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Is ‘Casual’ Racism Really Casual?

By Natasha Sadiq & Tan Jing Min

“How long does it take for an Indian woman to pass motion?”

“How long?”

“9 months”

Cackles of laughter ensue. I look around the group of friends encircling me. I seem to be the only person who didn’t find the joke funny.

I’m going to go out on a limb here (I might be completely wrong) and guess that it’s because I’m the only person of Indian descent. I tried hard to conceal the indignation coalescing on my face.

I failed. I suppose they couldn’t miss my suddenly darkened face.

“But it’s just a joke, don’t be so sensitive la.”

And they were right: it was just a joke. But the jokes we tell speak volumes about our subliminal racial biases and standards of beauty. Colour is the subject of much banter among youths and even some circles of adults especially in multiracial Singapore, but the light-hearted irreverence belies more insidious undertones: body shaming and body image issues.

Body shaming is the practice of making mortifying and demeaning remarks about a person’s body size, weight, or appearance. The prevalence of body shaming in societies should not be trivialised – anxieties about one’s beauty and appearance are rising exponentially.

According to the Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report, Dove’s largest-ever study on women’s perceptions of beauty, research shows that women’s level of body confidence is at an all-time low. The study, which involved interviews with 10,500 women across 13 different countries, showed that a large majority of women struggle with body image issues.

The study also showed that body image issues are not confined to a mere lack of confidence and physical insecurities. These issues do pose consequences on a much broader and larger scale. For example, the study showed that about 85 per cent of all women and 79 per cent of girls admitted that they choose to absent themselves from important life events when they do not feel confident about their appearance. Additionally, 9 out of 10 women skip meals and compromise their health when they feel insecure about their bodies.

The problem of body shaming can also manifest in tangible third-party harm: a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that bullying in Singapore is worryingly high compared to other countries – the third highest, to be exact. 18.3 per cent of students experience ridicule a few times a month. Spreading of rumours, being left out, and having things taken away from them were among the other forms of bullying cited by students.

This is telling of a mindset internalised from early childhood: we are entitled to judge others, and ostracise others if they fail to meet the mark.

In Singapore, casual racist remarks about one’s appearances may also constitute body shaming. One can even argue that these remarks are more damaging to a person’s self-esteem because changing one’s race or skin colour would be arguably more difficult than altering one’s weight. Here, body shaming is a reality not merely for girls and women, but for boys and men as well.

Indeed, body shaming and racial stereotypes share a symbiotic relationship. Racial stereotypes and colourism contribute to a culture of body shaming (and vice versa) when people associate a certain race with certain physical characteristics, and then conceive of a narrow standard of beauty based on certain “undesirable” traits found in one’s race or physical appearance.

One example of this is when we attribute certain physical traits like fatness, darker skin tones and even unkempt hair to certain races, consequently branding them “lazy” or  “unprofessional”.

What we need to be more aware of is the fact that individualised instances of casual racism have the potential to affect how we perceive broader social groups and communities. Here, something as personalised and singular as casual racism helps build the foundation for larger issues of social prejudice.

Because skin colour can be such a visceral reminder of how one individual differs from another, it is especially important that we take heed of our latent biases. The issue of race regularly arises in national discourse for good reason–from racial politics to majority privilege, it is clear that while Singapore embraces diversity, it also poses a constant potential source of tension.

Whether we are concerned with seemingly superficial issues like physical appearances or those that entail greater social implications like race, we need to understand that they are all connected by threads of influence. The seemingly light-hearted jokes about race we pass around as pleasantries carry more poison in its arsenal than we think.

 

About the authors: 

Natasha graduated from NUS with a degree in Political Science and dislikes empty niceties. She is currently looking for her job. Please inform her if you find it.

Jing Min is waiting to begin reading Law at Cambridge University, but looks like she could be starting primary school. She tries to use this to her advantage (with little success).

 

Featured image by Natalie Nourigat.

