Feminism in Southeast Asia; a Myth?

Born and raised in Malaysia myself, I know that gender equality and the very concept of feminism are heavily contested in topics within the Southeast Asian (SEA) region. Tradition is respected and clung onto to a significant degree, but cultures change with time, and we haven’t quite grasped that at the moment. It then leaves individuals of this generation like myself caught in the middle of respecting the norm and trying to change what the status quo should be.

Two months ago I attended a talk by the speaker of the Malaysian House of Representatives. The focus of his speech was progress in Malaysia after the installation of our new government. I was then disappointed that when addressing the issue of gender equality, he called it something “you ladies” would be interested in and that they would deal with this is by creating a select committee of women to tackle the problem. While in the eyes of many, this would be seen as an indicator that we are moving forward, we also start to see the misconceptions around the topic of gender equality; one that goes back to a culture that is embedded with blatant sexist stereotypes. If achieving gender equality is going to be a problem parliament wants to chuck to women to figure out, not much can be done. How do you fight a system that doesn’t want you there in the first place? Where are the men in this? Would they really be considered weaker for joining this battle?

Such a mentality can be translated into various SEA countries. For instance in Singapore, only 23 out of 100 MPs are women. Regarding wage gaps, there is a 16% difference in the Philippines and 20% in Sri Lanka. The average gap in SEA is between 30 to 40%. An article by Open Democracy also highlights that ‘entrenched beliefs and gender bias’ push women into ‘subservient roles as wives and mothers.’ This representation of women that sends a diminishing message to girls about their worth and leads to practices such as female infanticide which in India for instance, increased by 170% between 2001 and 2011.

Recently, students in Warwick hosted an event called Femi-night which shed light on feminism in Malaysia. Four very influential Malaysian women who have done some fantastic things to change gender expectations in the country did a panel discussion.  Many areas of equality were covered, including sexual harassment. However, what stuck out most was again culture and tradition. Small things like having boys are preferable because they can carry on the family name lead to bias in the household. For my friends who have brothers, bias is significant. Different rules apply to the boys than the girls. And most girls are trained from young to make sure they can care for the household by cooking and doing chores, that a lot of boys are able to escape unscathed. The imbalance starts from that very environment, and boys understand their privilege while girls recognise their lack of it, whether it is explicitly said or not; it’s there, and we need to eradicate it.

This year the first women’s march was organised in Malaysia by activist groups and local NGOs. They demanded greater women’s rights, an end to child marriage, an end to gender discrimination and a minimum wage of RM1800 ($650). Feminism does exist within the region, and we do have brave women fighting every day for a levelled playing field. However, the organisers of this event were taken in under the Sedition Act which has been used to penalise political dissent even if in peaceful form. How is a group of marginalised people asking for fundamental human rights seen as punishable?

The ladies from the panel discussion emphasised that our generation holds this responsibility because we are the only ones who are able to. It is perhaps too late to change the mind of our elders. This can be done through voting, speaking out (social media is a blessing when used right) and ultimately the way we raise our own children will make a notable difference. The sad reality is that the region still functions on patriarchal ideology, and until men are willing to shift the balance as well, change is limited.

So feminism isn’t a myth in SEA, it is very much real, and there are plenty of people pushing for progress, we just need more support from the men who are calling the shots as well.

A study by the Asian Development Bank estimated that if female participation in the workforce rose from 57.7% to 66.2%, Asia’s economy could see a 30% growth in income per capita in just one generation. We have much more to gain by binding together and perhaps altering traditions is our best way of doing so.