Social mobility versus social climbing

I’ve recently written and submitted a research proposal on social mobility amongst the Indian female underclass (mostly plantation workers and their descendants) in pre and post-independence Malaya. Despite the predominating narrative that the life potential of the Indian underclass is impeded by caste inequality, ethnicity, and by being female, I was nonetheless interested in channels that facilitate degrees of social mobility; marriage to a higher caste/class individual/family, the (inverse) number of children a woman bore, level of education, opportunities to other kinds of paid employment and migration to other towns and cities. Social mobility, understood here as an upward movement (though there is such thing as a downward trend) towards a higher station in life, is a positive venture towards greater equality in society.

By contrast, social climbing, though also understood as the deliberate advancement up the rungs of society’s ladder, is perceived as a negative thing. Social climbing implies the manipulation of people/resources and self-aggrandising in order to arrive at a desired rank of social prestige. The problem with this rank of social prestige is that it is precarious, especially for those insecure in their personal disposition. Precariousness notwithstanding, the social climber jockeys for position, whilst discarding people who have helped them on their way. There are critics, however, who question the negative connotations of social climbing and wish to recuperate it into something positive, even necessary, for social groups that are historically disadvantaged.

On a more personal note, my own experiences of befriending social climbers have tended to come to a sticky end and occur in spaces where hierarchy, status, and distinction (Bourdieu, 1979) define the tenor of community dynamics; privileged and highly-qualified middle class Malaysian society, and more often than not, female-dominated spaces. Perhaps other factors that intersect with gender may play a more significant role for reasons why I find myself being the stepping stone of a female social climber. But at the moment, I don’t know what those factors are.

So social mobility is about economic uplift while status accrued from social climbing is not necessarily for monetary ends. If I can conclude without being annoyingly tautological: social climbing is distinguished simply by its social dimension and operates through the social climber’s self-differentiation from those who are, in the climber’s eyes, ‘inferior’ in status.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1979) La Distinction, Routledge.

Is being called a prostitute misogynistic?

Upon arriving home from secondary school many years ago, I was slightly taken aback to find that someone had stuck ‘Slut’ on a post-it note on my backpack. I knew what the word meant and I was sure I was not that, thought my socially-awkward, pimply 15 year old self.

Years later in university, and still called a slut for making a Malay couple change seats in a computer lab (long story), I became determined to uncover the other meanings of this word and its similes.

This brings me to the outcry at the recent sexist attacks towards the female members of DAP: Dyana Sofya Mohd Daud, Young Syefura Othman and Jamila Rahim (Melati). In a meeting with the press, the three women objected to the attacks for attempting to ‘dishonour’ their womanhood (menjatuhkan martabat wanita).

When Dyana, Rara, and Melati were labelled ‘pelacur’ it was aimed to silence and shame them for their political beliefs. And this is not the first or last time. It is a strategy with multiple historical precedents that reminds women they do not belong in Malaysian politics. The reasons why women are under-represented as leaders in politics are laid bare yet again.

There is no male equivalent for ‘pelacur’ in both meaning and use. It is used against women and as a way to emasculate men. However, I take issue when ‘prostitute’ is cast as the ultimate symbol of feminine moral laxity and dishonour. Is being called ‘pelacur’, ‘sundal’ or ‘jalang’ really so bad? Does this mean being a prostitute, or to use the political term, sex worker, is the worst a woman can be?

If the very term ‘prostitute’ is inherently misogynistic, then it reinforces the mutually exclusive dichotomy of ‘good’ women/female sexuality versus ‘bad’ women/female sexuality. ‘Good’ female sexuality is pure and virginal while its corresponding ‘bad’ is slutty and free with her body. ‘Good’ women deserve protection and respect for their restraint while ‘bad’ women do not.

Who gets to say which woman is ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Nobody.

The thing about sexual stigmatising terms is that they can be both abusive and a source of resistance. It is abusive when the perpetrator uses it with the aim of shaming a person into submission. Sexual epithets of abuse is used when perpetrators lack the vocabulary and intellectual capacity to disagree or show displeasure, not because the words in and of themselves are abusive or taboo.

By contrast, women who want to reclaim female terms of abuse – prostitute, slut, slag, cunt , sundal, jalang – do so to neutralise their toxicity. Slutwalks that have now taken place around the globe aim to do just this; to show that sexual terms of abuse would have no effect on women when the patriarchal dichotomy of female sexuality is exposed for what it is.

Sex workers who are the ‘real’ prostitutes become the target of violence when they are emblematic of ‘bad’ female sexuality. Women who distance themselves from their sisters in the sex industry do no favours either, because all women are victims of misogyny and all can and will become targets of sexist abuse when they incite even the slightest displeasure.

So is being called a prostitute misogynistic? It depends on your intended meaning and effect. By right, prostitute and pelacur, along with sundal and jalang, should not be so toxic as they are now. They need to be reclaimed by all women who care about the integrity of their bodies and sexuality and those of others. Reclaiming stigmatising words is like intercepting ammunition and throwing them back, defused.