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Language and how it is used against women

Written by Sriraksha Raghavan

J.K. Rowling once said that language is our most inexhaustible source of magic. There is a profundity to this statement that escapes people who engage in cavalier reading. We use words to convey what we mean, but in today’s world, language has been systematically used to convey what we wish to imply but not explicitly say. I say “systematic” because establishments and corporations use the technique of tweaking words to imply meanings that suit their agenda.

hillary

For example, consider the upcoming presidential campaign in America. A woman, Hillary Clinton, is one of the prime contenders for the job. When she is torn down, it is for reasons such as “she is manly”, “she is bossy”, “she is domineering” etc. I’d like to ask you to consider the three words “manly”, “bossy” and “domineering”. Apart from the obvious negativity in those words, they have no correlation with her work! She is not being criticised for being bad at her job. She is being criticised for being a woman trying to do a “man’s” job.words

This does not just pertain to high profile jobs and the top strata of society. Women from all areas of society are subjected to the consequences of sexist vocabulary. This goes on to create the economic inequality we see in the world today. Men are paid more because people are of the opinion that men work better—an opinion they derive from what they read and know. This is by no means the sole reason for the economic divide, but it is a contributing factor.

This poses a bigger problem to women in the lower strata of society because being paid less than men in a job like manual labour—which already has a salary that might be too low to cover basic expenses—means that the women have nearly nothing. In third world and developing countries, where a large number of men below the poverty line suffer from alcoholism, the highest earning member of the family—his wife—is shelling out money to satiate his addiction and care for the family on her salary alone, despite both of them working. This has led to women taking on multiple jobs, which might be beyond their physical and mental capacity.

One might argue that the poor barely have exposure to corporations and urban establishments that use this method of phrasing their words in a way that misrepresents women. But much like the river branching into tributaries and distributaries, and ultimately into streams that flow everywhere, the influence of words from the most powerful people in society percolates until it reaches the most powerless parts, where the intersectional clout of sexism creates many negative consequences in people’s lives.

About the author: Sriraksha is a student with a passion for learning and believes that if you learn anything in depth, a passion for it will follow. She thinks that the best way to enrich one’s life is to enrich that of others and hopes to do that for a living one day.

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Not Anyone’s Girl

Written by Corrine Lin, Change Maker

 Unpublished+She+Said+Article.“I won’t want my girl to work in Marketing as it involves a lot of client entertainment. It’s best for you to stay in your current department now.”This was perhaps one of the most offensive statement I’ve come across in my career life when I requested for a transfer. At that time, I was working in a ‘male dominated’ industry where Marketing and Sales meant the same scope of work; to meet clients, get sales orders, have dinner, keep them entertained with drinks and party all night. It felt like a norm back then, that there was no choice but to accept being the lesser valued gender, being in a man’s industry.

Even when I was doing my diploma, we had only about four girls in a class of 40 guys in our course. When I started my first job, I was the only female employee working on-site for my company. Looking back, it was either inspiring or intimidating, especially to those who avoided the very industry I was entering. Due to this very reason, I have always felt taken care of by my colleagues and especially my bosses. They feared for my safety, especially in a site filled with hundreds of males. When I entered meeting rooms, the usual harsh tones and vulgarities became mellowed. Men’s conversations turn into awkward whispers when I came in to office. Although I was treated with respect and politeness, I always felt scrutinised, weak and never really belonged no matter how much I tried to fit in. It was a lot harder for me to break past this comfort barrier and challenge myself in my career progression.

While the statement above seemed like a protective move from my then boss, I was very much offended by it. Despite many justifications and enthusiasm in taking up the role, I was still denied the transfer. I was not evaluated based on my capability but by who I was. Furthermore, I am not anyone’s girl. To date, neither have my father nor my husband has introduced me as their girl. I am a daughter, I am a wife, but never anyone’s girl because I belong to me. Would any professionals refer their male subordinates as their boy? Even when I had a female boss, she has never demean her male subordinates with such labels. I quit the job not long later, after a three hour talk with my manager trying to persuade me to stay.

In any field of study or work, and especially life, it pays a lot more to prove our worth by accomplishing results with our commitment, efforts and intellect. We are all individuals with capabilities, personalities and characters or our own. All we need, is mutual respect.


