The new generation of feminists

By Dina Zaman
April 15, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, April 15 — A tweet a few weeks back remarked on how rallies and activism in Malaysia were always about the same issues, and the same faces. The tweet referred to the recent Wanita Suara Perubahan Rally held on March 18, 2012 which saw NGOs, men and women march for six demands, such as clean government, an end to gender violence, a decent wage and quality of life, to name a few.

Women’s activism in Malaysia is quite lively, but to keen observers of feminism, still very new in its approach towards causes. Third and fourth wave feminism have yet to reach our shores, they say, but would be a welcome change to the current feminist movement in Malaysia. [1a & b] A dipstick survey among acquaintances on the writer’s Facebook, revealed that many Malaysian women felt (a) intimidated by the ‘girl gangs’ and cliques, and segan by the imposing personalities who champion their causes, (b) the causes did not really address their needs and demands and that bread and butter issues as well as peer pressure to not join the bandwagon compel them not to be involved in such matters.

For the most part, bread and butter issues are the main reason for women not participating. There are just too many things to do: work, run a household, and struggling to maintain a healthy social life, as well as the bane of almost everyone on earth, exercise. Activism, volunteerism, politics — these take up so much time and effort, and not to mention the emotional involvement. However, another reason that could be why many women stay away is peer pressure. Being perceived as a feminist may be misconstrued, and trite as it is, may lower their social ranking. Men may be intimidated by this aspect, and find them romantically repugnant. Even women friends shrink back from having to entertain a rabid feminist friend at school reunions. Being a feminist could turn a woman into a social pariah, and even more so in a conservative environment like Malaysia.

Is there space for a newer breed of women activists then? Will women of all ages be welcomed by the current sororities?

Who are Kakak Killjoy?

Kakak Killjoy represents a smaller subset of younger Malaysian feminists (in their twenties and those who’ve just turned 30) who are contributing to the Malaysian feminist discourse during a time when too few people are. They’re not so much ‘fed-up’ with the older generation of feminists but rather want to add and hopefully transform how we talk about gender and how it intersects with other social categories in Malaysia into a way that is more critical and intellectually-engaging.

When Alicia (picture left) started writing about feminism nearly 4 years ago on her blog, virtually no one was doing it. Sadly, the numbers have not grown much, but she is grateful to have discovered her team of writers who were the rare Malaysians expressing themselves about gender, ethnicity, class, sexualities, disabilities, and the current state of Politics in Malaysia from a feminist perspective. “We’re still small to represent anything bigger than what we are and what we do, but I sincerely hope that we’re inspiring younger writers and critical commentators to come forward and do the same.”

Kat Laut Bulan, in a brief email correspondence, sees Kakak Killjoy as a collective which speaks ‘with’ people, and not ‘for’ anyone in particular. “The only people we represent are ourselves, and we are young Malaysian feminists/womanists who are adding to the Malaysian feminist/womanist discourse. We want to inspire everyone to talk about hot button issues in Malaysia not only from the usual racial or class perspectives, but also from a feminist/womanist perspective. This is not being done enough. After all, all the ‘isms’ are interrelated, and we can’t sweep feminist/womanist issues under the carpet when they’re costing us greatly.”

Munira Mustaffa, Kat Laut Bulan and Alicia Izharuddin are Malaysian professionals in various fields  who write thought provoking and very lively essays for the webzine Kakak Killjoy.

Alicia, when asked whether the NGO scene can be intimidating to women, replied, “I get the sense that some women’s NGOs can be cliquish and intimidating to outsiders, even to people who may be interested in their cause. Not all NGOs are well-funded, the amount of work can be a strain, a lot of work organising events, among other things, is done voluntarily, and reaching a consensus in decision-making processes is often a touchy occasion. Thus I am aware that given these circumstances, women’s NGOs can be defensive of criticisms that emerge from outside the NGO circle. There are subtle means through which inter-NGO cliques are continually reinforced, mainly through making the default assumption that anyone present at NGO-organised events, formal or otherwise, is a member of one. During such moments, it makes me wonder whether not representing an NGO makes me less of a citizen participant in creating change for a more egalitarian Malaysia?”

Has feminism and women’s activism really excluded women?

