All-male panels – an indirect way of shutting women up

All-male panels are an indirect way of shutting women up. This is not a hyperbolic statement but a call-out on both symptom and cause of a patriarchal society.

When men are invited to speak in a forum, they are invited based on reputation and/or because the invited already belongs to a network of friends. Actual expertise is, surprisingly or rather not so surprisingly, secondary. Most times, men will invite other men because in the prevailing hegemonic boy’s club kind of thinking, men’s views are held in higher regard.

Although in many places women and men have equal access to education, with women outnumbering men in higher education, men’s intelligence is a natural amalgam of cool rationality, clear-thinking and objectivity that legitimises his smooth transition into the comfortable position of being heard and taken seriously. Women’s intelligence is remarkable and threatening. She must work harder to be as good as a moderately intelligent man, because her judgment is thought to be easily clouded by emotion. Her journey to being heard and taken seriously is more uncertain and often perilous.

And what kind of views? A) Views about the state of the nation and its treasury, religion and faith, ideologies of our times – views that somehow require the legitimacy and authoritative aura of the male voice. B) Views that do not raise attention to the specificities of gender and sexuality. Specificities are not universal and sometimes accused as divisive. Universality is the ideal, privileged and invisible norm just as being men and masculinity are the privileged and invisible norm.

The predisposition to invite an all-male panel is about the hierarchy of speech. It is not that women are forbidden to speak in public forums. They can be in the audience, speaking from amongst the crowd and challenge the all-male panel without much consequence as they are uncredited even when they speak truth to power. An all-female audience with an all-male panel will do nothing to challenge men’s dominance of the public sphere. Women in the audience are treated as passive listeners, a collective mass lacking individuality – one woman’s views and complaint are the same as any other.

There will always be women panelists who speak in forums. Their numbers are small and their names have a repetitive quality over the years. Usually, these women gain a certain cache as the go-to-woman to fix an embarrassing gender ratio problem. If only these problems were always embarrassing to event organisers. In more insidious cases, the regular female faces are there because they do not upset male privilege.

What women are not invited enough to do is to partake in the higher forms of speech; authoritative speech on matters that relate to power, wealth and wellbeing of people in general, male-dominated discourses disguised as universal issues and matters of cultural expertise. The higher forms of speech conducted by and between men are to be distinguished from lower forms of speech such as chatting, prattling and the one that women are constructed to do: idle gossip.

All-male panels represent one part of a constellation pushing women out of public life. Women are stalked, harassed, and virulently insulted on social media and the web when they commit to more stylised public speech in opinion pieces, blogging and vlogging. This is because women are stepping into the precious stomping ground of patriarchy where hitherto women appear for men and serve men’s interests, now women’s voices are saying things men and some women do not like to hear and the voices are getting louder.

When event organisers continue to host all-male panels, decline their invitation to speak as a panelist and do not attend their events. If boycotting these events come across as too extreme, the least one can do is to point out that yet another forum on ‘something important’ will feature an all-male panel and decry its backwardness.

Public seminar at National University of Singapore this month

Silence and consent

My dear followers and readers of this blog,

I will be presenting my early findings of my new research project on non-veiling in Malaysia in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS) on Wednesday 23rd March 2016. This is going quite exciting for me as it’s the debut of my first post-PhD project. Those residing in Singapore and in the neighbourhood, do drop by and say hi!

Feminist Reading Group 2 – Malaysian femininity and housework

frg3 - cropped

The last in the series of our meetings is on Saturday morning 11 am on 19th March 2016 at our usual location AWAM -85, Jalan 21/1, Sea Park, 46300 Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia. The quickest way to get to AWAM is by LRT Taman Paramount. It is a 2-minute walk away.

We will discussing Angela Davis’s classic essay from Women, Race, and Class, ‘The Approaching Obsolescence of Housework: A Working-Class Perspective’ (1981) and talk about what it means to do housework during an economic downturn, rising social discontent and deepening misogyny in Malaysia.

Teori dalam Pengajian Gender – jadual kuliah

‘Teori dalam Pengajian Gender’ AZEA 1103 merupakan kursus elektif Ijazah Dasar dalam Fakulti Sastera dan Sains Sosial di Universiti Malaya. Kuliah adalah setiap hari Selasa di Fakulti Sastera dan Sains Sosial, Universiti Malaya. Sila berhubung dengan saya untuk maklumat lanjut.

