I will start this column piece with a simple statement: I am feminist, and unapologetically so.
I know for a fact that this label has been deemed as dangerous and sensitive as of late but I will still use it, because I am a believer of equal rights, between genders, races, religions and other differences. But for now, let’s focus on gender. I have been told that I should just ditch the label, mainly due to its negative connotations and the stereotypes that are associated to the term.
“Feminist, really? People might think you’re an arrogant, know-it-all female.”
“Feminist? Well people might assume you hate men… And that… You know… You’re a lesbian.”
“Feminist? Good luck with that. People will think you’re a radical Muslim trying to go against our religious teachings.”
No, guys. I am really just someone who firmly believes in equal rights, while at the same time not disregarding the fact that we are born unequal. That said, I do acknowledge the reality that this term does come with a baggage. But think about this, must we really ditch a term just because some parts of society do not understand it?
If we are refusing to identify ourselves as something just because of the stereotype that it carries, wouldn’t that only justify the stereotypes instead of cancelling them?
When there are groups of people who think that Muslims are all terrorists, do we resort to shying away from the label just because we are afraid of being misunderstood?
Or should we instead wear the label loud and proud, be an exemplary Muslim that defies the stereotypes and prove them all wrong?
As for me, I would choose to do the latter.
I would like to believe that my feminist ideals and beliefs came from something inspiring and significant; something that may have impacted my life greatly as a kid, but truth to be told it all began to build up when I started rejecting gender roles. Growing up as an only child, I held a lot of respect for my parents’ achievements, particularly my father’s awards and recognitions from his years of practicing and instructing silat. I grew a deep fascination towards martial arts from a very young age, but was constantly told I was not allowed to learn any form of it simply because it was not something girls should do.
That’s what my mother thought, at least. But I no longer hold this against her, because that’s what society has embedded into her system.
As I was growing up, I noticed more and more signs of injustice and sexism that occurred in everyday life. How my parents often warned me to behave in public to “jaga maruah keluarga,” (because apparently the consequences were a lot heavier when a daughter screws up). How I was not allowed to go out at night because “tak manis orang pandang budak perempuan keluar malam.” Or how I was once told by a (female) lecturer that she preferred a class of all boys because girls are always problematic, lazy and hormonal.
Society has never been kind to us, and neither has the media.
If you noticed – most television shows that aim to cater to women, be it reality tv or drama, often focus on three things: Love, marriage, children. In dramas particularly those aired on Astro Ria or in the Samarinda slot on TV3, most times the female characters are depicted to be either problematic, lonely or simply lost before a good-looking male character swoops in and turns their lives around.
Preferably after marriage. Even if it’s arranged. Or somewhat forced. Because that’s kind of romantic, right?
And then take a look at other shows for women like Nona, where there is always a segment to showcase fancy, lavish weddings by celebrities and socialites. Or Love, Vivy, which does touch on Vivy Yusoff’s entrepreneurial journey but still is pretty heavy on her love story and roles as a mother. Or Clever Girl Malaysia, which aimed to celebrate the intellect and successes of women only to end up focusing on glamorising the contestants and injecting unnecessary spice and drama into the show.
To be fair, I am not saying any of these is wrong or shouldn’t be done. At the end of the day, all of these are done in the name of showbiz and entertainment. But we cannot deny the fact that when it comes to media representation of women, be it in dramas or a slightly-more-reality version of tv, it always reflects back on the societal expectations of women – how we are expected to behave, to react to situations, to abide by the men in our lives and eventually focus on what we are made for: To marry and to bear children and be a good mother.
Where are the success stories of women who do not choose these things? Do they not deserve the same happy endings as the devoted wives or loving mothers in the samarinda slots? Do they not deserve to be the main characters and not the villains?
Here is the thing – as a feminist – I believe in this simple notion that people, regardless of their gender, should be allowed to think, plan and decide for themselves despite what others will tell them. Gender roles and stereotypes will no longer be an issue if we all just start opening our minds a little bit, to the idea that women can do what they choose for themselves just as much as men can do what they want to.
And maybe, hopefully, societal expectations will begin to change from there. Perhaps it is still an idealistic view for now, but one that we can all work towards if we choose to just give some room for individual needs, and much less room for blind social conformity.
Give some space. A little room for choice. A little room to breathe. A little room to live. Everyone has the right to.
Honestly, this is what it means to be a feminist. At least it is to me.
This article is part of our Women in the Arts feature and is written by our contributors.