap between feminists, the indifferent and the overwhelmingly large number of anti-feminists here.
All Talk, Not Much Listening
It is clear there is a lack of understanding of the word 'feminist' itself. Sometimes, it is comical to see some really backward statement - that not only undermine feminism but also choose to insult it - proof that bigotry is alive in Malaysia.
Get this, last year Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) president Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman was reported as saying that feminism is a facade used by a secret Zionist-Christian alliance to dishonor Muslim women.
He went on to rant that feminism, which seeks to promote women’s rights and gender equality is “a cynical ploy which aims to commoditize women and help capitalists control the world.”
Wow, what a statement. The “wow”, you see is not in a good way. So much bravado for such an unenlightened statement.
Maria Chin thinks the misconception towards feminists is due the mass media coverage. “There are a lot of wrong perceptions and I would rather people find out what feminism is all about first (before passing judgment).
“Anyone who actually are against domestic violence, rape, maltreatment and are supporting equality between men and women, they are actually a feminist. If they are fighting for inequality, they are also fighting for women,” she said.
In short, if you are fighting for women, you are a feminist.
Meanwhile, Sisters in Islam (SIS) communication officer Aliah Ali said this: “The word ‘feminist’ has a negative connotation in Malaysia because many parties that oppose it have presented feminism as being incompatible with our culture and religion, notably the religion of Islam.
“Many opponents of feminism argue that Islam already secures the rights of women, thus framing feminism as a Western import aimed to undermine the religion and is therefore redundant,” she said.
This representation of feminism, being incompatible with Islam has contributed to the fear of the word feminism, despite the fact that Islam and feminism are actually not at odds.
“This is because feminism upholds the values of justice and equality which are espoused in the Quran with the aim of bringing about gender equality in an egalitarian society,” she said.
I don’t know about calling Malaysia an egalitarian society when the evidence points to the contrary but SIS has put forward a good point: Islam and feminism is indeed, compatible.
It is safe to say here, that there is a grave need for awareness of what constitutes a feminist, and a deeper understanding of feminism in general.
A Feminist Is Not A Man Hater, Feminism is About Men Too
Watson, in her speech at a special event for the HeForShe campaign last 20 September 2014 highlighted a pertinent fact that feminism is not just a women’s issue.
In the speech, she lamented: “I was appointed six months ago and the more I have spoken about feminism the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing that I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.”
Besides pointing out that “feminism has become an unpopular word”, Watson, as the face of the campaign that attempt to “galvanize” men and boys to be advocates for gender equality, also said to men around the world: “Gender equality is your issue too”.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. For Malaysians, the focus of women’s issues that we fight for aside from gender parity in family and in the workplace are undoubtedly very pertinent issues such as fight against violence against women, the right to equal access to healthcare, and better representation in the parliament and the boardroom.
Others like SIS, for example focus on equality of men and women in a family by pushing for Islamic Family Law reform, in which certain provisions currently discriminate against women.
Of course, looking at the cases of violence, rape, forced and child marriages in Malaysia, there is a huge need to be vigilant in protecting women.
Still, there is also a need to have an alternative conversation that includes men, so, while being defensive, we have to show that we are not weak - we are their equal. If we want to be equal, we need to be on the same table as men and let them participate in our conversation, even if they are misogynists or an ignorant.
As Watson said: “We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that if they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive.”
What’s Next For Feminism? Harnessing Celebrity Power
Before we look further on the future of feminism, I want to emphasize two things. One, we should give more weight to the women who are fighting tirelessly for our women rights, not just in Malaysia, but around the world.
NGOs, women rights group like Sisters In Islam, Empower, WAO, AWAM and many more in Malaysia have been putting a good fight, and they should keep on fighting.
It is admirable, for someone like 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai to receive Nobel Peace Prize last in October last year, besides being the runner-up for TIME Person of the year in 2012 for advocating for girl’s education in challenging country like Pakistan.
Two, we, feminists need to gain traction, someone to publicly dispel the negative connotation on feminism and feminists. We should not bow down to labels and stereotypes they are not only demeaning but also damaging to the actual fight.
Ultimately, what we probably need is perhaps a public face to this fight. Malaysian singing icon Ning Baizura chipped in on this: “Definitely, we should have celebrities who we look up as a role model to correct misperception and misconception about feminism.”
However, she noted that there are celebrities in Malaysia who are a role model and those who are not, so we should be selective.
“We don’t have to fight with men all the time. It is all about getting and giving respect. Part of the challenges is overcoming insecurities, once we are able to do that, we would be able to stand proud and stand tall,” she said.
Yet, she also admitted that not many, even in Hollywood are brave enough to come up and say that “I am a feminist”. “Given the choice, I would like to fight for women’s rights,” she added.
Stop Fooling Yourselves, We Are Not Equal Yet
What is most important is for women to realize that there is a need, to say the least, for feminism for Malaysia.
In 2012, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has reportedly dismissed the need for women’s rights groups in Malaysia, saying equality has been given “from the start”.
He also claimed that Malaysia is even more advanced than developed nations in this aspect, while adding that the success of Malaysian women was well known “to the extent that men are said to be an endangered species.”
The outrageous claim, has predictably met with opposition online and offline.
Aliah commented: “We need to recognize the constant narrative coming from those in positions of power who continue to downplay the different forms of discrimination faced by women claiming that Malaysia has already achieved gender equality.
“The illusion of equality and the denial of the realities faced by women has then led many to dismiss the need for feminism in Malaysia.”
Maria also criticized Najib’s statement; she said that Malaysia has not even reached 20 per cent representation, where it currently stands at 10 per cent or below.
She said our neighbors, for example Thailand and Indonesia are reaching 20 to 30 percent women representation and even new nations like Timor Leste has reached 30 per cent women representation.
“We want women to be in parliament so that we can have good enough policies to protect women...we don’t have enough of them. Men can talk on behalf of women but how many men are talking about it? Very few. That is the reality,” she said.
According to a Unicef study in 2009, women only made up 6.1 per cent of corporate directors and 7 per cent of CEOs in Bursa Malaysia’s 100 largest company.
I guess this really means that we should stop fooling ourselves, men and women in Malaysia are never, and have never been equal.
We, Malaysian women should not be afraid to speak up. Saying I am not a feminist, doesn’t always mean that you are not. So, why bother to hide behind verbal diarrhea or be in outright denial.
So, go ahead and say it: “I am a feminist”. Proudly.