Feminism without women

The title of this blog post is a reference to Tania Modleski’s 1991 book [1] which has a pointed retort to the postmodernist turn in feminism and its impact on solidarity and political mobilising. The retort had a more specific aim; in 1988, Denise Riley had published Am I That Name? [2], a sort of feminist embrace of postmodernism as a way of exposing the fiction that is ‘women’ as a stable category of analysis.

Riley uses Sojourner Truth’s speech ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ to propose a new refrain, ‘Ain’t I a fluctuating identity?’ as to remind us that:

We can’t bracket off either Woman, whose capital letter has long alerted us to her dangers, or the more modest lower case ‘woman’, while leaving unexamined the ordinary, innocent sounding ‘women’. […] ‘women’ is historically, discursively constructed, and always relatively to other categories which themselves change; ‘women’ is a volatile collectivity in which female persons can be very differently positioned, so that the apparent continuity of the subject of ‘women’ isn’t to be relied on.

Modleski finds this type of ‘feminism without women’ quite simply alarming because doing away with label of ‘woman’ for oneself is a strategy available only to privileged feminists whose lives are relatively unconstrained by their womanhood. More troubling is the very use of Sojourner Truth’s personhood and question and respond to it in the negative, for the sake of anti-essentialist feminism.

Sojourner Truth’s refrain ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ has, in her time, two answers. Yes; because as a woman under slavery, her woman-identified female body is exploited for the purpose of breeding. No; because as a black woman under slavery, hers is a womanhood negated in an ideology in which ‘woman’ archetypically means a respectable white woman. Rather than have the privilege to ‘fluctuate’ between identities, the sexist racism of slavery overdetermines Sojourner Truth and women like her. So what makes a white feminist’s anti-essentialist feminism different from a slaver’s construction of black women? Modleski does not mince her words:

Given the doubleness of response required by the question as it is posed by a black woman and an ex-slave, it seems to me politically irresponsible for (white) feminism to refuse to grant to Sojourner Truth the status of a woman, for it would then be in complicity with the racist patriarchal system Sojourner Truth was protesting and that has denied, and in important ways continues to deny, this status to the black female (in this respect, excluding women from a contested category on the grounds that there is no category may well be the latest ruse of white middle-class feminism).

We can see versions of Riley’s ‘feminism without women’ in the current calls for the abolition of gender currently percolating British feminist spaces. In other instances of this crisis of ‘women’, (cis)-gender is the target; it hurts, constrains, and does not reflect ‘me’. Honestly, I don’t know how not recognising or eliminating gender can make the world better for women.

Gender is not just something you can identify in and of yourself, but is a taxonomic and biopolitical strategy to organise society. For the poststructurally-inclined, gender is not something ‘out there’ but is an unfinished process of becoming. To abolish gender, you’re going to need to overturn personal naming convention, but also normative sartorial codes, and other things we not only take for granted but may also be innocuous in themselves or are a source of reaffirmation for those marginalised from the trappings of privilege.

More recently, we see another manifestation of feminism without women. In contrast to postmodern pontificating, it now seems that feminism can proceed without actual women altogether. Worthy of a place in The Onion, the Icelandic minister for Foreign Affairs has announced to the United Nations that he has a rather good idea of hosting a major conference on feminism, gender equality, and sexual violence, but for men only. The ‘barbershop’ conference is meant to bring men and boys ‘to the table on gender equality in a positive way’, says the enlightened minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson.

Emma Watson’s HeForShe and the problematic implications of such a campaign (one of which is the White Knight approach to men’s ‘feminism’) can be attributed to the mainstreaming of men’s Very Important role in combating sexism and misogyny. So Very Important are they that not only are men expected at the frontline with women, but they may dispose of women altogether if they wished and get kudos for it.

We currently live in strange times, a time when people are prone to ponder whether a female celeb is a feminist or whether or not make-up or a cupcake is feminist. Many men would love to call themselves feminist and enlist themselves as feminist warriors (‘At last, real equality!’). But if being a feminist accrues the prestige of being modern, progressive, liberal, and generally decent, who would not want to be one?

Men can be involved in feminism, but as auxiliaries rather than its arbiters, legitimising feminism because it ‘needs’ men. Victoria Smith aka Glosswitch who is also suspicious of this ‘feminism without women’ part deux that HeForShe risks becoming perfectly captures my squeamishness about men’s uncritical enthusiasm to be feminists too:

I don’t want my sons to be feminists when they grow up. I want them to be men who have the courage and humanity to challenge masculinity, right here, right now. If women need a movement to say “I’m human”, they don’t need men jumping on board to say “yay, I’m human, too”. We know that already and men know it, too.


[1] Modleski, Tania (1991) Feminism Without Women, London: Routledge, pp.20-22

[2] Riley, Denise (1988) Am I That Name? London: MacMillan: pp. 1-2