Will it ever be possible for a woman to exist on her own terms, or will cultural reinforcement beat that notion down?
What is a “woman”? Is there an adequate answer in the first place? There is a somewhat belittling definition: Tota mulier in utero – “a woman is a womb”. And French writer Simone de Beauvoir wrote a 700-page-long book on feminism which humorously notes that “in speaking of certain women, connoisseurs declare that they are not women, although they are equipped with a uterus like the rest.”
The issue is ancient, no doubt. Now the modern female is defined even more confusingly. Most seek to prove that one sex is inferior, equal or superior to the other, but one thing is certain – women have always been defined in relation to men, to varying extents. Thus, to emancipate women from these notional confines is perhaps what feminism is all about.
YB Chong Eng.
Today’s woman is a creature of formidable force. She is at once a highly educated individual with a university degree, a career woman, a mother and a wife.
Recently, with the publication of the book Lean In by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, feminism and gender equality have received a boost in popularity. The work expresses very relevant and familiar frustrations experienced by a woman who does not think that her sex should be an inconvenience at the workplace.
At a recent Lean In workshop in Penang, inspired by Sandberg’s book, participants were encouraged to voice their concerns regarding challenges faced by women and then discuss the possible solutions to them. YB Chong Eng gave an interesting perspective during her speech: “The other day, I went for a debate camp organised by university students. And they had ‘best debater’ categories for women and for men. I asked, ‘Why?’ If we are talking about a 100-metre race, I would understand – women are less muscular than men, so it's necessary to have ‘men’ and ‘women’ categories. But surely not for debating! So they changed the rules. Next year, there won't be ‘best debater for women’ nor ‘best debater for men’. There will only be one category – ‘best debater’.”
Chong Eng with actress-cum-director Datuk Faridah Merican.
This anecdote perfectly reflects how unquestioned inequality can sometimes be, and goes undetected by even the most modern of minds. Cultural reinforcement may have a lot to do with this.
Today’s woman is a creature of formidable force. She is at once a highly educated individual with a university degree, a career woman, a mother and a wife. She runs the house, and may well be running the company1 . Many of the participants at the Lean In workshop were managers of their departments or top performers in companies. But for all the obstacles women have put behind them in the struggle for equality, traditions that have always denied them equal footing are not easily uprooted. These cultural laws, worshipped as norms and pillars of societies, and already so firmly ingrained in everyone’s minds, dictate our thinking so well that our behaviour appears to be human nature. No one pauses to question them anymore. And it is this behaviour, whether on the part of women or men, that still propagates space for inequality.
Chong Eng and Steven Sim.
Experiences shared were often similar – some women take a backseat in their careers, passing over promotion opportunities so that they can devote more time to their family. There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to build a family, but it is interesting nevertheless that it is the prevalent choice.
Participants at the Lean In workshop were acutely aware of this cultural phenomenon. Experiences shared were often similar – some women take a backseat in their careers, passing over promotion opportunities so that they can devote more time to their family. There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to build a family, but it is interesting nevertheless that it is the prevalent choice. Even more intriguing is to question whether this trend stems from the maternal instinct, or whether it is an act repeated so many times throughout the generations that it has become the cultural norm.
Interacting at the workshop.
Cultural reinforcement leads to stereotyping that often places women at a disadvantage. The ruinous thought that a woman belongs only in the kitchen was brought up during the workshop as well. One of the facilitators, Shu Shi, said that as a school teacher, she realised many primary school textbooks depict women as mothers who busy themselves cleaning the house or cooking, while men are usually portrayed as fathers who read the newspapers in front of the television after an exhausting day at the office. The image, though understandably just for “illustration and teaching purposes”, unintentionally sends the wrong message to children at a tender age and reinforces the idea that women are meant solely for the family. On a related note, some employers, thinking themselves understanding of their female employees, choose to give more training or promotion opportunities to men. The reason given was “she is an expecting mother, she won’t have time to cope and it is better not to give her unnecessary stress.” This situation understandably was the frustration of many participants.
Suggestions from a participant on how to help and empower women.
Besides discussing stereotypes that arise from cultural reinforcement, the workshop also focused on issues that women encounter at home and at the office: the lack of a comprehensive support system and role models, the latter being a symptom of the former. As many participants pointed out, it is the lack of a proper support system for working mothers that make them hesitant to return to the workforce. Hence, the number of women holding top positions is naturally low.
To counter this, many working mothers present at the workshop suggested that more day-care child centres and parking lots for pregnant mothers should be provided at firms. From their experiences, offices make it almost impossible for the new mother to work. For example, one participant lamented that facilities for breastfeeding mothers are non-existent in most companies.
Perhaps more workplaces should follow in the footsteps of companies such as Dell, where a “Mother’s Room” is provided for nursing mothers, complete with refrigerators for storing breast milk during the day.
Increasing the number of all-girls schools was one of the solutions that many participants vehemently agreed upon. In the absence of boys, girls are given more opportunities to discover leadership qualities and hidden talents by taking on roles that may usually be thought as “more suitable for boys”.
There are still miles to go before there is no longer the need for feminism. The emancipation of women being defined in relation to men remains the goal. Not equality, nor superiority. But to exist freely on our own terms.
Previous sessions of the Lean In workshop have been inspiring, but there is still much room for improvement – the majority of participants were women, and perhaps more men can be encouraged to join in the discussion.
Participants of the Lean In workshop.
There is no sure-fire, easy route for equality. But the lesson seems obvious: not even the best, well-structured education can eradicate within a few decades what has been nurtured for centuries, but it is still the best weapon there is. There are still miles to go before there is no longer the need for feminism. The emancipation of women being defined in relation to men remains the goal. Not equality, nor superiority. But to exist freely on our own terms.
1 This is of course very possible in a country like Malaysia, and also in most countries. But there are many places where women are still bounded by strict oppressing laws. In a July news report by The Independent, a Pakistani man gouged out his ex-wife’s eyes and broke her legs in ve places. Angered by her “working without his permission” and “having loose morals’” he claimed to have committed the act to “send a message through her to all women with loose morals”.
Yap Jo-Yee is currently pursuing a degree in Economics at University College London.