First published on Kakak Killjoy
If you’re a woman or girl and you have plenty of facts, ideas, and thoughts in your head it’s easier to keep them there. Once they come out, be prepared to be shot down in flames by people who think you’re showing off and trying to being pseudo-intellectual. Even comments by people who say that you’re being “academic” marks you out as a kind of anomaly, because women in general are not really meant to be very clever or intellectual. “Clever enough” is a nice and attractive attribute. *Very* clever is not. Those who are very clever are actually pretty scary, ball-busting types that men usually admire from afar but up close men realise that they’re not girlfriend or marriage material. For that reason, many clever women play down their intelligence.
For a long time I chose to stay silent and kept my head full of thoughts to a point that it distressed me. After all, my thoughts do not matter. Who did I think I was anyway? And what might people think I was up to and trying to be? I’m not qualified enough to comment let alone say something about anything under the sun with authority and be taken seriously for it. My thoughts are not important, etc etc. These are the common put-downs that I self-sabotage myself with.
Slowly I came to the realisation that it was not that I thought I knew something, whether it was enzymatic pathways or kinship in Malay communities, but that I KNEW something and I shouldn’t pretend that I didn’t. After all, it is too easy to be labelled vacuous and ignorant. Being a terrible student all throughout my school years damaged a great deal of self-confidence in my ability to learn and presenting my knowledge. Being (near) the bottom of the class several times somehow sealed my fate – I was never really going to amount to anything. I was not clever.
Yes, I had (and still have) serious insecurity issues and self-confidence has never been my strongest suit, but confidence is something I had to work on for many years. At a young age surrounded by family, friends, and strangers who valued extroverted, easy-going, good-looking, fair-skinned, straight-haired, and academically successful girls and me being the absolute opposite did not help. I was softly-spoken, reserved, introverted, loved books, had big and wild unruly hair, a gangly body, and an awkward disposition like a stray jigsaw piece that will not fit anywhere. I was not only not clever but I was actually ugly by Malaysian standards too.
Fast-forward to 10 or so years you have me overcoming the deep-set insecurities that kept me silent and imprisoned by my shyness. You could say that me being a confident academic now is a kind of Revenge of the Nerds, except for me it’s the Social Misfit 2: Back with a Vengeance. It’s the nerds and social misfits who bloomed late, bumbled throughout their formative years with the few friends who were similar in looks and general awkwardness who would later become happy and “cool” people who were comfortable in their own skin.
Ironically, I discovered that education would be my saviour. Despite being the root of my self-erasure, I sought education to reinvent myself. So I had to excel in university to be taken seriously. If that’s not enough, I had to be first both in class and department to be taken seriously. It’s been said that a woman has be twice as good as a man to be considered as good as a man.
So you could say that now is the springtime for nerds and social misfits, taking “revenge” on our more popular, good-looking, and successful “tormentors”. Except not really – overcoming shyness can only get you so far, because insecurity and self-doubt continue to linger when people still won’t take you seriously because you’re a woman. That said however I’m not worried about not ever combating my shyness and introverted nature. Because after all, like Julia Kristeva says, we’re all in the process of becoming, a sujet-en-proces; always on a journey into developing ourselves. It’s how intelligent women and girls are belittled that I am more upset about, because it means we will continue to have a culture in which women’s brains are not appreciated and there are only a handful of intellectually powerful and confident female role models to look up to. A handful rather than none at all is not equality but tokenism. Even though there are more women in university than men, we have the case of “You have a degree? That’s nice, dear. Now make me a sandwich”.
I chose to become an academic because I am passionate about teaching and I love learning. Being an academic will give me the legitimacy to help others succeed in education and in life, and guide them to see the world differently. I’ve been told many times by many people that Malaysian university students in local higher education are doomed to herd mentality and the tempurung complex (i.e. close-mindedness). But me being naïve and idealistic me, I believe that everyone with whatever learning ability have the potential to self-actualisation, including public university students in Malaysia.
Because I am easily triggered by self-doubt, being an academic allows me to take *myself* seriously. But I won’t be fooled by illusions; the eventual doctorate will never be enough to be an authority on anything because people will still dismiss academic qualifications on the basis that it’s just a book, academic speak is mutual masturbation, or that I’m just book-smarts but not smart smart. Never mind the status-conscious Malaysian culture that insists on publishing one’s academic or honorary titles at any opportunity, as someone young and female with a PhD probably wouldn’t get you very far. Or at least that was what I was told.
I will have to stop here otherwise this post will start to sound like a melodramatic cover letter – we don’t want to play into the over-emotional hysterical female stereotypes, do we? (*takes a minute to eyeroll*). All I want to say is there are many challenges for women and girls out there in their efforts to be leaders, intellectuals, and qualified experts of their own lives. These challenges are incredibly subtle, like the scourge of mansplaining, being told that we need “ qualified experts” to tell us how to run our lives, the idea that men make better leaders because they are not easily emotional, or the majority of male Nobel Prize winners confirm men’s intellectual superiority.
Women who argue with facts and use long, “big” words to disagree or state a well-argued case with a man are accused as overly sensitive, emotion-led, pretentious. When we use “big” words, we’re told that there are shorter easier words to use – which is coded language for don’t be elitist and show off your slightly extensive vocabulary. Women can never really win. Men who do the same are amazing. Yes, there are still many subtle intellectual double standards that pervade our culture, that we cannot help but internalise.