Today, the male domination labels are slowly diminishing. Women like us have access to supportive and empowered environment; we are climbing up corporate boards, we have female Presidents and we are making positive dents in the world. For those of us who are still behind shadows, it’s time to break past this limiting barrier we think others are setting for us. The world is our oyster now.

 

About the Author

Profilepic3Corrine writes for L3 Hub (www.l3hub.org), a ​​space created for girls to come together, support and encourage each other, learn and develop themselves to be more confident and better individuals.

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I don’t want a patriarchal wedding

Written by Estelle Ng, Change Maker

These days, circumstances have led me into thinking about the concept of weddings. It could be because many people I know are either getting engaged, preparing for their weddings or currently documenting their weddings on Instagram.

In particular, I woke up just a couple of mornings ago deciding, “No. I don’t want a patriarchal wedding”.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against weddings. In fact, at some point in my childhood, I remember aspiring that my wedding day be the happiest day of my life. I would be in a nice flowy white gown. Veil over my head. Perfect hair. Perfect smiles. Tons of picture perfect moments.

Yet, when I think deeper into the details of a conventional wedding, the whole idea seems so wrong to me.

As it is, the whole enterprise of marriage and wedding is a patriarchal construct. After all, the only reason why people came up with marital legal bindings is for the sake of inheritance: children adopting father’s surnames, father’s dialect group, and property (though inheritance of property can be negotiated in many instances). That leaves weddings to be merely a symbolic rite of passage for marriage.

To give an example, thmarriage2ere are many parts to Chinese (Teochew/Hokkien/Cantonese/Hakka) traditional weddings that directly relate to patriarchy. Central to this is that a woman’s body does not belong to her but always belongs to someone else. Let’s look at some features of the customs.

The most obvious is through the brideprice – the name says it all. This refers to money in red packets that the groom’s family has to give to the bride’s family. Literally speaking, her body is now sold to the groom’s family.

Then we have the infamous morning of gate-crashing. This involves absurd tasks that the groom and his entourage must fulfil in order to prove his worth and masculinity before he can redeem his wife. All this happens as the wife sits passively in her room.

Finally, Chinese weddings similarly have the segment where the wife walks down the aisle with her father who later “gives her away” to the groom. Is this not the literal passing down of ownership of her body from her father to her husband? It is as if her father (not mother, of course) owns her body in the parental home and her body is later passed on to her husband, who would own her in her second domestic sphere.

 

marriageAfter all that’s been said and done, I do want to get married because I want to spend the rest of my life with my loved one, and because of the social and legal recognition that the institution of marriage brings.

However, there must be some ways to make this entire enterprise less patriarchal. And recognising that the existing order is demeaning to women is the first step.

Ultimately, what makes a feminist and egalitarian wedding is a personal choice. For some, it could be passing down the surnames of both husband and wife. For others, it could be through changing the phrase “man and wife” to “husband and wife”. For the Chinese, it could also be altering the gate-crashing procedure to a fun game that both bride and groom will have to play to get to each other. While walking down the aisle, both bride and groom can walk down the aisle together. Not only is this a much less awkward and nerve-wrecking process for both parties, it’s also an egalitarian one!

The adjustments are literally endless. Whatever the changes made, a feminist and egalitarian wedding is one in which choices made support the woman in the wedding and that the woman’s body is valued.

You might think that whatever happens in your engagement, wedding or marriage don’t have much impact on the advancement of women’s rights. But surely, having symbolic rites that represent a woman’s ownership and control of her own body does speak volumes about how a woman or girl should be treated in society.

estelleAbout the AuthorLiving by the motto permanent impermanence, Estelle realises that with every moment never capable of repeating itself, life is simply too short to be spent waiting for things to happen. She is currently a Sociology undergraduate who believes that the power of words and the arts can inspire conversations.

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How to have difficult conversations

This post was originally published as a Change Maker newsletter in January 2016. If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates and tips, take the Change Maker pledge here!

Effective conversations

Conversation is key to making change. With useful dialogue about gender equality, we can start to alter beliefs, clarify misconceptions, and change society.

