By Angelica Chong (14A01B), Daniella Low (14A01B), Gao Wenxin (14A03A)
What does feminism mean for the modern woman? Has gender equality really been achieved? Do boys need feminism? Join us as we chat with three Rafflesian feminists, Sugidha Nithi, a former litigator and current in-house lawyer; Teng Qian Xi, a feminist writer and teacher; and Wong Pei Chi, a board member of AWARE; as they share their experiences as a feminist and give valuable insights into gender and social issues pertinent to the modern Singaporean woman.
THE NEW AGE OF FEMINISM
Feminism is no longer about bra-burning or man-hating. Third-wave feminism today is not constrained by a rigid framework or a set of criteria that delineates what is feminist and what is not. What used to be structured advocacy—think back to the suffragette movements of the early 20th century—is now represented more and more commonly as the personal embodiment of feminist ideals. The process of becoming a feminist is very organic—most people’s paths to feminism, including our interviewees’, stem from personal issues that they hold close to their heart, and not lofty principles that are somehow separated from what they go through every day.
Today’s feminism deals not only with core issues like the legal and reproductive rights of women, but has branched out to tackle the fundamental biases present in society’s delineation of gender roles. Feminism today is deeply personal—it deals with the everyday experiences of any woman on the street: casual sexism in the judgment of women based on what they wear and how they look, indiscriminate name-calling, and the perpetuation of gender stereotypes that are, ultimately, needlessly binary and artificial.
Most people think of feminism as a set of lofty ideals, or a movement that demanded radicalization and the choosing of ‘sides’. More and more people today, however, fall into feminism in ways that, at first, seem to have nothing to do with what is conventionally defined as ‘women’s rights’ at all.
For Ms Teng Qian Xi, educational and professional privileges meant that she had never considered how her gender affected the reception of her work as a writer and political critic. Instead, her entry point into feminism had been through body acceptance blogs: ‘By 2009, I think I had not shaken off the understanding that the way I looked was still a huge determinant of my value as a person, no matter how many other accomplishments I’d racked up along the way. It was a really big psychological block.’
While some might not be able to see the link between body acceptance and feminism—or, to be more specific, mainstream second-wave feminism—it is a growing field within third-wave feminism that focuses on women who are discriminated against because of their size. Fat-positive feminism might seem inconsequential to some when compared to the strides taken for the emancipation of women and various workplace and reproductive rights, but it must be understood that the casual dismissal of supposedly trivial issues like body acceptance is the product of a historically oppressive patriarchal society.
As Ms Wong Pei Chi pointed out, various microaggressions that occur in the form of lookist comments and the casual stereotyping of women lead to an overall negative effect: ‘All these things build up and tend to have a cumulative effect, especially in a workplace where I, personally, as a young woman, had the least power in the whole hierarchy. They don’t necessarily directly impede you in your work, but the link between the underlying attitudes and actual behaviour is what worries me.’
While there are plenty of women like Ms Sugidha who are able to turn the tables around on this kind of pervasive mindset, such as using the underestimation of male counterparts to their advantage; in the end these are, as Ms Wong says, ‘individual solutions to structural problems’ where the woman’s ability to handle the pressure and constant casual sexism in the workplace is contingent on how well she is able to stand up to it personally. Even then, research has shown that women in power are often accused of being overly ‘aggressive’ or ‘bitchy’ even when all the traits they display are positively described as assertive features when seen in men. It is no wonder, then, that women who are merely asking for the space they should have in a largely patriarchal and exclusive system, are not as placid as society would like them to be.
Feminism has often been accused of being overly radical, angry, and man-hating, so much so that a number of feminists have raised the question of feminism’s image and whether a revamp is in order. What is left unaddressed, even today, is the inherently imbalanced power structure in society: the society where man is still the default and everything else is defined in relation to that. Feminists have always been accused of man-hating because it is a very effective way of silencing a threatening movement. Thus when feminists point out and object to oppression, abuse and discrimination—be it the prevalence of domestic violence to cat-calling in the streets— this is framed as misandry in order to vilify feminists so that the patriarchal behaviour can continue unchecked.
