I AM not going to swear, bitch or rant here. There are plenty of self-righteous blogs clouding cyberspace with a miasma of cynicism and despair. This will not be another placard-toting essay about the world diseased with corruption and inequality. It is a familiar path I have taken several times through numerous letters to the editor and blog entries I have written. However, today, I will try to take the road less travelled, and start with my own story.
When I was young, I wore skirts while jumping on trampolines with my neighbour, and played with Barbie dolls decked in dirty white satin. I didn’t really conceptualise myself as a “girl”, as in distinct from “boy”.
Then, when I turned 14, the fact that I was a “girl” was branded on my flesh, leaving a scar that I cannot erase until now.
I was molested by a shopkeeper.
I’d felt my dressing had somehow induced him to do it, so I’d shoved the clothes I’d worn to the back of my closet and had refused to take them out again.
Years later, I realised it was an act of violence against me because I was female. The numerous catcalls I received while walking on streets; endless admonitions from parents and society to be wary of going out at night; sexist remarks from friends and strangers alike — it all made me feel that this is not a woman’s world.
I cannot walk out in public without being stared, hooted or whistled at, no matter what I’m dressed in. A man, on the other hand, can walk out jauntily without fearing such harassment.
(Illustration by Nick Choo) Most men have the freedom and security in being the status quo. The status-quo male is free to be himself, knowing that his gender will not be brought up whenever he does certain things, like being a fierce boss, or driving a car. He receives political, social and economic power, as long as he remains within the confines of his gender role.
However, if a man espouses a different masculinity, say, by staying home to take care of the kids or do the housework, some men may taunt him for being a sissy, while some women may accuse him of being a henpecked husband.
A man’s world
Certain places are designed with men in mind. Many workplaces are not equipped with childcare facilities, which hampers mothers from working, since patriarchy determines that women are caretakers first.
If a man wants a promotion, he is most likely able to work until late at night; he does not need to worry, the way a woman has to, about security guards to escort him back to his car in a dark parking lot. If I live to see Malaysia in 50 years’ time, I hope to see women being carefree as they walk the streets at night, instead of being held hostage because of their gender.
When I was exposed to feminism, I began to see the world through the lens of gender and began advocating for the rights of young women. It was only recently that I realised, as “feminist” as some women claim to be, their unconscious behaviours expose the stereotypes they thought they had expelled.
A male friend told me that when he was working with some feminists, they expected him to chase a cockroach out of the room. He felt he was expected to do so simply because he was a man.
My friend might have been mistaken. Perhaps those women really were afraid. However, he had received comments from some feminists who had attributed some of his actions to his gender. It appears that patriarchy is so deeply embedded in our psyche that even feminists unconsciously reinforce it.
(© Valentina Jori / sxc.hu)
While there have been some efforts to involve men in the fight for gender equality, I feel that in Malaysia, the battle still remains largely a woman’s battle, while men are left (or choose to remain) on the sidelines. For example, there is more focus on maternity leave issues, rather than pressing for paternity leave.
Should men be the ones to fight for paternity leave? How can they do so if they are not even aware of the way patriarchy shoehorns them into a restrictive type of masculinity? And how can they gain awareness when most women’s groups in Malaysia do not continuously make conscious efforts to engage with men in their mission to destroy patriarchal structures?
In feminist literature, femininity has been deconstructed; can there not also be a simultaneous deconstruction of masculinity, eventually leading to the destruction of gender entirely?
The elimination of gender
As long as men are separated physically, mentally, and socially from women in this struggle, gender inequality will never be eliminated because such separation keeps the concept of gender alive in people’s consciousness. As it is, when all kinds of forms still contain “male” or “female” boxes to tick, and suffixes like “Mr” and “Miss” perpetuate gender divisions in the mind, eliminating the thought of “men” or “women” certainly seems impossible.
However, a significant event happened in Malaysia not long after our 50th anniversary: the coalition that had ruled for the past 50 years lost its crucial two-thirds majority in parliament. It is an event that is spreading currents of change through every part of the nation. I believe that a change of equal significance and impact can happen in the next 50 years.
That is when I hope to see the word “gender” eliminated from dictionaries and from people’s mindsets. There will be neither women nor men — only people. Only then will gender equality be truly internalised, because humankind would have recognised how they were privileged and disadvantaged by patriarchy in unique ways, and would have striven to resolve these differences together on a single platform.
Boo Su-Lyn is passionate about Jesus, feminism and writing. She has published a short story, a poem and many letters to the editor under the name RK Boo. She aspires to be a novelist, and is an alumnus of the All Women’s Action Society (Awam) Writers for Women’s Rights Programme.