The frightful genius of Charlie Brooker’s first episode of Black Mirror has got several things right about social media and new telecommunication technologies: how we choose to present ourselves to the world is highly selective and based on narcissistic drives. Those of us who are more decorous in our internet use would loath to reveal our angriest, most vulgar, kinkiest, saddest, and disappointed side. But without these dimensions of ourselves on display, how can we ever say that personal blogs and social media truly represents ‘us’?
Our social media pages and blogs perform as our very own gallery or museum, exhibiting parts about our lives that we believe form of a coherent narrative. And like every gallery and museum, there is the storeroom filled with things that the public do not get to see – this space represents our actual lives: messy, uncatalogued, hidden mostly from view. In other words, what you see online about me, the few pictures of me you’ve found on Google, what I’ve written and tweeted are not reflective of who I am as a person.
The advent of Tumblr further compounds any notion of an online user’s ‘true self’. Our thoughts and words are often outsourced to memes and animated gifs that act as stand-ins for our emotions. In place of what used to represent ‘us’ – our retouched photos and edited blog posts – have been replaced by photographs of cats copy-pasted, reblogged, and cannibalised until its source (who made it, what it was originally about) becomes irrelevant. Baudrillard would be proud.
What I publish in this blog are aspects of myself: my achievements, future dreams and fears. I stress on the word ‘aspects’ because I do not give away much about my own life: who my family members are, my lovers past and present, friends and frenemies, and my personal and professional failures.
Since the inception of this blog, I have changed the reasons for its existence. It was initially a place for me to practice my writing. When I became better at that, it became a place where I archived my writing published around the internet. Once I became more specialised in a particular topic, the blog became a place where I share my research. Then, later, I wanted to re-inject some notion of humanity I felt that was lost when I ventured out to master my craft by posting photos of my cooking.
The focus of what I wrote about had also changed throughout the years. When I began as a blogger, I was plugged into Muslim feminist blogging scene which was emerging in the US thanks to Muslimah Media Watch. I found myself writing over and over again about hijabs, ‘burkas’, and banging on about why Muslim women themselves are hardly given airtime to talk about lived experiences.
But there was also a problem when they were given some airtime. Within mainstream media, Muslim women find themselves already within a discourse constructed with a priori views about what Islam is about: the veil, terrorism, refusal to integrate into British and European society, ‘clash of civilisation’ ad nauseam. Very rarely are Muslim women given the opportunity to talk about other issues outside the myopia of how oppressive Islam and Muslim men are. This is why Salma Yaqoob is the boss.
Writing between the multiple gaps, between ‘mainstream feminism’ vs Muslim feminism/diaspora feminism, Muslim feminist from Southeast Asia vs Muslim feminist from North America, UK, and Europe – was hard work. I was writing from a minority view within a minority movement.
Frustrated by the discursive stasis, I began to switch tack. I wanted to write about feminism for the Malaysian readership. When my blog Cycads was first launched, it was the first blog ever to dedicate itself to writings about feminism in Malaysia. Never mind the fact that I knew very few Malaysian feminists when I started, I wrote what I knew about feminism as a political concept anyway. As the years marched forward, I had the privilege to meet and became friends with the Malaysian feminist activist circle(s) which further informed what and how I wrote about feminism, gender and sexuality in Malaysia.
Then, through the internet, I got in touch with other Malaysian individuals living in and outside the country who identified as feminist. These were simply names and online identities as far as I was concerned. After recruiting these individuals, we formed a webzine called Kakak Killjoy where I would serve as its founding editor.
The webzine was a relative success which attracted the attention of the socially liberal English-reading Malaysian public. By this point, I enjoyed taking a backseat to writing by managing the webzine and fostering my own academic development which progressively challenged my approach to writing about feminism.
A falling out with the writers of Kakak Killjoy that culminated in the stealth removal of my writings from the webzine and my position as its editor made me question the integrity of online/’real world’ relationships and how feminism is done online. The Kakak Killjoy falling-out was also a parody of the ‘cattiness’ of female-dominated spaces that saw themselves crash and burn after my removal.
Around the same period, I flinched whenever the phrase ‘check your privilege’ was used by feminists to bash each other. Cleavages were deepening between more ‘well-known’/professional/academic feminists and the ‘less well known’ feminist bloggers/tweeters because the former half was not checking their privilege.
Despite my own misgivings of the occasional abuse of the phrase ‘check your privilege’, I warmed to it once again when it made to the mainstream media where I thought it truly belonged. I was filled with glee that it was (deliberately) misunderstood by prominent commentators; it shone the light on how patriarchy/power-knowledge works in society.
‘Important’ knowledge was unquestioned. No one complains when complex financial and political terms are bandied about in public debates. You just have to learn the lingo and keep up. Intersectionality and privilege checking are considered pseudo-intellectual terms because they are not part of a discourse dominated by privileged men who feel it’s their duty to decide what is ‘important’. I feel that feminist discourse has made another headway in the public imagination and that it only has to forge forwards with questioning privilege and hegemony by demonstrating on how we talk about them rather than just identifying them.
I also turned away from feminist blogging when blogs that overshare graphic details of suffering under the multiple layers of oppression became a more ‘authentic’ expression of feminism online. I didn’t want to begin articles with full disclosures of where I belonged in the intersectionality of privilege (I am a cis/left-handed/middle-class/university educated/vegetarian/brown/bisexual), use CAPS, or join the debate about Rihanna/Beyonce/Lady Gaga in order to be part of the mainstream British feminist discourse.
Indeed, feminism made it possible for women to write and voice out in a society that silences us and it should not be the work of feminists to silence women. My discomfort with ‘spectacle’-blogging and the over-emphasis on the embodiment of feminism issues emerged in tandem with my postgraduate education. I knew I was producing situated knowledge but I do not want to share my private life with you online to my make views more authentic.
As it turns out, it’s not good enough that I say, ‘I know more about racism and sexism simply because my very body is the site of such violence’. I used to say this in my early career as a feminist blogger. But as my feminism continues to mature, I felt my feminist view of the world needs to be more than this. I am more than my body.
Right now, I’ve reached a pitstop where I can take stock of my journey into feminist blogging. It’s been quite a journey that I am quite happy to continue, but this time more accepting of my minority status within the discourse. As assessed on the recent special on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, feminism is the most inclusive political movement right now that appeals to women and men of all ages and backgrounds. I now accept that the broad church of feminism / fragmented feminism (if you look at it half empty) is inevitable and a good thing. You have to thank seeing the world intersectionally for that.