Understanding anti-feminism in Malaysia and where it comes from

Nearly there. Image source via Wikimedia Commons

Gender equality: Nearly there. Image source via Wikimedia Commons

Okay. This is going to be a super-biased piece from the get-go. I feel the need to write about this because I am TIRED of trying to talk to people about what feminism really is about. There is just so much misunderstanding and lack of information out there in the real world.

Feminism is, as it were, hidden in Malaysia*. There are self-proclaimed feminists aplenty, yes, and also academic conferences in gender studies, and a couple of feminist women’s groups. But the inception of a homegrown feminist movement can be best allegorised as a pregnancy aborted in its first trimester.

From the beginnings of the country’s national independence in 1957, politicking women had  relegated themselves to roles suitably subservient to their male counterparts and even voted out the equal pay bill lobbied by the Labour Party of Malaya just three years prior. Female leadership, except in women’s issues (read: children and family stuff), would be overstepping the boundaries set by patriarchal ideals – this goes on perpetuated by women as simply doing the done thing.

It was said that the first chair of Wanita UMNO (the women’s wing of the Malay nationalist party) was passed over from the outspoken feminist Khatijah Sidek to the more motherly Fatimah Hashim, because the former was ‘too far ahead of her time‘. Today, female representation in the Malaysian parliament and the state legislative assembly is less than 20% – the time for feminists to come to power still has not come.

Feminism was, and still is, the temporally-frozen, bra-burning, anti-men boogiewoman of the general Malaysian imagination. Its existence poses a threat to the political boy’s clubs and general status quo.

Conversations with Malaysian anti-feminists are almost always destined to doom. But I think it’s only fair that we understand their grievances by teasing out their usual beef with gender equality.

  1. Feminism is a Western, secular ideology. (This includes claims of feminism as elitist)
    This is a good enough reason to forget about feminism altogether for many. Truth is, there are third-world, indigenous concepts of feminism established and growing around the world, and are constantly in negotiations between non-racist, non-patronising feminist frameworks and local cultures in many societies.
  2. Feminism has failed in its objective and fragmented into in-fighting groups.
    Many developed nations that are pro-women in law and socially have struggled to establish equal pay between the sexes and to achieve a greater female presence in the top ranks of politics. These issues are still being addressed and debated in the public sphere, and are not the failings of feminism. Feminism is a political movement, and is bound to break into different sub-ideologies based on values that are not represented by constituted powers-that-be. These values, of course, sometimes do not see eye to eye, like socialist feminism vs lipstick feminism for example.
  3. The Superwoman is a myth.
    The woman who has it all: a family and a great career, is often blamed for family breakdown, neglected children, high rates of singlehood, and late motherhood, among other things. We still live in a culture that often turns a blind eye to neglectful fathers and castigates women for delaying marriage and motherhood in favour of high-flying careers. Men are congratulated for being a father at 80 – just don’t expect the same for women. Yes, I know that women are normally not fertile at 80, but the risk of miscarriage and fathering a child with congenital defects such as autism and schizophrenia increases for men beyond the of 35. So everyone has a biological clock. Bummer for you and me.
  4. Feminism supports the right to abortion.
    That means ending the life of an innocent human being for anti-choicers. Now, feminism sees that women should be given the right to her every aspect of her body, and that includes terminating an unwanted pregnancy. Abortion is never an easy decision to make. It is traumatic, painful, and risky.
  5. Feminism is to blame for all that gender role confusion and so-called social construct stuff. (This includes supporting the sexuality rights of LGBQT groups).
    Girls are not hardwired to play with make-up and the mini washing machine, and boys are not born to shoot and kill. Children brought up with gender specific toys grow up internalising their respective roles. As a result, men don’t expect to do the washing, sewing, or cooking, and women are not expected to work with power tools.
  6. Feminism justifies morally-questionable acts of empowerment
    Can pole dancing, shopping sprees, and binging on alcohol be empowering? This is something that might have little to do with what feminism stands for, that is against oppression and exploitation. If women choose to sexually exploit themselves and submit to oppressive standards of beauty for the enjoyment of men, let them.
  7. Feminism encourages women to compete rather than work with men and then take over the world.
    Not like that is a bad thing, of course, but this is born out of an ancient male insecurity of female sexuality and its power to give birth, hence the need to contain it.

