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The sex that is always placed second: Why It Is Hard To Celebrate Women’s Achievements

July 13, 2013

While the news have been filled with stories of girls and women who overcame adversity and challenges through ingenuity and resourcefulness, it is filled as much with stories of their violations and the continuous insistence of their roles as victims.

From the story of Malala, the teenaged champion for equal access to education for all girls and boys (and men and women) almost assassinated, to the teenaged Turkish girl who won top prize at the Google Science Fair, the world the past few weeks have been wowed by the achievements of our women. These are young women filled with infinite possibilities, until they have to grow up and society starts telling them that there are SO MANY THINGS that they cannot do. The token few who broke the barrier to become the top players of their respective fields had to sacrifice tremendously, or had been lucky in that they had had an inordinate amount of support and encouragement.

At the same time, you have stories such as the ones sponsored by ETP on BFM radio (both related to Malaysia), between May and July, that spent time pontificating on why women are leaving the workforce by the droves (touted as the ‘new brain drain’) and also if they are being pampered in expecting their demands to be met. I don’t think the questions were particularly well framed. Also, they appeared not to have read the letter that three friends and I had written with regard to the their radio segment on the brain drain on May 1, 2013 (May Day).

You often feel like, fuck, this society has no relevance to me as a woman with all these patronizing and insecure men trying to push me down to stay buoyed, to paraphrase Valerie Solanas in SCUM manifesto.

Maybe Malala is among those who have faced direct intimidation and suppression from men, but everyday, in classrooms everywhere, and particularly in the unregulated classrooms of many public schoolrooms in some Third World countries, Malaysia included, women are subject to subtle daily put downs, beginning from the time when they were in their most vulnerable teenaged years.

I was an awkward teenager so I was spared the brunt of the sort of male attention from male teachers in my pre-university science-focused classes who daily told my pretty friends that they need to not crack their pretty heads over a difficult science problem because they could just marry some rich fart and be a house wife; the same teachers who prefer to regale us with tales of promising and academically-excellent female students who just ended up getting married to some high school sweetheart, as if that is the pinnacle of their careers. Such putdowns came as much from male authority figures (devastating) as from the other male members of society, including young male acquaintances (I would not dignify them as friends, as my real male friends did not patronize me in such a manner), who once told 19-year old me to not worry about my grades (and I was performing at my academic lowest, with failing grades, despite having once been academically promising) because I could just get married. One really excellent student, who worked so hard to prove her value, finally had a nervous break down that resulted in her never being able to attend any university thereafter (because she could no longer withstand the pressure and any hint of stress caused her to go berzerk).

With the exception of one or two science teachers, none had ever tried much to encourage me in my interests in participating in science-related activities outside of school, saved for a measly quiz or two from which they selected students they considered academically promising, regardless of whether that said student had had any interest in that specific science. University was no better though such direct discouragement were less evident but it does speak to my lack of interest in engaging or connecting further with any of my alma mater in Malaysia, from elementary school through college.

While a number of my classmates eventually pursued higher degrees in the sciences regardless of the lack of encouragement from the male members of their lives (sadly, not limited to the male teachers), none I knew of actually pursued a full-scale STEM career in the frontlines, because it was drummed into them that anything too ambitious would be in conflict with their roles as mothers, and for some of them, the ever hopeful desire of being a mother someday despite being unmarried.

Beyond that, the world continues to hold the women down through rapes, brutality, denial of basic rights, and public exclusion. We see the events that have been happening in Syria and Egypt. The Texan Republican-controlled senate has been working over-time, even with the recent filibuster by Wendy Davis, to successively ban legal access to abortion for women, all in the name of ‘protecting the unborn,’ regardless of the consequences. North Carolina has also done the very same thing just last week through this legislature. Forcing a woman to abort is as bad as forcing them to carry to term, in their own bodies, regardless of consequence and regardless of the cause of the pregnancies. Women are whipped for being raped and engaging in premarital sex, while their abusers and willing partners got away scot-free, in countries ranging from Malaysia to Maldives to Iran to you know where-else-this- can-go-on-to.

We see stories about the victimization of women at all levels, and we want to see women as victims, and therefore, we enforce their victimization continuously. We want them to think that they are always the weaker sex, that they should defer to the stronger sex in all matters, even that pertaining to themselves. Some women who became brutalizers and enforcers of the brutalization of the powerless learned that, to survive in this brutal age, they have to take the side of the tormenters, and become one with them to acquire power. Yet, in the end, they are more likely than their male tormenters to become the victim of their own crimes, for a notorious woman is less tolerated, and therefore, less likely to obtain redemption. If you disagree, a search into the narratives from the True Crime Report will change your mind. Patriarchy appears sexless in this case but is gendered along the lines of hyper-masculinized virility.