Shrewd, observant Munira’s take on the whole issue is that the absence “… of stronger participation by women in Malaysian politics because let’s face it — there is no safe space for us. Wanita Umno is hardly exemplary. The Parliament is a perfect example of how unsafe a space it is for women, what with the inherent and active sexism and chauvinism. … Women make up a large percentage in universities, academia and work force, yet why are we still treated like our worth is lesser than a cattle? It’s a joke when the politicians guilty of slipping these words just apologise and grin. No hard feelings, hun. Jangan merajuk. Right? It’s despicable. Politicians need to be accountable for their actions and for what they say instead of being allowed to skip free. “Sorry” is not going to cut it. Apology is not a policy.”

She doesn’t see how feminism should exclude Malaysians. Malaysians probably feel excluded only because of the common misconception with regards to feminism. “To me, feminism is about addressing gender issues. We’re not about upstaging men - we just want to establish our rights. Is it too much to ask for a bit of justice? What we have here in Malaysia is definitely a gender issue. A huge one. The problem is, I think people are too focused on racial politics. Everyone’s always saying that ‘Okay, we’ll be fairer to people from this race/community/etc’. What they neglect to understand is that you can’t be fair if you can’t even grasp the importance of gender equality. If you can’t understand why gender equality is important, then how are you going to engage yourselves in a serious dialogue about equality in other aspects.”

She admits that she is somewhat disdainful, contemptuous of the scene.  There needs to be more action than just talk.  “Just because you marched in a protest doesn’t mean that you’re involved. Activism is not just a label, it’s not for show. There is a reason why there’s the word “active” in it. There is no hope in action which power is only wielded so superficially. If we want to talk about change, we need to check our own privileges. By that, I mean we should try seeing things through a different lens, different perspectives. People come from different levels of socio-economics status and class. We all have varying life stories, different experiences. That’s probably what is dragging all of us down because our privileges are our main deterrent. Don’t talk about wanting to change the nation if you’re going to wave your iPad in my face. To get things done, it seems to me that we need to know the right people. Again, pandering. From that aspect, yeah, activism is pretty cliquish in Malaysia. If we want change, then all of us need to sit down and engage. Really engage. And that means broaching a lot of subjects that many of us may find uncomfortable with. Probably challenging, even. But that is the whole point. If we can’t begin by seeking and identifying our weakness, what can we achieve? Therefore, in order to engage, the first step involves listening.”

Alicia is respectful of the women who have fought for the rights of Malaysian women longer than she and her generation. “I have plenty of respect and admiration for them, particularly since they’ve been in activism for much longer, have experienced much more, and with that have much to share with younger women. However, I worry that older generations of feminists may not see the importance of mentoring younger women feminists into one day taking their place, and as a result in only ten years time we might end up having a power vacuum. I only notice that older feminists seem less keen on speaking about/engaging with issues that younger feminists are talking about. For example, Malaysia’s complete silence on the global movement which was Slutwalk perhaps underscores some unsaid ambivalence and prudishness concerning female sexuality and the refusal to participate in the transformation around the discourse of sexual violence i.e. not on women’s responsibility to prevent rape, but to tell men to rape and society to stop blaming survivors and victims of sexual violence. “

However, she maintains that she is one of the many younger women who are still intimidated by, while maintaining plenty of admiration for, women’s NGOs. “I’m not certain if much of feminist activism in Malaysia is glamorous, although I will say events that take place in very nice 4-star hotels are glamorous and have the tendency to intimidate,” she says.

And who are the women Malaysia should watch out for now? “Wei San from AWAM, Ren Chung from WAO, and I’d like to self-promote and say the Kakak Killjoy collective are definitely up there in ‘faces to look out for’!”

What Other Young Women Say

Social worker Petra Gimbad. - Picture by Lareina TanSocial worker Petra Gimbad. - Picture by Lareina TanPetra Gimbad, a social worker who is pursuing her Masters in Human Rights in Australia weighs Malaysian women’s participation carefully.  In an email interview, she observed that the ‘Old Guard’ were “…suitable for a certain kind of political activism and they are great writers and speakers. But they cannot cover all feminist bases. So we need other feminists with different approaches too. ”

She continued with a tinge of regret, “…  we have lipstick feminism, which is popularised by Sex And the City/Spice Girls/rahrah Girl Power type depictions in the movies and on TV. But not always with the awareness of what women had to give up for women now to experience freedom and equality. And not always, unfortunately, with the desire to better life for other women in this lifetime.”

