Text by Li Yi and Benjamin Wong
Photos by Ng Su Ann
On the 9th March 2019, Women’s March in Malaysia took place at SOGO, Kuala Lumpur and simultaneously at Jesselton Point, Kota Kinabalu. Amid the gathering of people from all gender spectrums, a medley of human rights that are so essential yet so sorely neglected by Malaysians are advocated. As stated on the official site of Women’s March MY, the five demands this year are:
#1 End all violence based on gender and sexual orientation
#2 Ban all child marriages
#3 Ensure our rights and freedom to make choices over our own bodies and lives
#4 Ensure dignified minimum wage of RM1,800
#5 Destroy patriarchy and build genuine democracy at all levels of society
As hypocritical as it may sound, I used to refuse associating ‘feminist’ as part of my identity because of the negative connotation attached it. But through my endless and personal encounters with incidents related to gender inequality and gender oppression, I have felt the urge to participate in this fight alongside my peers. Similarly, Lee, one of the participants who took part in the march shared the same thought; however, she changed her mind because “I was sick of hearing from people who refused to be open to learning and understanding about the origins of feminism and the different spectrums of feminism others might have. I was only restricting myself; I had to learn in my own time what feminism meant to me, and I am still learning.”. Without proper understanding of feminism, one is nothing but a pale imitation of an advocate for feminism.
It is extremely essential for all the feminists to truly learn about the concept historically and theoretically but at the same time, also be open to the different interpretations of the ideology across cultures and histories. ‘What exactly is feminism’ has always been a question among the activists, scholars and as of late, netizens. Herinza from Cempaka Collective, who is also one of the organizers of the march expresses that in her eyes, feminism has become the source of strength and faith for women out there to be able to be themselves and do what they want, the most.
In most cases, feminism involves the voices of women since its first wave in the 1920s. One shall also understand that feminism can be understood in different forms. Just like what John Hoffman had said in his journal of Defining Feminism, it can be distinguished either from the ideological lines – ‘liberal feminism’, ‘socialist feminism’ or ‘radical feminism’ or in a philosophical sense like ‘empiricist feminism’ or ‘post-modern feminism’. Due to these different forms, feminism is no longer an ideology for the heterosexual or homosexual women, it now embraces people of different spectrums including heterosexual men as long as they truly understand the ideology.
“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth.”
― Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
After sifting through online reactions towards Women’s March, many seem to question the relationship between feminism and Women’s March – they regard that Women’s March is a platform solely for the women while feminism is not necessary that. To this, Herinza mentions that the two are indeed, “Very related. Women and rallies are nothing alien in the history, unless, it was erased so many times. Since the first wave of feminism, women have been rallying for their rights to vote and for the equal wage. And now, the Women’s March became a platform for women to speak up on their issues, not just for the common ones, but the ones that are unheard before – indigenous women’s issue, disabled women’s issues”. Her remarks reinforces the notion that feminism changes across time and feminism is for all women now, either by sex or gender.
It has been a long fight since the first wave, but the political and cultural contexts in Malaysia seem to oppose with what feminists have to say. For this, the backlash from the government recently condemning the nature of the march as well as the participation of the LGBTQ community testifies to that fact. The government’s stance has inspired much backlash, such as Malaysiakini’s coverage which reports “Bersatu supreme council member Wan Saiful Wan Jan, meanwhile, criticised the participants for ‘polluting’ the march and destabilising the country, while Wanita Umno chief Noraini Ahmad claimed that advocating LGBT rights would lead to ‘great destruction to social institutions.’”. This clearly shows that the government lacks understanding regarding the nature of the march as well as feminism. Having the powerful figures to be hateful towards these advocators only generate more hate towards them from the public. Feminism in essence, is not an ideology that aims to disturb the order of the society, it is a site for people of all spectrums to express their basic needs and Women’s March serves as one of the safe platforms for us to express our needs, while recognising the existence and voices of each other.
In fact, it is extremely hypocritical of our democratic government to condemn the LGBTQ community. As quoted from the Women’s March official press statement, “A healthy democracy rests on the full and equal participation by all levels of society. We remind the government that it is their duty to defend this basic principle, in particular for those who are marginalised in society.” How could we possibly build an inclusive and harmonious nation when the government fails to carry out the duty in defending the basic principle of democracy?
As I am writing this piece, another case of sexual harassment has been committed by a member of the ambulance staff towards a 17-year-old patient as she was en-route to hospital. “She is too pretty”, he was quoted as having said in justification. It has taken too many victims from this patriarchal and heavily hetero-normative society to generate sufficient awareness for us to at long last have a safe platform to fight for our rights. All in all, whether you are a feminist or not, condemning an ideology or on a community without proper understanding is an act of pure hatred. While there will always be an opposition to any sort of ideology, condemnation without critical and logical justification only shows hatred. Society needs to have more compassion towards each other, before drawing quick on the trigger.