"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Singapore Writers Festival: Asian Feminism

"The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators." - Thomas Macaulay


On Sunday, on the last day of the Singapore Writers Festival, I made "Asian Feminism" my last talk:

"Are women’s rights an absolute concept or are there other considerations in Asian societies? Writers reflect on the role of women as described in their writing and the changing ethos of contemporary times."

Leena Manimekalai லீனா மணிமேகலை
Catherine Lim

I was wondering if this was going to be the usual feminist doublespeak, but it turned out to be a great talk (I was live tweeting this instead of writing a proper review, so the following may be a bit choppy).

The talk was well-attended, and there was a surprising amount of men in the audience. When polled, maybe 10% of the audience lifted their hands to identify themselves as feminists. But as Manimekalai noted, in India they would be classified as terrorists so this poor showing wasn't so bad after all.

Catherine Lim observed that women disavow the term 'feminist' because of bellicose feminists. She evidently had distaste for this group as well, but the audience did not protest (either when this observation was made or during the question and answer session).

Lim didn't think women in Singapore had positive liberty ("freedom to") for self actualization, but they had negative liberty ("freedom from"). She linked women having rights in Singapore to their being half of our human resources, and the economic imperative. She observed that HDB discriminates against single mums (but then, doesn't it treat single dads the same? It is strange to link this to feminism).

She then spoke about one of her novels, which was inspired by a real life story of a woman who declined to pursue an affair with the love of her life at the age of 30, because she was already married. This woman's epitaph read: "She died at 30 and was buried at 60".

Manimekalai observed that in India, "The moment you talk about genitalia, the whole society, the whole hell break loose".

1/3 into the session, it was already standing room only. This was the most crowded of the 18 Singapore Writers Festival events that I attended.

Lim said that she saw jokes about men and women as contributing to healthy inter-gender relations (THAT'S NOT FUNNY!!!), and the "aggressive", "political" and "gender" kind of feminism was what she didn't want. It made her uncomfortable, and she wanted "equity" and "humanitarian" feminism.

Manimekalai then problematised feminism's patriarchy-bad-feminism-good rhetoric:

"When we keep playing this victim role, when you are placed on this pedestal you become an oppressor... We have to be self critical... See if there is equity among these women who speak about equality... When women come to power why is there still oppression against women? That is the question we must answer"

Lim observed that sexism had not impeded her in her three roles:

"I've never felt any pressure, any discrimination..as a teacher..as a writer..as a political commentator". She did wryly observe, though, that:

"All the terms for men have gained in prestige..the reverse is true for women..bachelor/spinster..wizard/witch"

She also noted that for women of a certain age, her mother's refrain that "Don't try to be too clever or no man will want to marry you" would have been familiar. She (or Manimekalai) noted that the new generation of women weren't this way, speaking about a younger friend of hers:

"She's extremely confident... She disdain to mix with men who don't speak grammatically"

Then came the Q&A segment. Unfortunately, many in the crowd hadn't gotten the memo that the ladies on stage were not your classic feminists.

One asked a question about intersectionality, privilege and social justice, and Manimekalai replied:

"All these boxes... when I do work, it's the art that has to speak. Not my identity... I don't want to approach everything as identity politics"

Lim added that feminism was just a subset of a broader aim, and that "Feminism ought to preside over its own demise. The end goal is justice"

Another girl didn't get the memo either, and asked about casual sexism like jokes, and claimed that women got really angry but men thought they were just jokes.

Lim replied that:

"That level of exchange doesn't bother me at all" and cited "a feminist joke I would find offensive if she were a man":

"What is gross stupidity?"
"144 men in a row"

She then noted that "jokes that we women bandy at men" were "all part of the happy bantering that should go on between men and women" and that "if we know how to laugh WITH each other not AT each other, we'll all get along".

I for one hope that Catherine Lim lives a long life, for 'bellicose feminists' will likely be the next face of feminism in Singapore (you can see what AWARE has been doing since 2009 for a clue).
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