“I’ve experienced other girls riding the Fourth Wave who believe in gender equality, and create spaces for this via art and spirituality. My girlfriends and I used to pray at temples and churches and eat vegetarian food together (we very the muhibah) before teaching art, dance and yoga to kids as part of our weekend volunteer work. It was a welcome antidote to our day jobs (some of us were daytime NGO workers and others, corporate high-flyers) and a lovely way to create energy as a group to do humanitarian work from a place of love.”

She doesn’t think that it is a matter of whether the causes resonate or not, because they do. It is a matter of whether young women can relate, she said. “The divide can be due to various factors - language, class, geography, cultural understanding (PLEASE don’t say race, malas) and unfortunately sheer inexperience and unawareness. A lot of women I know simply don’t care because they’ve not been exposed to violence or even when they are aware, been not been brought up to care about the welfare of others. We are Malaysians after all.”

Who does she think are the new leaders of women’s activism? “Janarthani Arumugam! June Rubis! They work on-the-ground so I have a soft spot for them. They have great stories which are easy to relate to and therefore speak to the heart.”

Jaymee Goh, a freelancer & PhD Student, who also writes for Kakak Killjoy, sees that women’s participation looks limited to only certain tiers of politics, never to the extent of policy, unless it serves the larger (male-led) status quo. “NGOs are a double-edged sword. They must operate autonomously of the government, yet they must also challenge the government. However, because the government resists challenges, NGOs are forced to dance delicately to avoid bans on their activities. This does mean that many groups of Malaysians cannot participate, as their concerns are too “out of the way” or too radical. I get no sense that NGOs understand the necessity of taking the needs of several different groups into account at once, which means that any given NGO will inevitably be exclusive to the one group they claim to represent, often at great expense of all others.”

NGOs are like any other kind of organization or institution: until its members recognize gender equality as a necessity, there will be none, Jaymee says.

Jaymee is very intrigued and interested in the activist movements happening in Malaysia--who’s leading them, what their supposed agendas are, how they are operating, how they intend to sustain their work. It’s hard and under-appreciated work, and for all my criticisms of NGOs, not enough Malaysians appreciate them for their effort, if not effect.

Dahlia Martin who is pursuing postgraduate studies abroad, does not agree with the fact that Third and FourthWave of Feminism has not arrived in Malaysia. “ Many Malaysian women have access to the internet, and are at least through that abreast of global developments. They can and do “organise” themselves on issues they are concerned about. Many KL women would also argue that they do actively reconstruct feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, with some Muslim women using their tudung to do so. “

On how young women feel intimidated by the activist scene, Dahlia replies, “It’s funny you mentioned this, just today I was trying to convince someone, a young woman, here in Australia to nominate herself for the board of NGO X, and she squirmed saying something along the lines of, but I don’t have an NGO X pedigree. She’s right to feel intimidated, NGO X has no young women on its board; I’m about to propose they have a young persons quota, if you will, for the board. A diversity of women on the team means an organisation will be able to better represent women from a range of backgrounds. I should also mention that when I talk to some people about activism, I often feel as though they’ve very narrow definitions of the term. Like you’ve got to be out there, lobbying some politician or organising a protest, or “established” to have an opinion. Women absolutely have a range of lived experiences, and there’s no one which categorically tops another.”


[1a] Third-Wave feminism seeks to challenge or avoid what it deems the second wave’s “essentialist” definitions of femininity, which often assumed a universal female identity and over-emphasized the experiences of upper-middle-class white women. The shift from Second Wave feminism came about with many of the legal and institutional rights that were given to women. However, the Third Wave believed there needed to be further changes in stereotypes of women and in the media portrayals of women as well as in the language that has been used to define women. Therefore, a more Post-Structuralist interpretation of gender and sexuality is central to Third Wave ideology. Post-Structuralism emphasizes discursive power and the ambiguity of gender and the power of language. In “Deconstruction Equality Versus-Differences; or, the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism” Joan W. Scott describes how language has been used as a way to understand the world, however, “post-structuralist insist that words and texts have no fixed or intrinsic meanings, that there is no transparent or self-evident relationship between them and either ideas or things, no basic or ultimate correspondence between language and the world” Wikipedia

[1b] Fourth wave feminism: http://journal.equip.org/articles/fourth-wave-feminists-stress-action-over-doctrine

Part 2

Hijacked by politics

Activism and politics in Malaysia would seem to centre around Bangsar and suburbia.  One may argue that one’s middle class tendencies should not be a deterrent towards the cause, and that everyone, whatever backgrounds they come from, are all for similar causes. Activism sees no colour, they say. We’re all in this together!