It is also tricky: sometimes, we focus too much on getting our points across and neglect to listen and understand the person we talk to. Conversations can become painful and ineffective.

What makes an effective conversation? Is it when we influence someone’s ideas? Or is it a mutual and respectful exchange of knowledge and ideas? How do we achieve it?


1. Opening up a dialogue

You’re with some friends and someone makes a sexist comment. What do you consider before you lurch into a conversation about their words? Perhaps think about your bandwidth for dialogue: do you have enough time and energy to exchange ideas? It’s okay if you don’t – we are not obliged to advocate when we don’t feel safe or comfortable doing so. We might also feel ill-equipped with facts. But there are other ways to put across our opinions besides rattling off stats and quoting studies. Even a simple “I feel uncomfortable with what you just said” can be useful in starting to call out casual sexism and other prejudices.
2. Acknowledging privilege 

Nathan W. Pyle / Via buzzfeed.com

We come from all walks of life, each carrying our own experiences and views. And what we say is affected by this. Even the well-worn “Just work harder!” retort that marginalised people often receive comes with its own baggage: privileged individuals have access to more opportunities, which might shape their beliefs about effort. Navigating this within ourselves is important. What do you tend to overlook or take for granted, and how does this harm effective dialogue?

3. Listening and responding

Effective conversations are not just about putting your points across, but also listening to others. So often we are so intent on bringing the other person to where we are, that we forget where they are.  One way to actively listen is to acknowledge other people’s ideas. This could be clarification (“What did you mean by…”), or you could allow them room to ask you questions and clarify their doubts. Active listening gives us the chance to engage with others collaboratively, and move the conversation forward.

4. Lather, rinse, repeat!

These conversations can be time-consuming and emotionally exhausting, especially if it is about challenging prejudices that affect our own lives. But an effective conversation can only occur when everyone, including you, is comfortable and prepared to talk. And change can’t happen overnight. We may not be able to change minds with just a few words, but with thoughtful, compassionate conversations, we can, hopefully, plant the seeds of progress.
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What Suffragette meant to me

Written by Estelle Ng, Change Maker

(This post contains spoilers for the movie Suffragette)

MakeMoreNoise2Opened in cinemas early this year, the film Suffragette depicted the beginnings of the suffrage movement in the UK – a pursuit of women’s voting rights. Set in the early 1920s, the film illustrated how women were considered less important than men and as a result, their voices were invalidated and disregarded. Granted, the fight for women’s voting rights was an arduous one. Having conducted peaceful demonstrations and submitted parliamentary testimonies, voices of the working class women were ignored time and time again. This left these women with no choice but to resort to violence – a language that man at that time presumably only considered seriously. After a series of violent destruction of public and private property and consequently numerous jail terms for the women involved, the film ended with the death of Emily Davison which attracted so much international attention that the King had to address. Historical records reveal that British women were granted voting rights in 1928.

Scene-from-SuffragetteAdmittedly, I only knew about the word “suffrage” through this film, and that only goes to show how much I have taken the suffrage movement for granted. From a young Singaporean woman’s point of view, this movement seems at first glance to be a distant one. Unlike the UK, there was no suffrage movement in Singapore because we have been practising universal suffrage since the start of democratic elections in 1947. Women are not banned from running for the elections and standing in parliament, though only one of the full ministers in the current parliament is female.

Yet, one only needs to search on Google to realise that in this time and age, women in other parts of the world only recently received the right to vote and the right to run for elections.

54bf34caf792ec66a6435815ae4f48e8In actuality, the suffrage movement relates to something close and relevant to societies today. Suffrage reflects merely one aspect of gender equality. Women around the world, Singapore included, are still fighting in many ways to be treated as equals. The gender gaps still exists in Singapore. Another case in point: Have you been shut off from a discussion just because you don’t serve in the army or just because you menstruate? Gender discrimination in Singapore is real and it is very much alive in everyday discourse. This rhetoric is also reinforced and legitimated insofar as the constitutional right to non-discrimination assured by Article 12 does not extend to categories such as “gender” and “sex”.

So, what does the movie Suffragette mean to me?