Women in the public sphere are revered only if they play the role of the sexless Madonna, such as Mother Theresa: gentle, self-sacrificing, and unassuming. After all, the book of Proverbs in the Christian Bible has outlined such traits as that of the price of a woman above rubies. However the moment she steps out of it and decides that she wants to be loud, to call attention to her opinions, or to take such risks that she has no choice but to stumble along the way, she is the shrew, the trouble-maker, and the incompetent leader with too much lust for power. If she spends too much time in her creative and intellectual pursuits that she fails to care sufficiently for her children (as a mother), she is touted as the bad mother in a child-centric society that is the aft to the Victorian fore, “children should be seen, not heard.”

She talks too much and cannot be taken seriously. She calls too much attention to herself.

Maybe, in some lands, one might be able to agitate for women to be more than succorers and supporters in any public sphere. To be in the frontlines of intellectual discourse and change. In other places, this is looked upon as unwomanly and your agitation would merely be tuned out. Unless you are a woman of independent means, perhaps a patron to other famous male artists and writers such as Gertrude Stein, female eccentricity, let alone female raucousness, is not at all tolerated. If you are a male genius, it is alright for you to be difficult. If you are female, you are a malevolent bitch.

The only woman philosopher (the founder of objectivism) I know of who had had an institute established to promote her thought in her lifetime is Ayn Rand, even if many left-leaning types (particularly the men) would refuse dignify her as a philosopher. But whatever the hardcore leftists have to say, I actually enjoyed reading her For the New Intellectual during one of those really mind-numbing festive seasons back in Malaysia in 2006 (or you could choose to watch neuron-dimming TV shows). She was also the first of the female philosophers I read as a 15 year old who had to take the bus 4 to 5 miles out to school every day.

There are many women theorists and philosophers whose thinking and work are as good, and often surpassed, in acuity, the thinking of their peers. Many have claimed that de Beauvoir was a better philosopher than Sartre, and just from having even a cursory examination of both their works, I am inclined to agree. Some might object to this by insisting that such judgment is subjective and dependent on one’s philosophical preference. I would argue the same when they claim that any woman is not a good enough philosopher.

But as Le Doueff has famously said in “Long Hair, Short Ideas,” but in more words than what I am summarizing here, if you are a woman, your philosophy must be second rate.

Where can women go to settle this problem? Forming women only communes have failed, since women are still, at the end, the outcome, even if not the sum, of their upbringing in the society as it exists. Women with any amount of ambition would ally themselves with the ones with most power, even if this means selling out to patriarchy. Sisterhood is uncommon among women of power since these women have been trained to maintain their isolation in wariness of being dethroned. Even among ‘feminists’, you might find yourself passed over for the newest phallic symbol of virility that happens to stroll by. In the Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin suggests that maybe, what is needed is a breed of race that is both man and woman, or neither man nor woman, but not necessarily neuter. One that exchange feminine-masculine roles with every estrus cycle. Yet, she also acquiesced that such beings are also possibly overly given to no emotional inhibition since they have had no male standards of virility, and therefore, the phallic representation, to fall back on. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

The religious apologists, particularly of the monotheistic sort, may continue to claim that religions uphold the value of women and their rights. But all have failed, just like Communism, to uphold that standard of ideal in practice. At least in Communism, women managed to obtain quality education (I am thinking of the production of female scientists, writers, and philosophers, among other intellectuals and creatives, during the days of the Iron curtain) and they were still considered comrades of equal value for the most part.

There is no resolution to this question, and maybe, the answer merely becomes tautological. Are women complicit in their victimization, are they victims of their biology and biological clock; are they unwary victims of social pressure, or both? Younger women from the Western part of the world have come out to blame feminism for women’s failure to have children, because the latter had ‘lied to them’ about the biological clock. Outside of the confusion in the West, some of these guilt are filtering to women in societies that had barely been touched by feminism even as there are women who choose to resist such guilt, at their social peril. Maybe, the drive to set up individual family units is the drive given form by Capital, a capital that seeks to individualize family units and stake property claims, which include the idea of the family as belonging to the self, therefore, making the women the main reproducers, nurturers, and caretakers of the unit. Or perhaps, when women realized that their desire is not for that form of heteronormalized individualism, social policing would then try to force them back in, failing which, the latter would wreck her with guilt, and turn her into that Mad Woman in the Attic.

In case you have noticed, with the exception of my opening paragraph, all the examples thereafter are of white women (even the ‘criminals’), whether socially privileged or not. Until fairly recently, when more non-white women put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and have given a strong voice for themselves, they were invisible. But even then, they are still largely invisible from the scopic eye of media and the ideological world controlled by very specific groups who occupy the mouthpieces.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 5, 2013 7:18 am

    I enjoyed reading this. Keep up the good work,

    Fellow Malaysian feminist researcher.

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