The Struggles of Malaysian Women

By Siti Abdul-Muttalib

“Only boys are allowed to be Scouts!” This was the rule proclaimed after I asked permission to join the Scouts’ team when I was 13 years old, back in 1996. As more and more secondary schools granted female students the right to be part of a Scout team, I was startled with this decision which decreed that no girls were allowed to join and it struck me as discriminatory. For him, a Scout team is male-dominated and requires much physical strength. This so-called “unjust ruling” left me with the choice of joining either the Girl Guides or St. John Ambulance: I chose the latter. Since that life-changing event, I became more critical and defensive towards gender dynamics because, prior to this, I had always been made to believe that boys were superior and that undervaluing and belittling girls is correct to be commonly accepted. Likewise, I used to be convinced that in a male-centric field, women are supposed to passively accept what occurs around them. A woman cannot be as dominant, aggressive, competitive or outspoken as a man, and if she is, she will be stereotyped, scrutinised and discriminated against by others. But it is unexceptional if a man is any of these things.

I am neither a female chauvinist nor a sexist so to speak, but I believe in equality for all. I live in a country that has yet to give equal rights to women. Despite the fact that rapid steps to address Malaysian women’s issues are being taken, there is still a long way to go  most notably in areas where women are hindered in reaching high-ranking positions, and where equal political participation is concerned, women remain underrepresented. Discrimination; patriarchal attitudes and perpetuating stereotypes towards women; violation of women’s right; gendered constraints due to women’s reproductive roles; different retirement ages, such as in the case of female flight attendants on the National airline (MAS). These are merely some examples of a never-ending list of unequal practices.

Ironically, Malaysia celebrated its 57th Independence Day this year but, overall, the concerted efforts to address women’s issues are not proportional to women’s invaluable contribution and plethora of efforts to the nation’s accelerated economic growth and rapid development.

Nonetheless, what appeals to me most is how globalisation affects Malaysia and has implications from a gender perspective. Globalisation has different interpretations and meanings. It is crucial to consider the consequences globalisation will have on gender mainstreaming and policy formation. It is vital to identify globalisation and examine the qualitative changes that could affect women. And if globalisation does have a positive impact, why are Malaysian women still not equal to their male counterparts? Before dealing with the conditions of development, we must take into account the consequences and intricacies that this will bring to society in terms of gender. Any assessment of the merits and perilous effects of globalisation would be inadequate if differences between women and men are not taken into account. Gender-based differences are significant in the formulation of effective and efficient strategies and action plans. The alarming question that we have to ask ourselves is how can we utilise and re-design the forces of globalisation to further empower women? And how long will it take for Malaysian women to be accepted as first class citizens? It seems like the journey to victory is still impenetrable.

End of Year Rankings? We’re All Losers When it Comes to Gender Inequality

By Kaammini Chanrai

Given that it’s coming to the end of the year, it’s somewhat unsurprising that several articles have featured highlights of the past twelve months. Multiple times a day, such articles are shared or posted by friends of mine on various social networks: ‘Best TV Moments of 2014’, ‘Most Important Cats of the Year’, ‘Top Goals So Far This Season’ – they’re ubiquitous and, to be honest, they’re often quite entertaining.

Also this year, feminism has gained an even stronger presence in the media. This has been – from my experience – predominantly positive, with an increasing amount of individuals debating feminist issues online, discussing gender inequality and analysing occurrences and events from a gender perspective.  But of course I would say that this is a good thing, given that Gender and the City has attempted to join in on this conversation.

However, the intersection of media discussions on feminism and end-of-year reviews has, for me, been rather disturbing. For example, the most recent article to appear on my ‘News Feed’ named Emma Watson the ‘Feminist Celebrity of the Year’. Now, Emma Watson has undoubtedly made some significant achievements in 2014 pertaining to feminism: her speech at the UN catalysed an array of conversations about gender universally; the #HeForShe campaign that was launched aimed to engage 1 billion men and boys by July 2015; and she attempted to reduce the stigma that is often attached to feminism as a term by embracing it continuously throughout her argument. I do not have a problem with Emma Watson, although I am aware that there are several imperfections of both her speech and the campaign. I do, however, have a problem with assigning anyone with this label. The Feminist Celebrity of the Year was not an isolated ‘award’. There were articles that listed ‘The Most Iconic Feminist Moments of 2014’, ‘The Top Feminist Fiascos of 2014’, ‘The Most Powerful Feminist Moments of 2014’, etc. Why the media insist on ranking the winners and losers of feminism is beyond me.