As Ms Sugidha Nithi commented, ‘Just because you hate the inequality, doesn’t mean you hate men. What you hate is the structure that gives them the benefits they have. You shouldn’t have to be apologetic—nobody has to be apologetic about feeling angry for something they believe in.’ Instead of tone-policing and shifting the onus onto feminists to present their views in a palatable way, should the responsibility not, then, fall on the privileged group—in this case, sexist men—to recognize their privilege, and acknowledge the validity of women’s concerns?
A NEW APPROACH
Of course, women should not just sit back and hope that magically one day men will reform society overnight. Feminists today take back what they can, little by little, through the reclamation of words and ideas. As Inga Muscio, a feminist writer puts it, women should be ‘free to seize a word that was kidnapped and co-opted in a pain-filled, distant past, with a ransom that cost [their] grandmothers’ freedom, children, traditions, pride and land.’ The reappropriation of derogatory terms like ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ involves the re-evaluation of their meanings when used by men in a sexist fashion, and has arguably led to personal and socio-political empowerment within feminist circles. The locus of control over these words then shifts to the marginalised group, where they then are empowered to revalue these stigmatising labels and define themselves as they choose.
Feminism is no longer a universal set of behaviours, doctrine, or a strict creed that has to be followed; the personal is the political, and every woman reacts and deals with these problems in their own way. And these ways, as long as they promote gender equality and are not sexist in nature, be they aggressive or subversive, are all valid. There is no longer an all-encompassing idea of what feminism should be; instead, there has been a distinct shift from the essentialism of secondwave feminism, which often assumed a universal female identity that was both restrictive and reductionist.
INTERSECTIONALITY: INCLUSIVE FEMINISM
Feminism does not exist in a vacuum—or at least not anymore. Intersectionality is the new word of the day, a theory which holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate and create a system of oppression that reflects the ‘intersection’ of multiple forms of discrimination.
The concept of intersectionality arose largely due to the absolutism of second-wave feminism that excluded many other marginalised groups that faced oppression from various fronts. Focusing on just one aspect of oppression without considering how it interacts with others is alienating and often results in a lack of real progress. Take, for instance, the upper-middle-class white liberal feminists who once dominated and defined the movement—they failed to realise that their activism, useful and wonderful though it may be, did not give them a free pass on other problematic behavior. Just because one fights for feminism doesn’t mean one can get away with racism, homophobia, or classism. Being part of one oppressed group does not give one the right to oppress others, either actively or passively, by ignoring problems other marginalised groups have brought up. There are sexist Chinese, just as there are racist homosexuals, just as there are homophobic Christians, just as there are homophobic atheists. All of these people can be male or female. Where, then, does feminism fit in?
Acclaimed third-wave feminists like bell hooks have also argued that men’s liberation is a necessary part of feminism, and that men are also harmed by sexism and gender roles. She has stressed that by positing in an inverted form the notion of basic conflict between the sexes, the implication being that the empowerment of women would necessarily be at the expense of men, secondwave feminists have reinforced sexist ideology. Because men are the primary agents maintaining and supporting sexism and sexist oppression, they can only be eradicated if men are compelled to assume responsibility for transforming their consciousness and the consciousness of society as a whole. Feminism and the various movements with which it intersects are essential for men as well: through the breaking down of normative barriers and fighting back against oppression, men too can be liberated from the constraints of gender stereotyping—these arbitrary rules that men have to be masculine; that their masculinity is somehow a measure of their worth; that to be effeminate is to be gay; that to be gay is a bad thing. In the end, the feminist movement is one that promotes women’s rights, in the quest for gender equality.
Once again, one can see how intersectionality is key to combating systemic oppression in society. Feminism is but one of numerous ways through which real people, who are beaten down, day by day, in very real and tangible ways, can fight back.
CLASH OF GENDERS IN SCHOOLS
In the context of any co-ed school, there are bound to be clashes arising from gender issues. When a boy teases a girl about her size, it can be reflective of a male chauvinistic mindset. There are the assumptions that ‘fat and beauty do not mix’ and that ‘pretty girls should not be fat’, which are views shaped by society and not entirely because of the fault of the individual. As mentioned previously, body acceptance is a very real issue in society today, especially among teenage girls. The fact that girls too, join in the taunting, plays a part in encouraging the boys’ behaviour. It is no longer what women should do to advocate women’s rights—it is what we should not do that counts as well. In some ways, it is true that women ought to earn the respect they feel they deserve and not follow the popular vein of thought, because what is popular may not always be right. However, boys also have to realise that even if society perpetuates the notion that it is okay for them to continue their immature behaviour ‘because boys will be boys’, it is not the right thing to do and they should respect the girls regardless of their appearance.
