Written by Dashran Yohan • Image from 1953 Alcoa Aluminum ad
We live in strange times. Some people seem to be under the impression that terms like patriarchy and sexism are made up by evil aliens from Venus known as “feminists” who hate and want to destroy men. Conversations around equality often tend to devolve into “so you’re saying men and women are the same? Then ask men and women to compete against each other in UFC or boxing lah” or “There already are women CEOs. Apa lagi cina perempuan mau?”
While I can’t promise you that I’m not an alien from another planet, I can promise you that the equality conversation has got nothing to do with hating men but rather about equality of opportunity and equity. Because we do live in a systemically unequal and sexist society. The inequalities and inequities in societies can manifest in many shapes and forms such as being stereotyped as “too emotional,” getting catcalled down the street, period spot-checks in school, femicide, and everything in between.
This article will largely be centred around everyday sexism and discrimination faced by women. This is, of course, not a comprehensive list as that would mean at least 700 pages, 10 cups of coffee and zero sleep.
“A key that opens many locks is a master key. A lock that opens for many keys is broken.”
I remember a conversation I had with an acquaintance a couple of years ago. He was talking about a lady colleague of his – mocking her would be a more accurate way to put it – because she had apparently slept with many men throughout the years. Naively I asked, “you don’t like it when people engage in casual sex?” “Nah,” he said, without flinching. “I don’t like it when women engage in casual sex. It’s different when men do it. But when women do it, it brings down their value.”
I’m willing to wager that many of us either know someone who thinks that way or is someone who thinks that way. Jokes are made about it (re: lock and key). And I say “someone” (gender neutral) because this crap is so normalised that many women also internalise and regurgitate it.
Slut-shaming could lead women to develop insecurities, mental health issues and the like.
This behaviour is called slut shaming, and it’s incredibly toxic and dangerous. Slut-shaming is the practice of criticizing people, especially women and girls, who are perceived to violate societal expectations of appearance and behaviour regarding issues related to sexuality (i.e. women engaging in casual sex). On an individual level, it could lead women to develop insecurities, mental health issues and the like.
On a societal level, it contributes to something called rape culture. When people think of rape, they think of the most graphic instance of physical violence. This is, of course, true about rape. The thing is, rape and sexual assault don’t just happen in a vacuum. They happen in an enabling culture – a culture in which women are seen not as human beings, but as objects.
When you slut-shame someone, you’re making a character judgement. You’re saying that virginal women or women who don’t have many sexual partners are good, upstanding citizens, deserving of respect. In contrast, women who don’t conform to these manmade (as in both fictional and literally made by men specifically) standards are “immoral” or “less valuable.” It leads to women being labelled “easy” or “cheap.”
"Why did she party so late at night?" "She asked for it!"
This mindset lends itself to victim-blaming. Think about some of the comments you read or hear whenever there’s a sexual assault story. There are always questions like “why did she party so late at night?” “Aiya, she’s the type of person that has sex with so many different people. Of course, this is bound to happen.” Or worst yet, “she asked for it!” The responsibility for the assault is placed on the victim/survivor, rather than the perpetrator. This lets perpetrators off the hook and discourages women from reporting rape/sexual assault cases.
What we need to understand is that while most of us may not be rapists, if we slut-shame someone, we’re contributing to a culture that turns women into objects and allows rapists to thrive.
This brings me to my next point:
Moral policing clothing
The justification for moral policing women’s outfits is regularly a so-called righteous one tied to “protecting women from sexual assault.” But once again, this puts the onus of sexual harassment or assault on the victim/survivor. It sends the message that if a woman gets catcalled down the street, it’s because she is wearing short shorts and not because the person catcalling is a horrible person. Once again, society says that if women dress up a certain way, they are “asking for it.” Some will go as far as to say that men get triggered when women dress a certain way.
Apparently, we men are so innocent, pure and primitive that we immediately turn into sexually charged cocaine bears the moment a woman walks by with her shoulders exposed.
Look, I get it. Not everyone is trying to be controlling misogynists. Parents, for example, could just be genuinely worried when they moral police their daughter’s outfits. “The world is so messed up,” they say, “I’m just trying to protect my daughter.” The thing is, while the intention may be good, this still contributes to rape culture, where the responsibility is placed on the would-be victim rather than the perpetrator. Not only that, the reality is, you’re not actually protecting your daughter, just restricting her freedom.
Image from Annelies Hofmeyr
There are plenty of art exhibits, such as the "What Were You Wearing?" exhibit at the United Nations which invites observers to see the outfits worn by sexual assault survivors at the time of their attack. The clothing on display ranges from short skirts, yes, but also long dresses, religious garbs, children’s clothing and even diapers. YES, diapers! On that same note, when we look at the porn industry, there is an entire category called “hijab.”
What does this tell us? Well, it tells us that women are sexualised (and sexually harassed & assaulted) regardless of what they wear. Not only is moral policing women’s clothes unjust, it literally accomplishes nothing except foster a culture where women are placed in proverbial cages, while pigs run free.
So, parents, instead of constantly yelling at your daughters to dress or not dress a certain way, perhaps you can constantly yell at your sons to keep it in their pants and be respectful towards women, regardless of how they dress.