Though not an entirely accurate portrayal of the actual events that happened, the movie symbolised the strength that women have. I believe that women today have the power and capability to champion for gender equality. Gender equality does seem like a utopian and idealistic concept that no one can singlehandedly achieve. However, let us remember that as with any movement, this fight for gender equality begins with the individual. Be it debunking stereotypes about what women and men ought to do in everyday conversations with friends, or through writing letters to the parliament to amend legislature, every individual has a part to play.

The movie also made me realise how championing for gender equality is also men’s responsibility because gender discrimination affects men too. The limiting binary oppositions that demarcates the boundaries between what men and women can do affects men too because not every man wants to conform to these boundaries. Think about it: Gender discrimination benefits no one but the elite and gender-conforming  men of society.

As we enter the post-SG50 era, let us remember that the war against gender inequality today may differ from the suffrage movement of the early 1920s, but it doesn’t mean that the war is over.

estelleAbout the AuthorLiving by the motto permanent impermanence, Estelle realises that with every moment never capable of repeating itself, life is simply too short to be spent waiting for things to happen. She is currently a Sociology undergraduate who believes that the power of words and the arts can inspire conversations.

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Single mothers are mothers too

Written by Estelle Ng, Change Maker

motherIn a commentary written by local journalist Kirsten Han, she observed that even though we live in a society whereby in situations where domestic violence and familial abuse occur, some of us are more concerned about “how a family is defined” rather than the “actual hurt that a person is suffering”. What does she mean by this?

In the eyes of the state, its institutions and “mainstream society”, a nuclear family is defined as one that comprises a father, a mother, one or more children, preferably living with grandparents. Each parent has an assigned role based on gender stereotypes about the responsibilities of man and woman: women are compelled to be primarily responsible for child-rearing due to their supposed “nurturing nature” while men are responsible for providing for the family by bringing home the bacon.

The implications of such gender stereotypes are that more often than not, women have to bear the brunt of preserving the familial unit especially in terms of bringing up the children, whether they are married or single.

Returning to the statement by Kirsten, she means that in this pro-family country, help and protection are selectively given to deserving families, families who fit into the prescribed, “normal” arrangement.

One of the most obvious ways of defining family in this country is to define the types of relationships that are deserving enough for stable housing and for building a household.

When a single mother wants to buy a HDB flat, she cannot apply for a BTO flat nor can she apply for a three-room flat because she does not have a legal spouse. For mothers who had sacrificed their careers to become stay-home-mothers and had solely relied on their ex-husbands/partners as sole breadwinners, the struggle to build a new home as a single mother is a gruelling one. And she does not get the support she needs just because her familial relationship does not fall into the prescribed ideal.

It is high time we realise that reality is less straightforward than this ideal.

Let’s talk about single mothers and their families.

Mothers

In the society we live in, parenthood is hierarchically organised according to gender and marital status, and we see this in policies such as the differentiated parental leaves. By codifying such sentiments, we seem to take for granted that all parents, regardless of gender, sexuality and marital status are parents too. From changing diapers, feeding the family, to providing guidance by inculcating values and skills to children, the list of direct and indirect childrearing and family maintenance goes on.

There are many reasons why some mothers choose to be or end up as single mothers. Apart from the preconceived stereotype that all single mothers are single because they engage in unprotected pre-marital sex, single motherhood can be a reality as a result of a divorce, a death of a spouse, or even a choice to not get married but still want to be a mother. It is definitely time to recognise and acknowledge that there is a variety of motherhood experiences – one that knows no boundaries and one that accepts all mothers as mothers, all parents as parents in their own right.

Children

o-SINGLE-MOM-facebookI remember a friend in her late forties commenting:

Being a daughter of a single mother, I am sensitive to topics about the injustices that single parents face because I have personal experience of that. However, we must not forget about the experiences of their children too.

Currently, children of single mothers are considered illegitimate because they are so defined by Chapter 162 Legitimacy Act of our legislation. Our legislation has far-reaching consequences, and they include the prospect of single mothers investing at least $3000 on adopting their own child to make him/her legitimate. Yet, there is no guarantee that adoption of their biological child will be successful. Not only does the label of illegitimacy serve to fuel the existing stigma that single mother families face, the experiences of children from single mother families are invalidated and silenced.