Kursus ini adalah pengenalan kepada teori feminis dan melatih pelajar dalam menggunakan teori feminis dalam penulisan, perdebatan, hujah lisan dan penyelidikan. Ia menggabungkan dan mengkritik ilmu dan teori daripada negaara Barat, Asia dan Malaysia dalam pengajian gender dan seksualiti.

Minggu 1 (23 Februari 2016) – Pengenalan kursus – maksud teori
Minggu 2 (1 Mac 2016) – Tubuh, identiti, gender dan sekualiti
Minggu 3 (8 Mac 2016) – Definisi wanita dalam falsafah dan agama
Minggu 4 (15 Mac 2016) – Epistemologi feminis
Minggu 5 (22 Mac 2016) – Feminisme Liberal
Minggu 6 (29 Mac 2016) – Feminisme Marxist
Minggu 7 (5 April 2016) – Feminisme Radikal

Gender, Science and Technology – lecture schedule

‘Gender, Science and Technology’ AZEA 2306 is a second-year undergraduate elective course at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya. Malaysia has a long history of pro-science policy in development and education, however the question of gender in science and technology is often framed as unproblematic. There is an over-representation of women in higher education. The number of Malaysian women active in STEM research is also significant.

This course digs deeper underneath the statistics and beyond the maxim that science is progress and rational. It crosses the disciplinary boundaries of history, philosophy, social sciences and the humanities to critique the unquestionable authority of science. The course’s main objective is to foreground the role of gender and sexuality in the story of science.

Lectures are every Wednesdays 9-11 am at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Please contact me for more details.

Week 1  24 February 2016: What is technology?
Week 2  2 March 2016: Women, femininity and science: key concepts in gender, science and technology
Week 3  9 March 2016: The body, identity and technology
Week 4  16 March 2016: Sexuality and technology
Week 5  TBA: Computers, video games and gender
Week 6  30 March 2016: Cyber-feminisms
Week 7  6 April 2016: Species and gender: Animals, humans and women
Week 8  20 April 2016: Ecofeminism and environmental justice
Week 9  27 April 2016: Gender and science fiction
Week 10  4 May 2016: Guest lecture by Dr Por Heong Hong – Gender, medicine, and reproductive technology
Week 11  11 May 2016: Guest lecture by Dr Clarissa Lee – Gender and feminist philosophy of science
Week 12  18 May 2016: Conclusion: Science, technology and feminist futures

Feminist Reading Group 2: Social Capital and Hierarchy


Feminist Reading Group will meet on Saturday morning, 30th January 2016 at 11am, in AWAM (No. 85, Jalan 21/1, Taman SEA, Petaling Jaya). Our topic of discussion is on ‘Social Capital and Hierarchy’ within feminism and inequalities between women.

We will discuss Jo Freeman’s classic essay ‘Tyranny of structurelessness‘.

Some questions for us to ponder:

1) What is social and cultural capital? Is it different from privilege?
2) What happens when women have plenty of social capital?
3) Is non-hierarchy always a good thing?

Discussion is in Bahasa Malaysia and English.

The Feminist Reading Group is open to everybody, registration is not required and you can friends and family. If you use Twitter, please share the event.

Please contact me (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) for queries and further info.

See you there!

Non-veiling and down-veiling narratives in Malaysia



Project statement in English

It would be wise to establish that, in Malaysia, the dichotomy between the unveiled and veiled woman as oppositional and mutually exclusive is a reductive one, masking the shifting subjectivities of women who wish to unveil but cannot, women who remove the veil but choose to eventually re-veil, women who veil part-time, and women who down-veil (transition from niqab/tudung labuh to simple tudung). I would like to suggest that the sartorial practices of Muslim-identified women in Malaysia exist on a continuum of identities rather than a simple binary of non-veiled and veiled. The significance of establishing this continuum would be to illuminate the ethical agency of Muslim-identified women and their negotiation and struggles with faith, culture and politics of the everyday – all of which constitute the micro-politics of (non)veiling identities. Such a continuum of identities will also be able to reveal the contradictions, respectively, within the community of women who veil and women who do not. Recognising the imbalance of social capital between Muslim women, this study also aims to bring out the voices of women who do not wear the headscarf and challenge normative assumptions of non-veiling as passivity and non-compliance with regards to culture and faith-related matters.