But dig, and needle more, and murmurs, voices of dissention come out. Unfortunately, activism can be like a high school playground, with its cliques and sensitivities. And for many who work in grassroots activism, it is all about one’s class and economic status. The trend of having celebrity activists is also not a welcome one.

An observer who wishes to remain unnamed, spoke out about the injustices she saw in Malaysian women’s activism.  One, again, like the other women interviewed for the feature, she had utmost respect for the older, more experienced women activists. However, how they approach activism may need to be changed. There’s too much emphasis on advocacy. “Not everyone sees activism as ever-evolving, and dynamic. Hence the rigidity.”

Sure, the lack of resources dampens the work NGOs do, but surely they can change the way they work and approach issues, she said. Because of this rigidity, and how advocacy is communicated, grassroots women still do not grasp the issues that are integral in their lives. There is a huge gap when it comes to meeting the needs of women. Sadly, many women do not go on the ground enough. “How you then relate to your audience? If the people you fight for, don’t benefit, what is the use of activism?”

Middle class arrogance has also come into play when dealing with the grassroots. Citing language barriers for one. “How can someone who is Malaysian, gone to local schools, not be able to speak in Bahasa and the mother tongue of her people? Or at least bahasa pasar?” She shrugs. There is no space for grassroots women to participate.

Empower’s Janarthani Arumugam is a calm but realistic voice.  Empower has been conducting an extensive programme to increase women’s political participation in the country. They see the direct implications when women fail to see the connections between political power and demanding for their rights. Getting more women represented in decision making powers and accessing their political power will provide the critical mass to push for change.

“The women who have attended the rally are those who have been part of our political network. We train and provide enough skills to women leaders to promote the cause. Each individual woman we train becomes an advocate for the cause, she in turn works with her community (multiplier effect).  We encourage the women we have trained to be part of the process as potential candidates, campaign managers and grassroots mobilizers. The women have been trained and are able to participate in an empowered and meaningful manner. (However) as much as these cadre of women have been trained and are ready, it would all depend on the political parties to actually nominate them. “

To the layman, this may sound pathetic. Oh my, is it any wonder why women of Malaysia are in a mess?

One cannot say or assume that. The truth is that for many women’s organisations and politics, financial and human resources run thin. The employees and volunteers are overworked and fatigued. And yes, again bread and butter issues, as well as societal pressure may hinder Malaysian women from being active participants.

As Alicia recapitulates what she had discussed in Kakak Killjoy, “… the discourse of women’s issues in Malaysia is very much rights-based and hinges greatly on statistics, on ensuring that the law further protects those who continue to be marginalised on the basis of gender, and pressuring the state to put gender equality as an important political agenda. What seems to be lacking when we read and talk about feminist issues in the public sphere is ordinary people, non-NGO people articulating their thoughts and experiences of gender-based injustice and taken just as seriously as when a female politician talks about it. It seems as if we are reproducing the feudalistic mentality of seeking legitimacy and endorsement of those with political capital when, for example, sexual and domestic violence, needs national attention. Creating new laws and enforcing others is not enough to ensure a safer, more equal society. We need to get ourselves into the act as well, recognising injustice whenever we see it, and not only wait for others; the police, NGOs, and our leaders to step up.”

Perhaps one reason why Malaysian women are not responding to the call is because women are really critical of each other (http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2008/06/why_are_women_s.) In a mostly patriarchal society like ours, and whereby polygamy (hidden or not), glass ceilings are practised, the competition is high. Also, it would seem that the matter is worsened when politicians leverage on the cause, harming both women and issue. The issues tabled in this feature should be discussed further among women. This is at the end of the day, their country.

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