Truth be told, I never knew how dirty a word feminism was to most people.
Like Emma Watson, deciding to be a feminist has always been uncomplicated to me. Gender equality? Sure! I'm a woman, why on earth wouldn't I want the same rights as men? I grew up in a household of three women and one man - my mom, my sister, myself and my dad - so my childhood was marked by my sister and myself getting up to all sorts of dad-stressing mischief. At home, I was lucky to escape the most obvious misogyny. I wasn't loved less for being a girl.
I was 13 when I entered secondary school and my first all-girls environment of my life. To say I loved it would be an understatement - going to CHIJ Katong was the best educational experience of my formative years. (It's right up there with doing philosophy at university.) Being in a girl's school was empowering because I was never even presented with the option of chivalry, or letting guys carry heavy books or tables because it would be easier for them than for the girls. It never crossed my mind even once that there was anything guys could or should do that girls couldn't or shouldn't. We didn't care what we said, because we never had a 'feminine' image to maintain because we wanted to impress the boys.
When I went back to a mixed gender school at 17, I noticed for the first time how surprised and even uncomfortable the boys were with me, a girl, holding doors open, offering to carry heavy things, or do other things that were otherwise considered 'gentlemanly'. To me, it was courtesy; to them, it was chivalry. For the first time in my life, the great male-female divide was starting to become apparent.
Feminism in Singapore is rarely discussed, if at all, and the movement has yet to pick up substantial momentum here. While female rights groups such as AWARE are prominent in Singapore (if you excuse their big religious takeover saga a few years ago), the subject of gender equality is almost never discussed, overshadowed by racial harmony concerns.
I am one of the lucky ones. While it was always obvious to me that women and men should be given equal opportunities and treated equally, many Singaporeans - members of my own family included - believe that a woman's duty in life is to have children, and that a woman isn't complete until she's had them. (More about my child-free decision in another post.) Married women of child-bearing age are often looked over in job applications for fear that they may become pregnant and go on maternity leave. It is still commonly accepted here that women are less capable than men by nature of their sex.
Because of the lack of discussion of gender equality in Singapore, it wasn't until I lived in Edinburgh that I started becoming aware of just how much work still needed to be done. Until a couple of years ago, I never knew that there were people who equated feminism with 'man-hating'; it always puzzled me why any member of modern society would choose not to be a feminist.
2014 has been a hell of a year for feminism. It's been a wild ride, from Beyonce declaring herself a feminist in bright lights at the VMAs to Taylor Swift coming out as a feminist to Emma Watson's recent viral speech on gender equality for UN Women.
It's never been cooler to be a feminist than now.But feminism isn't something that should simply be 'cool' - at its core, feminism is gender equality. It's called 'feminism' because its beginnings are in the fight for women to be recognised as equal by men after centuries of patriarchal history, but really it wouldn't make a difference if you called it gender egalitarianism. Feminism's mission is the abolishment of gender roles, not the raising of one gender over another.
In China and India, female foetuses are regularly aborted. Perfectly healthy humans-to-be are denied life not because their parents aren't ready for them, not because they have some medical condition, but simply because of they aren't male. Women weren't accorded the right to vote until the close of the 19th century. In Saudi Arabia, a state known for its religious zealotry and gender-biased laws, 15 girls died in a fire after being prevented from leaving the burning school because they weren't covered or wearing an abaya, therefore being and were therefore considered sinful.
In all these cases, one thing is clear: women are categorically inferior to men, despite the fact that women are the crucibles of continuation of both male and female human life.
Feminism in some parts of the world - mostly the Nordic countries - has developed so that their biggest issues of contention have to do with numerary compensation, and for the most part men and women in society are treated equally. One of the most striking moments of my first trip to Norway in 2012 was being on the Metro and seeing a man with a baby stroller, with no wife or girlfriend anywhere in sight. Just a man and his kid, doing a parent's job.