Please contact me (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) if you’re interested in participating in this project

Kenyataan projek dalam Bahasa Kebangsaan

Bagi saya, wanita yang bertudung dan tidak bertudung tidak semestinya wujud bertentangan antara satu sama lain atau hitam-putih. Sebaliknya, isu tudung-tidak bertudung menyelindungi kepelbagaian sosok wanita yang bertudung tetapi ingin membukanya, wanita yang menanggal tudung tetapi akan bertudung semula, wanita yang bertudung “separa waktu”, dan wanita yang bertukar daripada tudung labuh kepada hijab biasa. Saya ingin mencadangkan bahawa amalan permakaian wanita Muslim di Malaysia wujud secara berperingkat dan bukannya binari yang mudah. Dengan memaparkan permakaian tudung secara berperingkat, saya ingin menunjukkan bahawa golongan wanita yang bertudung dan tidak bertudung masing-masing tidak konsisten dan serupa. Projek ini juga prihatin kepada kelebihan wanita yang bertudung dari segi kapital sosial di kalangan masyarakat Melayu Malaysia. Oleh yang demikian, projek ini mendahulukan suara-suara wanita yang terpencil terutamanya mereka yang tidak memakai tudung dengan tujuan memecahkan persepsi terhadap wanita tidak bertudung sebagai pasif dan berlawanan dengan budaya dan kepercayaan agama.

  • Adakah anda seorang wanita yang tidak memakai tudung/hijab? Dan jika tidak, mengapa? Apakah cabaran dan tekanan yang anda hadapi sebagai seorang wanita yang tidak bertudung?
  • Dari mana datangnya pilihan anda untuk menanggalkan tudung?
  • Jika anda bertudung dan diberikan pilihan, adakah anda akan memilih untuk bertudung?
  • Jika anda bertudung labuh atau berniqab, adakah anda ingin atau sudah bertukar kepada hijab biasa? Jika ya, mengapa?

Sila berhubung dengan saya (alicia [at] um [dot] edu [dot] my) untuk menyertai dalam projek ini

The Feminist Reading Group

Feminist Reading Group
Poster by @fahmif10

The very exciting Feminist Reading Group will start this month on Saturday 19th December 2015 at 11 am – 1pm at AWAM. For the next three months, we will meet once a month to discuss classic and culturally relevant texts on feminism. It will be a fabulous opportunity to engage critically with feminist issues of our times.

Time: 11 am – 1 pm
Venue: AWAM No. 85, Jalan 21/1, Sea Park, 46300 Petaling Jaya
Further incentivising factors: Light refreshments and very nice people

Format of the reading group:
Each meeting will be a discussion of one text (attached). For the reading group to be successful, participants are required to read the assigned text before the meeting – it’s that simple!

Purpose of the reading group:
The reading group is a safe space for developing critical thinking and communication about feminist identities and ideas. It is about honouring the work of other feminists and being part of a bigger picture of championing feminism in Malaysia.

The themes of the three reading group meetings (see attachment for brief outline of the themes):

19 Dec: Neoliberalism and feminism
Text – The rise of neoliberal feminism (2013) by Catherine Rottenberg

30 January 2016: Hierarchy and social capital
Text – Tyranny of structurelessness (1971) by Jo Freeman

February 2016 (TBA): Domestic work and feminism
Text – ‘Obsolescence of housework‘ (1981) by Angela Davis

Book review: Eleanor Marx by Rachel Holmes

It is a curious thing when an illustrious offspring of someone so famous would remain eclipsed in the shadows of their parents. Perhaps this is warranted and justified in a meritocratic society we all aspire to where, with the exception of political dynasties and monarchies, famous parents do not always produce equally famous children. Begotten DNA is no promise for fame but maybe some fortune.

Eleanor Marx. Source: Wikipedia

Such is the case for the extraordinary life of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx and perhaps the most illustrious of the Marx children considering the breadth of her political and literary contributions. Eleanor, or Tussy (which rhymes with ‘pussy’), would be remembered as her father’s first biographer who fought hard to protect his intellectual legacy in late nineteenth century Britain and across the channel. And yet, many know and will continue to know so little of her.