Let me first try to add a positive spin to these lists. Firstly, they do seem to create awareness of certain events that occurred throughout this year, both in terms of how gender inequality is still a very real problem and the efforts that are being exerted to alleviate this inequality. Secondly, they mostly illustrate feminism as a positive notion and aim to dismantle the stigma often associated with the term.

However, there are still several inherently problematic aspects of classifying feminism and gender inequality in this way. These lists propagate that there is a single notion of feminism that can be classified in some sort of objective order. This simplifies the very notion of feminism, which is a complex and diverse term. I understand that everybody adopts their own individual notion of what feminism is and such articles simply aim to illustrate an individual’s perspective. This would not be a problem except that these lists are available to a mass audience and exemplify feminism and gender inequality in a specifically narrow way. For example, many of these rankings featured stories and individuals predominantly from America and the UK, generally with high-profile celebrity status. Newsflash: the fight against gender inequality is happening everywhere and, I’m sorry, but Taylor Swift identifying as a feminist has not helped to improve equality this year. Sure, such celebrities may have made feminism more ‘cool’ but, let’s face it, that’s about the extent of the effect this has had.

The so-called ‘winners’ of these lists are somewhat questionable as well. On several of these articles, Beyoncé featured quite significantly. I would call myself a Beyoncé fan but, if I’m being truly honest, to call her the epitome of modern-day feminism is troubling. Yes, she performed in front of a giant sign reading ‘Feminist’ and, yes, she wrote a very impressive feminist essay. While I am more than willing to accept that it is difficult to get things 100% right all of the time, it still makes me uncomfortable that somebody who normalised scenes of domestic violence in one of her songs is lauded as a superhero who is mitigating gender inequality.

Call me extreme, but I believe that such arbitrary rankings have the capacity to cause a detachment from our very humanity. What’s next? A ranking of ‘The Saddest Events to Happen in 2014’? Will the Ebola virus be placed top because of the deeply saddening death toll or will the recent attacks at a school in Peshawar clinch the title because the majority of those who were murdered were innocent children? Frankly, that would be ludicrous – both are awful, alongside countless other events of 2014. Attempting to decide which is worse does not only demonstrate a lack of tactfulness: it shows a fundamental lack of empathy. Human lives are lost. All these events are tragic.

Gender inequality is a reality that we face everyday, universally. It isn’t a competition where we should pit achievements against each other. If someone is doing something to tackle this inequality, it should be celebrated. If an event occurred that demonstrated that this inequality is being challenged, it should be celebrated. But please, let’s stop ranking this for our own entertainment. Because when it truly comes down to it, the fact that gender equality is still not a reality, renders us all losers. That incremental steps are being made to confront this inequality will hopefully make us winners. But nobody has won yet, so please let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Reconciling the Personal and the Political

By Kate Gilchrist

I can feel the blood rising, a quickening of the heartbeat, flushing of the face, shifting in my seat, and an urge to either shout out or leave the room.

‘I’m sorry, but you just can’t deny there is a biological-based difference between the way men and women behave.’

This statement was voiced by only one relative at a recent family gathering, but it reflected the room’s general consensus following a prolonged discussion. We had been discussing why, in the case of a couple that we know, the woman was keenly waiting for her male partner to propose marriage rather than asking him herself. The conversation had swung back, as ever, to a familiar biologically based reinscription of gender binaries.

I’ve never been a fan of confrontation (seriously, who is?) and I’ve always been one to enjoy trying to understand others’ points of view, especially as part of lively debate. For me, I believe that there is no black and white with any issue, no ‘truth’ or explicit ‘right or wrong’ on either side. But as I tried to put forward my own point of view  which was in direct opposition to everyone else in the room — I realised it felt totally different and much, much harder than having a discussion in university with classmates, or a chat with friends in the pub. It was even harder than chipping in to a conversation in the office, where, as heated as they can get, there is a distance which acts as an emotional buffer.

It seems there is something acutely upsetting (surely I’m not alone here), about having such distinctly different views to those who you not only love, but also respect and look to for guidance and understanding in every other area of your life. Those with whom your other views in most other areas largely align, which is, by and large, why they are close to you.

And so while I, on the one hand, tried to argue my point as much as possible, I was also listening to a voice in my head saying that I didn’t want to cause a rupture within a group of people that I love and want to have the best possible relations with. This voice said that I had to close the debate down before it got any more heated; that I should not say everything that I wanted to say; that I should not ultimately try to ‘win’ the argument (perhaps unfair to me, since I’ve heard a lot more of the different standpoints on such topics, having studied it). I’ve always felt that convincing someone to agree with your point of view is not necessarily the goal of a heated discussion. Getting your view out there  even if just to make someone aware that this other point of view exists, even if they then choose to dismiss it  can still create a small shift in their consciousness. Maybe even, at some level, open them up to a wider perspective. But in this context the stakes seemed higher, heightened by emotion and the need for them to understand where I was coming from, which made it even more important to me. Realistically, I know that’s very unlikely to happen as they have not been exposed to the arguments that I have, and they are not as interested in exploring these issues — and that’s entirely their prerogative.