The sad reality is that in most parts of the world, feminism's main goals are in stopping the objectification and sexual harassment of women, preventing and reporting domestic violence, and affirmation of female sexual autonomy and integrity. If a man sleeps around, he's a stud; if a woman sleeps around, she's a slut. While doing research for this piece, I came across this following paragraph:
Regardless of how you feel about promiscuity, we can all agree that a guy who manages to rack up a lot of sexual partners has to have some skills. It’s challenging for men to rack up partners, even for good-looking men or men with low standards. A man needs social intelligence, interpersonal skills, persistence, thick skin, and plain old dumb luck. For women, though, a vagina and a pulse is often enough. Whenever an accomplishment requires absolutely no challenge, no one respects it. It’s just viewed as a lack of self-discipline. People respect those who accomplish challenging feats, while they consider those who overindulge in easily obtained feats as weak, untrustworthy or flawed.UH, NO! The rest of the article is even worse, forgiving male sexual promiscuity because it is 'in line' with male evolutionary traits of trying to spread their seed. What a double standard! That's a slippery slope - any number of unacceptable behaviours can be excused because "it's just their biology", which turns the human species to non-rational animals.* For that matter, why is it of any importance at all how many partners you're able to rack up?! Does it matter at all if you've slept with one or ten partners? No one is judged based on their sexual prowess.
*I'm not saying that humans are better than animals, simply that the fact of our civilisation's progress against other intelligent species such as cetaceans and primates suggests that Homo sapiens has the capacity to act in manners that profoundly affect both our environment and social groups.
More importantly, feminism as gender egalitarianism means that these issues - objectification, sexual harassment, and domestic violence, and more - are just as much applicable to men as they are to women. Cases of male domestic violence and rape are vastly under-reported, with the victims suffering from the same issues as affect women rape and domestic violence victims: shame and embarrassment. And just to set the record straight, rape can happen even if the perpetrator is a partner or an ex-partner, and it can happen at home. Men can be victims just as much as women, but they are often prevented from asking for help for fear of being seen as weak and therefore less of a man.
Gender roles are still very much prevalent, and they hurt yourself and those around you.I have male friends who tell me they are upset by their virgin status, and that they feel ashamed for having to masturbate to a porno instead of going the whole way with a real human person. It makes them feel inadequate, they say. Is this really the kind of gender expectation we want to be forcing upon anyone?
Being a feminist isn't just about being trendy, or about being a part of the latest politically popular movement. A few years ago it was environmentalism, led by Leonardo Di Caprio; now it's feminism and female empowerment, led by stars Lorde, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. Having pop stars champion these moments is important because it makes them visible and gives the movement the ability to clear up any misdefinitions of what the word really means. Too long has feminism been associated with bra-burning angry women.
The Hollywood visibility of feminism today not only tells audiences that being a feminist is okay; it is also a reminder that women and men both have autonomous bodies and that it is never acceptable to violate the integrity of that body without their consent.For any socio-political movement, almost nothing can be more valuable than the endorsement of a celebrity. It's not that any one celebrity's endorsement can be a 'game-changer' - yes it's true, Emma Watson's UN speech did go viral and spark a great deal of response - but as this article says:
Every few months, it seems as if the media identifies an actress as the new young feminist darling, and Emma Watson is only the latest in the procession. Emma Watson may be making feminism more palatable for people who aren't comfortable with in-your-face confrontations from less camera-friendly feminists, but she isn't doing anything new or groundbreaking.So Emma's UN speech, for the most part, was written for the same demographic as she came from - white, young, privileged, from a Western country. But unlike Amy McCarthy, who wrote the above quote, I don't think that Emma Watson has done nothing at all for the face of feminism. Emma's role, and the role of other feminist celebrities, is precisely that of making feminism palatable. And making feminism palatable is that most important first step toward gaining momentum that leads to lasting change for both women and men.
Images here, here, here, here, here and here.