In ‘Eleanor Marx’ (2014, Bloomsbury), biographer Rachel Holmes has brought to life a woman who lived a full and exemplary public life. However, as Holmes notes, much is to be desired in Eleanor’s private life that led to her tragic demise. There are many telling scenes in this book that reveal plenty of the contrast between the gendered ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ of socialism as imagined by Eleanor and Friedrich Engels, Marx’s closest collaborator and patron.

First, there is the impoverished bourgeois-bohemian existence of the Marx family (consisting of paterfamilias Marx, Jenny Marx née von Westphalen, Helen Demuth the housekeeper, the three Marx daughters, plenty of pets and Engels). Poverty led them to live a peripatetic life across London punctuated by many trips to spa towns and the seaside for the very Victorian phenomenon of touristic convalescing.

Second, there is the Marx family arrangement that spoke volumes about the realities of the sexual division of labour within a radical family:

For every hundred meals they cooked, Marx and Engels expressed an idea; for every basket of petticoats, bibs and curtains they sewed together, Marx and Engels wrote an article. For every pregnancy, childbirth and labour-intensive period of raising an infant, Marx and Engels wrote a book.

Recognising the limitations of women within her own household and yonder in the mills, Eleanor decided to rebel and lived like a woman so unlike others of her time; unwed and childfree yet living as a ‘wife’ with her ‘husband’, the repellant Edward Aveling, whose parasitic nature is reminded with every mention of his name.

For whatever the inconsistencies within their radicalism, Marx wrote ‘the theory’, Eleanor was ‘the practice’ personified. Eleanor’s childhood and adulthood would be intricately linked with Marx’s magnum opus, Capital. The birth pangs of writing and publishing the 3-volume work took a toll on the Marx’s family finances and livelihood. Still unfinished after Marx’s death, Eleanor and Engels took charge of writing and editing the rest.

And third, although she lived unlike an archetypical Victorian woman, Eleanor was gifted with a morality and unconditional love that were comparable to melodramatic heroines of lesser fiction. Her discovery of her father’s secret love child with their housekeeper may have toppled him from his place on the pedestal, but her deep friendship with her half-brother late in her life would prove to be a source of strength during the darkest hours of her union with Edward.

The reader seethes at the things she sees but Eleanor chooses not to see: Edward’s frittering of their shared earnings and his ultimate betrayal of marrying in secret a young actress that rapidly led to Eleanor’s downfall – an alleged suicide by prussic acid poisoning. An inquest to establish if she had killed herself or murdered followed suit. She was, in the rather unflattering words of her ‘husband’ Edward, “as healthy as a horse” before her untimely death at age 43.

But Eleanor’s life story is no simple melodrama. A tireless agitator for the eight-hour work day, education for the disenfranchised working-class, and the ‘woman question’ in the capitalist mode of production, Eleanor would be at every major trade union conference, speaking to an admiring and inspired crowd. She remained influential as a friend, political collaborator, and later as a mentor to younger generations of working class unionists less privileged than herself, a daughter of Marx who grew up with little formal education but was exposed to a world of art, literature and culture from a young age. The rate of her industry was prodigious: she would go on to write in multiple languages for international presses and produce the first translation of Madame Bovary into English, among many other things.

Eleanor’s fiery spirit and voice emit from the page through correspondences to her sister, revealing a woman driven by an unshakeable belief in economic justice but also doubt as her feminine person is sometimes dismissed within the socialist fold. I am often left unsettled by Holmes’s portrayal of the destructive relationship between Eleanor and Edward Aveling. For all her projections of contemporary feeling onto Eleanor as a feminist, she appears unwilling to suggest that Eleanor was perhaps emotionally abused by Edward. The pattern of abuse is there yet feebly ameliorated by Eleanor’s declaration of love and forgiveness for his moral weakness.

After her death in March 1898, followed by Edward’s a mere four months later, Eleanor’s afterlife is a dramatic coda. Cremated and placed in an urn, her remains were placed in a glass cabinet of the British Communist Party’s office for many years until a police raid signalled a more traditional interment with her family in Highgate cemetery in 1956.

For whatever remains of her extant work, her co-authored essay ‘The Woman Question’ (1886) continues to appear in socialist-feminist reading lists. Capital and the safeguarding of his correspondences are as much Eleanor’s legacy to readers today as her father’s. Eleanor is a woman of our political times – a woman who lives passionately and breathes her politics. And yet, her life is also a feminist puzzle; how to square a life of radical theory and practice with the life-destroying facets of sexism and misogyny within radical theory and practice?