Image from 1940 Hardee's ad
My aunt once told my sister, “you’re a girl but don’t know how to make tea?! Who will want to marry you?”
It’s a classic case of gender stereotyping – a generalized view or preconception about characteristics or the roles that are or ought to be possessed by, or performed by, women and men.
Why does a woman need to know how to make tea or cook? Why do men need to be interested in woodwork? Who says men should be interested in trucks and women in Barbie dolls? Why do girls need to wear pink and boys, blue?
Who decides these things? (Hint: It starts with P and rhymes with hierarchy).
Gif from Giphy
On the one hand, gender stereotyping confines people to boxes and could limit their growth. It tells women that they shouldn’t aspire to be mechanics, firefighters, engineers, scientists, CEOs and world leaders. It informs men that they can’t be ballerinas, yoga instructors, nurses or homemakers.
While gender stereotypes impact men in a big way too, the brunt of it impacts women, who are compelled by society to fulfil traditional gender roles (what kind of woman are you if you don’t know how to make tea?!). Often women and girls are confined to roles as mothers and wives, child bearers and caretakers.
While many women today go out to work and contribute financially to their families, they’re still expected to fulfil their traditional caregiving duties the moment they reach home. There is nothing wrong with this per se. If you’re a parent, of course, you should care for your children. The problem is, more often than not, the same expectations and pressures aren’t placed on the shoulders of men. Picture a household where mom and dad arrive home from work, dad sits in front of the TV, mom makes him a cuppa tea and then proceeds to chase the kids about their homework, clean up, cook dinner, etc. In fact, these pressures to adhere to traditional gender roles are leading women to shun marriage and family life altogether.
The point I’m making isn’t that women shouldn’t cook or take care of kids, but that we shouldn’t confine and limit people to these roles. People should pursue what they’re interested in. Household and caregiving responsibilities should be split fairly between husband and wife.
Bosses don’t like hiring women cause they’ll get married and leave
Did you know that many companies are apprehensive of hiring women because they apparently will get pregnant, and leave the company to become housewives? Employers may not tell applicants that straight to their face (sometimes they do) because it’s illegal, but it happens. Take this study done in 2014, where 40% of managers surveyed admitted they are generally wary of hiring a woman of childbearing age, while a similar number would be wary of hiring a woman who has already had a child.
First of all, it’s absolutely shallow for companies to assume that all women want to get married and have kids to begin with. But more importantly, what companies are doing here is making women (who may want to have kids) choose between having a family and their careers – a choice men do not have to make – and punishing women for choosing their families.
There is some truth that many women do leave the workforce after getting married/pregnant. Based on a 2018 World Bank report, a whopping 60% of Malaysian women cited being a housewife as the reason for not participating in the workforce. Only 4% of men cited leaving the workforce due to housework. This got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools were shut during the MCO and kids stayed at home, women left the workforce in droves to take care of the kids.
Women have no choice. Even when there are positive developments on the policy front, employers and corporations will weaponize that.
So while it's true that women tend to leave the workforce after marriage/pregnancies etc., it's false to assume that they want to do it. Not only are women confined to their traditional gender roles (i.e. when the house is messy, it’s the wife’s fault, not the husband’s), but there’s also a lack of structural support too. Do we have good quality, affordable childcare and daycare in the country? During the pandemic, many women cited daycares being closed during lockdowns as a reason for leaving the workforce. What about the months post-pregnancy? We have a 98-day paid maternity leave policy in Malaysia, which is excellent. But do we have sufficient paternity leaves which will give more space to men and women to share the caregiving workload post-pregnancy?
Right now, it seems to me that women have no choice. Even when there are positive developments on the policy front, such as the aforementioned maternity leave, employers and corporations will weaponize that, as well. According to a survey released by the Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce (ACCCIM), Chinese employers now prefer to hire men over women, after the amendments to the Employment Act 2022 which increased paid maternity leave from 60 days to 98 days.
So, instead of discriminating against women, shouldn’t we push back against these greedy employers and foster an environment in which women don’t have to choose between their families and their careers?
And it shouldn’t be just about pregnancies. Women get their periods once a month. During this well, period, many women go through physical pain and discomfort that can reduce their productivity. Do we offer holidays for women to weather the red storm? Recently, Spain, which currently has a socialist Prime Minister, became the first European country to entitle paid menstrual leave for its citizens. Countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea all have some form of paid-menstrual leaves too. We Malaysians need to start thinking along these lines.
I could go on but I wasn’t kidding about the 700 pages. So I will stop here and just say that while a lot of progress has been made on the gender equality front, we still live in an incredibly sexist and patriarchal society. And if you’re a dude reading this, the next time someone in your bro circle uses sexist language or slut-shames someone, call them out. I believe it is our duty and responsibility to stand hand-in-hand with women in this fight for a more gender-equal society.
Happy International Women’s Day!
International Women’s Day is observed across the globe on the 8th of March to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women in an unequal, sexist society. But more importantly, it is a call to squash the patriarchy under the weight of one’s 9-inch heels and accelerate equality and equity across genders.