But as Kaammini outlined in her blog on why she decided to set up Gender and the City, there is a point at which each of us who want to do our bit to reduce any harm caused by how gender is constructed, feel like we can no longer stay quite on such issues. We know that the personal is political: it is the very stuff that makes up our day to day lives, in every situation, and at every moment. We know that gender is everywhere and we know that such debates and confrontation are inescapable as a result. If we don’t address it in our personal lives we are arguably doing as much harm as any far-reaching social policy.

There will always be disagreement  even within feminism and gender  as we all have different perspectives and positions. But how do we get over this stumbling block? How do we assert our point of view and attempt to challenge the status quo when our personal relationships may be at stake and the emotional fallout, from our perspective, too great? How do we discuss these issues without such negative emotions and frustrations holding us back or causing us too much damage?

I don’t want to fall out with anyone whom, on every other level, I love and respect. One of the things about gender is that, because it’s all around us, it often comes up in everyday conversation and appears to many as an easily resolvable issue (I’m sure if my Master’s had been in quantum physics, say, I would have less people offering me their opinion on the subject). And just because they haven’t thought about it as much as me doesn’t mean that their opinion is less relevant, but it does mean there is an imbalance between how much emotional investment they have in said subject compared to me. Mostly, they aren’t getting upset like me. I can only conclude that in order to continue to raise such issues I need to forcibly separate my emotions from the discussion. But it is a difficult line to tread and one I am still struggling with to the point that I often have stop conversations, go silent, or actively avoid such topics, in order to preserve relationships that are important to me. This often feels like a very uncomfortable position to be in.

In the situation described above, I will confess that I just told myself to stop talking, limit the damage, change the subject and go home. So I stepped outside thinking I just need to calm down; not get so worked up about such matters in these situations; not hold my family to account in terms of gender politics, and questioned whether is was worth it (to me) to spoil such occasions  “making” problems where there are none. So there I was standing waiting for the bus home, on a quiet, dark corner in south London, when a man appeared from around the corner and starts harassing me, saying he wants to talk to me, take me out sometime etc, even though I am completely ignoring him… Thankfully the bus arrived almost immediately. But it reminded me of exactly why such discussions are so important, and can’t be ignored and why we can’t give up and why we have to make these connections. No matter how hard it is. Perhaps a necessary part of putting gender in the centre of our lives is harnessing the emotion that it raises rather than ignoring it and channelling it in the right direction. Easier said than done.

Why We Should All Listen to Erasure – “A Little Respect”

By Elena Sabatini

A week ago, as I cursed the CityMapper app for lying to me about when my bus would arrive, a banal and yet pervasive intuition swept over me as I realised my frustrations with urban life.

Newsflash: there is very little that I am actually in control of.

It doesn’t matter that CityMapper has been saying that the 91 bus will arrive in 2 minutes for the past 15 – sometimes buses get stuck and I should deal with it.

It doesn’t matter that I tried, for hours, to force myself to be in a good mood before going to that party and, once I arrived, realised I would have much rather socialised with the tub of ice cream in my freezer. I cannot fully control my mood and state of mind on any given day – not even upon command.

It doesn’t matter if I always give evils to the “leering loiterers” close to my flat who were there when I returned from that party. No matter the amount of freezing stare-downs I give them, they always hang out in the same spot.

It was the kind of whooshing moment when all other nagging thoughts melted away, and all of a sudden, I was filled with an odd and pervading sense of serenity. We all spend so much time trying to control our surroundings; the environment we thrive in; the way the shopkeeper, our colleagues and the people we love think of us. Yet very little comes of our meddling.

Hold on though. Yes, the outside world is complex, unpredictable and sometimes near intractable. But Newsflash #2, there is one thing that is almost completely within our control: the way we choose to relate to others. And in my epiphany-inebriated mind, it occurred to me that the best way to go about that might be by adding a little human decency and empathy to our lives.

Hear me out for a second here: despite the cheesiness, the implications of this are fairly immense. I sometimes wonder what passes through the creepy guys’ heads when they are undressing a girl with their looks. What is it exactly that makes them think that she appreciates being looked at like an inanimate object? Those looks – and the obscene words on the street – only have the effect of stripping a human being of the feeling that they have a right to decide when, and with whom, they can have an interaction of any type. In other words, those looks and those words imply that the ‘hot’ girl is less worthy of dignity, or that she might even be regarded as a lesser human being.