In sum, the issue of single mothers does not only affect mothers themselves but has impacts on their children. Acknowledging the presence and validity of single motherhood does not and will not breed a society of single mothers because whether a mother decides to get a marriage certificate or leave the marriage is a personal choice to begin with. No one should be punished for wanting to have children or starting a family without always being legally married to someone else.

When we say we want to build a caring, gracious and inclusive society, we can start by acknowledging every person’s right to make a personal choice and accept that there will be a plurality of parenting, parenthood and motherhood in Singapore.

Women are raising the next generation of children. These women are expected to be strong as well in order not to transfer the angst to their children. If they do not get support from society at large, it’s going to affect the next generation.” – J, single mother since 2009

 

estelle About the AuthorLiving by the motto permanent impermanence, Estelle realises that with every moment never capable of repeating itself, life is simply too short to be spent waiting for things to happen. She is currently a Sociology undergraduate who believes that the power of words and the arts can inspire conversations.

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Let’s talk about abortion

Written by Camille Neale, Change Maker

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.42.52 pmEven in 2015, abortion remains a taboo subject. Until more recently it was not a topic covered much in the mainstream media. So it’s no surprise that a considerable stigma, and misinformation surrounding the topic remains. Many people continue to think of abortion as some kind of shady procedure, but in reality abortion is one of the safest surgical procedures for women and is actually safer than giving birth.

As a feminist, I am pro-choice, but this post is not about why women should have access to safe and legal abortions – it is about why we need to create an environment where women feel comfortable being able to talk openly about the topic, whether it is talking about their personal experience with abortion, or whether they are seeking a safe place to talk about getting one.  

Sex education and reproductive health

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.42.59 pmIn a lot of countries, including Singapore, young women don’t get much of a chance to learn about their reproductive health. Like the topic of birth control, abortion is not well-addressed in many schools’ sex education curriculums.

I remember when I was in school, we only talked about abortion in the context of pro-life vs pro-choice debates. But these classroom debates did little to teach us about the actual experience of getting an abortion, the medical process, options available to women and so on.

Because no one ever talks about it it’s easy to imagine that getting an abortion is a rare occurrence, but it’s actually a lot more common than you’d think. In the US, by age 45, one in three women will choose to have an abortion.

Social attitudes about abortion

The idea of abortion being taboo and shameful is an idea that controls women’s sexuality. We live in a world that teaches young women to feel ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality. By not talking openly about abortion we are participating in this narrative that labels sexually active women as “sluts.” It reduces women’s social role to their reproductive function, and is a huge source of stress for women who do choose to have an abortion. Not talking about it makes it seem like more of a taboo than it should be.

There are many different reasons why someone might choose to get an abortion. Sometimes planned pregnancies have to be terminated due to health reasons and even these women find that there is little support. Women who have had abortions in the past fear others finding out.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.43.11 pmWe need to address this culture of shame that prevents women from sharing their stories.  Abortion is all too frequently used as fodder for political debate by men who shouldn’t be the ones deciding what a woman does with her body. It’s no surprise that women are afraid to speak up about their experiences with abortion. When they do they have to face the possibility of being labeled a “murderer” by pro-life advocates. Women need to stop being threatened for wanting control over their reproductive rights.

A spectrum of experiences

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 2.43.21 pmThe absence of women’s realities in the public realm is something that we need to address, particularly when it comes to women’s health.

The medical paradigm is already based on a model that understands health through the experience of men. Women who have had abortions need greater access to mental health care and non-judgmental public forums for working through their experiences.

We can create a more empathetic dialogue where women can claim control over their bodies – this will help to humanise the narrative and move away from abortion stigma. Women should have the right to make an informed choice, and to be made aware of the kinds of options at their disposal if going through with a pregnancy is not their choice.  

