Reclaiming My Bruneian Feminism
“Just because I am a female who is taking her A Levels,” I said angrily, wagging my finger at the people sitting across from me, “does not mean I am a feminist!”
I was eighteen, on a debate team where I was supposed to argue against feminism. The topic was forced onto my team, and as a group that had a winning streak throughout the competition, we happily did whatever the debate organisers wanted, from praising McDonald’s (McDonald’s is so delicious; everyone knows their jingle; we are lovin’ it!) to saying that black metal music shouldn’t be banned (pop music can be just as damaging; music is a universal voice of love).
But under the debate topic of “Is feminism useful in today’s society?” I didn’t have to put on an act. What I argued was genuine then: I really thought feminism was no longer necessary in today’s society.
I live in a rare Muslim country that believes in meritocracy so much so that pay is equal between sexes, opportunities are open, and women frequently succeed in schools and careers. Healthcare is also great–really great, actually–in our socialised healthcare system.
No, at eighteen, I knew without a doubt that feminism was definitely old news–we were doing just fine in our little country of Brunei.
Image Courtesy of Vacations To Go
A year after the debate, I moved to Singapore for university, taking up Political Science and minoring in Southeast Asian Studies. The former exposed me to the history of women in the region. Their role is just as equal to men’s, albeit different. Women were responsible for money while men were spiritual and political leaders. However, the men were also considered lazier than the women. While the men made the majority of the household’s income, the women were expected to take hold of the money immediately, due to men’s carelessness in spending and gambling. This monetary responsibility leads to women playing a prominent role in the economy; they’re in charge of the many small trades that run a kampong (village) and society at large.
At nineteen, my relationship with feminism became more complicated, because studying history opened a new perspective. I began to identify as a feminist–somewhat–but I also continued to support equality as a concept rather than something that was still lacking. We are doing fine now, I thought.
But that wasn’t true. The longer I stayed in university studying history and anthropology, the more things I learned about that changed my opinion of what is truly equal. The historically unfair treatment of women in Southeast Asia still dominates our roles today. Comparing the then and the now really opened a new perspective; although certain positions are available to everyone, I don’t see vast improvement to the impact of women in, say, politics. Plus, there’re just a lot of misogynistic pricks out there.
Western influence has shifted the status quo and replaced it with the idea that women should be viewed as inferior. The rise of television and media contributed to this too, which in turn led to Southeast Asians overlooking local lore, which emphasised the strength of women, the image of the powerful and hardworking mother, and the reminder that our most vicious supernatural creature is a female. We gave up markets our grandmothers used to run to men who started to run our finances for us, too. We wanted to be swept away by handsome princes on carriages like in Disney films, playing the damsel in distress as opposed to having a mature and balanced relationship.
And those misogynistic pricks I mentioned? Well, a few examples: in university, I worked with magazine editors who treated me like I don’t know anything, less because I’m from another country than because I’m a woman. I’ve faced harassment from men who break down my personal security; I’ve been inappropriately touched and asked how much I charge per night while walking past a red light district; and in my workspace in Brunei, I’ve met men–a lot of them–who told me that “no offence but” they don’t believe that women should be leaders regardless of how capable they are. I’ve also worked with people who dehumanised female employees by slapping their arses, commenting on the size of their breasts, and looking at them like playthings instead of sentient beings who are just as human as they are.
As these realities entered my life, I realised that it is important to fight back. Women shouldn’t have to come into work knowing that they will face sexual harassment but are too scared to report it to their human resource department for fear of losing the respect of their bosses– or worse, being fired. Women shouldn’t have to face men who tell them they can’t do work they’re qualified for because they are “irrational” and “too emotional,” while men fighting outside a club is considered “normal bloke behaviour”.
I want young girls to start seizing the opportunity the Brunei government gives them in free and equal education. I want them to work hard and play a role in society that they truly desire, whether it’s in a company or as a homemaker. I want men to start thinking that it’s okay for women to supervise them, and I especially want men to start respecting a woman’s personal space. I want people to start thinking, “She’s a feminist? Cool!” instead of “She’s a feminist?! Ohmygod, she’s going to pinch my scrotum until my larynx breaks!”
Studying the history of women in my region really showed me how easy media changes a country. I’ve been attacked online for wanting equality among genders by both men and women, but it hasn’t stopped me from continuing the discourse, because it’s important to me. The shift in the Western world when it comes to their attitude towards women affects me because I’m scared of the effect it may have on my country. The loud voices of men and women coming together in the West to fight for gender equality and to change the attitude of how people view women from western media is important to me too, because it gives me hope that it will rub off on people in my country.
What I want most from people, not just in Brunei, but also the whole region, is to reclaim the equal role we once had and to move forward together for a better society; one that promotes the common good, and benefits not only men, but women too.
May 19, 2013
May 17, 2013
May 16, 2013
May 16, 2013
May 15, 2013
May 15, 2013