Even within the classroom, gender affects the contributions being made in class. According to a study by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), ‘teachers are often unaware of the gender distribution of talk in their classrooms’, where only in retrospect do they realise that boys are dominating the interactions. It could be due to the domineering nature of the boys that intimidates the girls, and while the onus is on the girls to speak up more as well, it is also the boys’ responsibility to encourage others to speak up. Feminism should not be gender-exclusive, and anyone who claims they support gender equality, is also a feminist. It is simple actions like that that help in the advocacy for gender equality.
SCHOLARLY PLATFORMS FOR CHANGE
Specific to RI is the RJ Confessions Facebook page that now has over 4,000 likes on Facebook. This page has been a platform of many a gripe on lost love and broken hearts, but recently, the debate on feminism has cropped up. Ranging from things like whether girls should sit with their legs wide open, to cross-dressing, to whether National Service or the monthly cycle is worse, these are issues which are present in the daily lives of the students. These seemingly inconsequential conflicts do reflect the broader issue of gender equality, as well as deal with the important question: ‘Where do we draw the line?’ Is it appropriate or decent for girls to sit like the boys do? Is it wrong if a boy decides he likes dressing as a girl better? Should National Service be made compulsory for girls as well?
While RI does not have any official community or student interest group that deals with gender issues, or more broadly, social justice, there are many Rafflesians, both past and present, who are heavily invested in the feminist movement. Indeed, all three interviewees are Raffles alumni who have demonstrated their passion for the advocacy of feminism. At present, we have two Year 5 students, Michelle Lee (14A01B) and Wong Kwang Lin (14A01E) who are co-chairs of AWARE’s latest initiative, a youth chapter that aims to educate youth about gender equality. As of now, AWARE is launching the ‘We Can!’ campaign, which aims to build a network of change makers who will help spread awareness on issues of gender equality and violence against women.
For budding feminists who wish to actively advocate the cause and are starting out small, being open about your beliefs is key—even seemingly insignificant acts like sharing feminist articles on Facebook can change peers’ perceptions of gender, and encourage like-minded acquaintances to come out of the woodwork. Besides that, there is a real need for a support system. As Ms Wong says, ‘If you’re going to engage individually, you’re going to get a lot of flak—and that’s where your friends come in. It’s very comforting and heart-warming to find solidarity amongst feminists who feel the same way.’ Naturally, if friends have to be found, naysayers have to be dealt with. ‘Other than spreading awareness among your social groups, it’s also important to weed out people who will perpetuate micro-aggressions,’ advises Ms Teng. ‘While civil interaction is inevitable, you should exercise as much agency as possible over your social time.’ Of course, the most obvious way to ‘become’ a feminist is to actively engage with feminism in your everyday life, something that Ms Sugidha firmly believes in: ‘If you come across something that doesn’t sit right with you, don’t sit down. Give back as good as you get.’
Want to know more about feminism but don’t know where to start? Check out these links:
Sugidha Nithi (RGS 1980; RJC, 1982) is an in-house lawyer and former litigator in Singapore. Her feisty nature keeps her opponents on their toes in her line of work. She sometimes has to travel to Nigeria for work and it is ‘all good fun’.
Teng Qian Xi (RGS, 1999) is a writer and teacher. Since her youth, she has been a very vocal feminist and pol itical critic. Her work They hear salt crystallising (2010) has been nominated for the 2012 Singapore Literature Prize, and includes poems on topics ranging from politics to gender issues. She ‘stumbled into teaching’ two years ago and is currently tutoring at School of Thought.
Wong Pei Chi (RGS, 2000; RJC, 2002) has been an AWARE Board member since 2012. She was a key member of the ‘No to Rape’ campaign which started in 2009, involving an online petition calling for the Prime Minister to abolish the legal immunity for marital rape. For this project, she has won the 2011 AWARE Young Wonder Award along with her teammates.