I’m not saying to take abortion lightly. Like choosing to become pregnant, it is a serious decision. But women who choose to have abortions need to be given a space where they can share their experiences, whether they are positive or negative ones, without fear of their stories being co-opted by politicians to advance a pro-life agenda. While many women report feeling relieved after an abortion, some women do regret having abortions or experience sadness or guilt, and their stories should be heard too.

Access to abortion is an important part of women’s health care; by not talking about it we are strengthening the arguments of those who want to limit access to the procedure. Ultimately, the topic of abortion is about individual women’s choices.

About the author: Camille is a recent university graduate who is still figuring out what she wants to do with her life. She hopes that whatever that is, she will be able to wear a power suit and be really intimidating. 

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Change making in real life

Written by Sumithri Venketasubramanian, Change Maker

A couple oScreen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.38.30 pmf days ago, I was scrolling through Everyday Feminism – as you do – and I came across a blog post: “You Don’t Need to Be Leading Marches for Your Activism to Matter – Here Are 5 Reasons Why”. It got me thinking about how the concepts of space and place influence our involvement in creating positive change.

Many of us have circles in which we feel comfortable talking about feminism and social justice, and these conversations often enrich our views on the inequalities of the world, at times giving us a sense of empowerment. And then there are those spaces where we choose to stay silent when jokes are cracked about women belonging in the kitchen – we might even feel pressured to give a little smile, just so as to not draw attention to yourself (“Why aren’t you laughing? Are you some kind of feminist or something?”). There are certain places where feminist discourse is encouraged,and others where it is jeered at.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.38.41 pmThere’s a phrase that goes “if you’re not fighting something, you’re enabling it”. That is, unless we’re making active efforts to go out into the world and advocate for big changes, breaking down injustices in the system and opening up the minds of society, we’re actually contributing to the discrimination and prejudices that certain people suffer as a result of due to how integrated these systems are with our everyday lives. So it would seem that if we really wanted to contribute to the battle against oppression, we would have to dedicate our lives to full-time advocacy and/or activism. But does this mean that we’ll have to stick to working with feminist organisations and groups which are influential in the women’s empowerment field? What about those feminists who have dreamed of being scientists for so much of their lives, or those who may want to open up their own bakery? Do we have to give up all of our personal (read: “selfish”) aspirations for the greater good?

The short answer is: no. The long answer is that it is not solely feminist bodies and lobby groups that can make a difference. In fact, it is in non-feminist spaces that have the greatest potential for change. As more overt forms of sexism are being increasingly frowned upon by society (though they still are very much in existence), prejudices begin to present themselves in the form of microaggressions – subtle comments and actions that are telling of the biases that one holds on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, age, class, appearance and/or other traits. And microaggressions are something which all of us experience – be it comments about how weak women are, or the dismissal of a woman’s anger because “she’s just on her period, don’t mind her”. The best part is: we all have the potential to make a difference.

Men’s role in gender advocacy

wrc_profilepicture_sAnd why should the burden (or honour, depending on how you see it) of ridding the world of gender-based injustices lie merely on those who suffer from them? After all, it is the privileged who have the power and means to influence systems in place which attempt to keep certain groups of people down.

The White Ribbon Campaign is a call by men around the world to their fellows, encouraging them to take a stand against violence against women. Movements like these are important, because they don’t attempt to hijack organisations and campaigns by women fighting for rights and opportunities. Rather, they attempt to take the spaces men already yield so much power and influence in and make them more feminist. It is in this approach to advocacy that institutionalised and systemic discrimination are challenged.

Feminism doesn’t just have to be about running a full-time social justice blog, or educating the masses about gender and sexism. Feminism is also in asking “wait, why is [the sexist joke that was just told] funny?”, and in speaking up against workplace harassment. Feminism is about feminism, wherever and whenever it is.

About the author: Sumithri is in a place in life where she knows what she wants to do, but also has yet to figure it out. Whatever it is, she hopes the world she leaves will be more just than the one she was born into.

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“Are women funny?”

Written by Camille Neale, Change Maker

Avaca movie poster number 1 few Sundays ago, I watched the recently released Vacation. The movie is about a family in the U.S. who, in an attempt to revitalise their annual family summer vacation, decide to go on a road trip to the father’s childhood vacation spot, the fictional amusement park ‘Wally World’.