Yet the optimist in me carries on believing that if we all started to actively control our interactions in a positive way, the issue of creepy stares – amongst others – would at least be alleviated. Granting someone the dignity they deserve is not a magical cure, but it certainly would improve the quality of life of many girls – and their evenings.

In the context of gender inequality, I do not think that advocating dignity should be a one-way street, merely from men to women. Quite the opposite: I am prone to believing that gender stereotypes disfavour both women and men. Most of us are quite wrapped up in our ‘socially constructed’ armour which, for women, often tends to translate into insecurity about appearance and intelligence but also about their physical safety. On the other hand, the macho and closed-off model is one that many men are confronted with.

In 2012, 4,590 men in the UK committed suicide. That is almost four times the number of women who took their own lives that same year. Now try and tell me that the fact that lots of men are discouraged from opening up is not a key factor behind these numbers. I believe that the simple action of granting others the dignity, respect and empathy they deserve could vastly improve our social situation: how comfortable we feel about opening up; how comfortable we feel walking down an empty street at night; how comfortable we feel in having a relationship with whomever we want, whenever we chose.

On a personal level, I believe that people exerting a positive control over how they relate to others would eventually allow me to feel comfortable when I’m out alone in the evenings – even on a night bus at 3am, and even if I choose to wear ‘that dress.’ Last, but by no means least, positive control over how we conduct ourselves would allow me (and many others, I’m sure) to feel comfortable to chose the tub of ice cream over the party every once in a while.

Despite my enthusiasm, I’m aware that the granting of dignity and empathy is not some ground-breaking epiphany or revolutionary gender theory. It’s just a question of basic humanity, really. But as far as I’m concerned, I shall carry on proclaiming my newsflashes with undying exuberance at least until I stop questioning whether or not I should wear ‘that dress’ before leaving my flat.

What is ‘Normal’?

By Jessie Brookes

If you type ‘romance’ into Google Images, you have to browse through over a thousand photos before reaching one that does not contain some reference to a heterosexual relationship. Preconceptions of what is deemed to be ‘normal’ social behaviour are constantly challenged in the world that we live in and yet if we listen carefully to the background noise, it appears that the pressure to be ‘normal’ has an unfaltering presence in everything we do.

In this post-modern world, the need to be different has become paramount. We aspire to stand out from the crowd, to escape stereotypes, to be individuals in our own rights. And yet stereotypes still exist, everyone still fits into categories — and these categories are either normative, or they are not.

Even within social scientific research — where the goal is surely to gain access to objective truths (or the closest equivalent) — categories are predefined. Studies will occur on homosexual behaviour; or females between the ages of 18-25; or British Asians — as though by narrowing down the field of research to a category smaller than ‘human’, one will be able to understand that category more fully.

Heterosexuality is rarely studied in its own right, but is instead used as a comparison within the study of activities that may be considered less common. Is this because the majority of people are heterosexual, and therefore feel no need to research what are considered to be the obvious and accepted activities involved? Or do ‘normal’ people have an acute lack of awareness of the presence of normativity — a subconscious sense of entitlement not to be marginalised? Is it possible that heterosexual behaviour is the norm purely by chance? Clearly, in terms of survival, there is a biological need for a certain amount of heterosexuality within a species, but why has the conclusion been drawn that it is normal and natural for people to have singularly exclusive heterosexual relationships?

It terrifies me to think about how much of my behaviour could be purely attributed to social constructions. If I had been born in a different age, with different parents, or in a different country, would social constructions have molded me to be of a different sexual orientation? Would it be possible for someone to be marginalised because of their heterosexuality in a different reality? I don’t know. I simply find it hard to grasp the extent to which I am defined by social norms. I am a woman, and therefore subordinate. But not through the fault of any one man; not through the fault of any one person. I am subordinate because hundreds upon hundreds of years of socially accepted inequality have occurred. I wonder whether this gives me any right to complain (or I wonder: does this give me any right to complain?). Should we assume that things become social norms because they are the best of all possible options? Should we accept that things have become ingrained within society because they work? I hope not, but it worries me sometimes.

More importantly, assuming we will not sit back and allow social constructions to define our standing in society, how can we begin to instigate change? It has been done, to a certain extent, in many situations. Our prejudices against others change according to what we feel we are able to accept, and what we feel will fit in with how we perceive a functional society. But I sometimes get the impression that ‘accepting’ is often enacted in a way akin to ‘humouring’ rather than it being based on genuine inclusivity and celebration of difference. How can this change? Should it? I think so, but I am often at a loss as to how.