Got anymore? Drop me a line and educate me.

* Author’s note: Women’s groups in Malaysia are not necessarily advocates of feminist thought, and there is none so far with ‘feminist’ in their names – not that that should discount anything. On the internet, there are no blogs dedicated to feminist analysis by Malaysian women other than my own.

7 thoughts on “Understanding anti-feminism in Malaysia and where it comes from

  1. Happy new year! Link and excerpted.

    I’m amazed at the universality of what in the progressive blogosphere is referred to as the DFH (dirty f***ing hippy) stereotype, of which your bra-burning man-eating boogiewoman is one subset. American conservatives use it to freeze out progressive/leftist alternatives in the political sphere, and I suppose in the social sphere too.

  2. Salaam,

    Don’t forget the hairy armpits. I has them at the moment ;p

    The blogosphere (progressive medium, diverse system of values and beliefs) plays host to all sorts of people, and it can be such a hostile place. Just today, I’ve been banned from commenting on a popular, ‘liberal’ Malaysian blog. The reason: I thought their methods of liberating oppressed Malaysian women a little patronising. But perhaps it was my own fault, because I’m quite sensitive about women’s issues and can be harsh with people who aren’t. Blogging can be a little like living alone in a big city – you’ll still feel lonely amidst the constant noise and bustle, because no one will talk to you. I sometimes feel this way.

  3. There is indeed a strong anti-feminist sentiment here in Malaysia. And women’s groups here certainly have, to a certain extent, bowed to that hate. If you notice, AWAM calls itself a feminist organisation, but I have personally heard someone say that it took them years before it had the courage to call itself ‘feminist’.

    I attribute the anti-feminism backlash in Malaysia as a result of lack of intellectualism in Malaysian society in general. Our education system, as you may have noticed, does not encourage students to be curious and analytical. Because of this, it is too easy for people to fall for stereotypical assumptions about feminism, particularly those preached by the religious sector and the mass media.

    Now, if only people were more committed to intellectual rigour. They would easily find out that feminism is noble indeed, and that there are many strands and nuance in feminism (Islamic feminism, anyone?)

  4. Malaysianfeminism,

    Totally agree with the lack of intellectualism in Malaysia (look at who we have as leaders). Being inquisitive and curious about social issues in Malaysia are seen as a threat by our politicians. I was appalled when the Bar Council forums on the unwritten social contract between races and apostasy were attacked. Even more appalled was I by what the prime minister said following these incidents,

    “There is nothing to discuss about. No need to discuss”.

    The reason why we should be quiet: To not stoke up racial tensions. Like you said, there isn’t a culture of asking questions in Malaysia, only a lot of ignorance. Ignorance is what fuels fear between people of different religions and races. But I feel comforted all the time when I remind myself that it’s a religious duty to always question, that it’s okay to feel critical about conservatism and liberalism alike.

  5. Pingback: Friday Links — January 9, 2009 « Muslimah Media Watch

  6. I hear you. Even in here in the West there’s still a lot of stigma attached to the word “feminism” and feminists. Like feminism is anti family and anti motherhood.

    You’re also correct about the misconception of feminism being a Western and secular concept. I’ve read about other forms of feminism(s) that exist in other cultures and often times, they’re critical of Western feminism in fact.

    But most of the time, these criticisms towards feminism in general aren’t always valid, just based on stereotypes of what feminism is. I think the reason why many people don’t like feminism is because it’s rather threatening.

    But that’s just my opinion. 😛 Great post.

  7. SakuraPassion,

    I suppose it also takes some guts to give yourself a political label. It’s true – by labeling yourself ‘conservative’, ‘feminist’, ‘liberal’, ‘communist’ requires conviction and some level of autonomy. Because once you’ve assert a label, it’s often difficult to backpedal.

    Some people just prefer to move with the tide of popular thought. This is a much safer, survivalist method of having a set of beliefs – a common consciousness, a common belief.

    And so the common belief of feminism as the retreat of hairy-legged, man-hating, butch/spinster is a safe, tried and tested one – ‘that’s what everyone says about feminism, so why bother?’

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