In a predictable turn of events, the trip goes from bad to worse, much like the movie. One of the opening scenes of the movie involves the younger brother teasing his older brother for “having a vagina.” I’m not really sure what the writers’ (all of whom were men) intentions were with that joke, but I think it says something about the what they think their audience will find funny. When a man is made fun of for being “like a woman,” all women are the targets of the joke, because they are saying that it is shameful to be a woman. There’s nothing wrong with raunchy humour, but there is something wrong when all the jokes the movie relies on are sexist representations of women, transphobia and off-colour racial jokes.

Diversity in mainstream media

diversity-mainThe last six or so years have seen an increasing visibility in discussions of feminism, LGBTQ rights, transgender rights, race relations etc in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, movies such as Vacation, do not reflect this and instead, represent a larger anxiety that characterises a media that is narrow at best; at worst, discouraging growth and progress by continuing the overrepresentation of white-centric and patriarchal tropes.

Vacation reminded me of the typical rom-com/comedy from the early 2000s, a formula that relies on reinforcing gender roles. The sad reality is that most TV shows and movies today continue to privilege a male perspective – not surprising considering that 83% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films in the US in 2014 were men.

It’s really time to retire these jokes that rely on archaic sexism, and it’s time we stop supporting movies that popularise awful tropes about women – tropes that are just vehicles for women-bashing.

Feminist comedy

Mindy-Project-600TV is actually faring better in terms of diversity of roles for women than movies. While there is still a ways to go in terms of racial diversity for women comics on TV, I think the rise of feminist comedians – comedians who use their comedy to push a feminist agenda – are meeting the demand of women who want comedy that speaks to their lived realities. Where they can see women characters that are more than simply the love interest or the unfunny extra. As women comprise half of the world’s population, this is a considerable target audience, to say the least.

Feminist comedy can indeed draw a wide audience, because if you write good comedy, then people will watch it. The recent success of comedy produced by, and for women such as Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City and The Mindy Project have helped to answer the age-old, sexist question: “Are women funny?” Inside Amy Schumer, a show featuring sketches, stand-up and interviews all written by Amy Schumer, draws a 50/50 men to women demographic. Almost every sketch on her show deals with gender politics. Broad City, a show with two women as the lead characters similarly deals with feminist issues. Essentially, these women are being portrayed as human beings, not as some Hollywood, male fantasy image of a woman, and they are allowed to be funny on their own terms, and this is why it is so great. These are shows about all types of women, not just one. These characters are just who they are, they deal with the comedic struggles of daily life as a woman. And they are pushing the boundaries on how women can be funny – through stoner jokes, sex jokes, and even toilet humour.

An article on Policy Mic posits that comedians are helping to push gender equality issues into the mainstream media. This is because they are able to make feminism more accessible to the general public, which somehow makes them more acceptable than gender equality advocates themselves. Nevertheless, they’re making important moves to draw attention to the very real challenges and problems of living as a woman. We are now seeing more young women willing to engage with feminism, and a better understanding of the way sexism hampers women’s experiences.

Gender advocacy

emma-watson-he-for-she-speech-1Sadly, the response to women who address feminist issues but are not comedians is much less positive. Women who seek to create a public dialogue about gendered issues are often told to be less angry, or even threatened with violence. When Emma Watson presented her ‘He for She’ campaign at the UN she received many threats of violence from men. Random men on the internet asserted that if sexually explicit photos of Emma Watson emerged online, her feminist views would be somehow less valid.

It seems that men are willing to engage with the problems of sexism if the women who talk about them are funny. This has not done much to advance the agendas of gender equality advocates however, so it’s important not to forget about these real systemic inequalities that must be tackled. What these comedians do offer is an alternative to the messages that a patriarchal mass media bombards us with. It’s time men stop being shocked when a woman tells a joke that is actually funny. Women should be allowed to be the class clowns too.

 

About the author: Camille is a recent university graduate who is still figuring out what she wants to do with her life. She hopes that whatever that is, she will be able to wear a power suit and be really intimidating.