We need to talk about feminism in Singapore
8 Apr 2019
By Nicole Lim
GRAPHIC: NUR SORFINA
If feminism is defined as a social movement aimed at ultimately achieving gender equality in the political, economic, and social spheres, then it has been a progressive couple of years for women in Singapore.
There have been notable triumphs for females here in just 2019 alone. In early February, a parliamentary session focused on discussing the repeal of immunity on marital rape was held. The repeal was initiated by the Penal Code Review Committee after engagement sessions with stakeholders from various sectors. The Committee proposed to provide all women, single and married, more protection from sexual abuse.
The government accepted the recommendation of the Penal Code Review Committee and it is now deemed a crime for husbands to force themselves on their wives.
In March, the Singapore government announced plans to offer free vaccination against cervical cancer to all secondary 1 girls in national schools. This is on top of all the existing subsidies already in place for girls aged nine to 26 taking the human papillomavirus jab. It is estimated that the government will spend $10 million this year and $2.5 million annually from next year to fund the vaccination.
In that same month, an article by ValueChampion, a website for financial information, noted that Singapore is the least dangerous country in Asia for women to live in, based on publicly available data such as the Global Peace Index and the Human Development Index.
These revisions to our law and access to quality healthcare reflect the state of “utopia” women in Singapore enjoy, as compared to our less privileged female counterparts around the world. But while there has been a lot for us to celebrate, these wins still largely exist at the institutional level. What needs to be done instead is to examine other pillars of society where there are still lapses in gender equality.
Sexism still exists
Instances of microsexism still exist in the social and cultural spaces that we navigate every day, many of which fester online. In the virtual world, people hiding behind a veil of anonymity have the freedom to comment on anything they wish.
The forum “Eat Drink Man Woman” on internet platform HardwareZone is a prime example. One is likely to find more comments from men there than women, who participate in threads discussing the physical appearance of a woman.
A simple search with the keywords “GPGT (Got Picture Got Talk)” on the forum will reveal a typical thread: a full body picture of a bikini-clad girl, often with a larger chest size, and a series of 100 lewd comments that follow.
The comments often go in two different directions — either the men express their uncontrollable desire to have sex with the girl, or they insinuate that she had undergone plastic surgery and is fake and hideous as a result.
The reason why such behaviour continues to exist can be attributed to a lack of policing on such forums, which result in individuals getting away with saying whatever they like.
Often, the comments are strongly worded and it is obvious that not much thought has been put into crafting them, or assessing their impact on others. Words of objectification typically make up the bulk of these posts and can be very harmful, as they breed a culture of acceptance towards crudites, and normalise such sexist mindsets.
According to statistics provided by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, most females in Singapore fall within the comfortable middle class socioeconomic position with some level of financial independence. However, there are those who are not so lucky. For women who experience workplace harassment, underage pregnancies, and sexual assault, there is only one existing non-profit organisation (NGO) that caters to help them — the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).
AWARE is also the only NGO that caters to women who might face problems in areas such as employment and labour rights, and sexual and reproductive health. In summary, the very diverse needs of women in Singapore is only under the purview of one organisation that is independent of the government.
Two years ago, a friend of mine who was previously working with AWARE, informed me about the struggles they were going through, which mostly boiled down to manpower and financial constraints. These restrictions limited and still limit the depth and variety of services that AWARE can offer to women who struggle or fall between the cracks.
This is when we, in the the privileged majority, need to reflect on our inaction. We must remember that the position we get to enjoy today as women did not come about without the help of our pioneer feminists.
Even for a small country like Singapore, there were notable women who fought for gender representation during our years of independence. For instance, Elizabeth Choy and Shirin Fozdar, who formed the Singapore Council of Women (SCW), fought hard for Singaporean women almost 60 years ago when they led the fight against polygamy in 1953, and spearheaded the Women’s Charter in 1961.
As females, we should extend our assistance to other women. A simple act of service such as providing a listening ear to friends or relatives going through difficult times or referring friends to NGOs who need personalised advice can make a difference.
For those who are financially stable, small donations to AWARE can also help them plan and execute more services for women.
Asian culture and taboo topics
The Asian stereotype of a conservative culture is still very applicable to Singapore as a nation.
This generally means that anything deemed immoral, such as sex before marriage, may not be discussed out loud at all. Such a culture can be concerning when it infringes on the health and rights of individuals.
For many, talking openly about femininity and sexual health may not be deemed as normal. Older parents might feel that sexual health topics are taboo, or shameful to bring up, and do not wish to discuss them with their children.
The lack of conversation about these topics, such as menstruation and its effects can have serious consequences when women fail to be informed about what could be good or bad for them.
For instance, menstrual cramps are common symptoms for a woman on her period, but they are pains that can cease to exist over time if an individual knows the proper self-care methods.
One such coping strategy is regular masturbation. Many health experts like Beverly Whipple, a sexologist, author and Professor Emerita at Rutgers University have stated that masturbation can help to alleviate the pains of menstrual cramps, as reaching an orgasm can help to relieve muscle tension and strengthen muscle tones. But in our society where masturbation may be considered a “dirty” or “shameful” act, open discussions about this topic is out of the question.
We need to have more open and honest conversations about femininity and sexual health. I draw this from my own personal experiences. I grew up with parents who were very open minded — they felt that it was important to educate me on such issues from an early age.
Later, as I work and interact in largely female dominated environments, talking about femininity or sexual health are things that I feel comfortable speaking freely about with friends and co-workers, without the fear of backlash or judgment.
The liberty to have open discussions about such topics has taught me many things about my body that I otherwise wouldn’t have known.
As our nation continues on its path of democracy, it is hoped that our society can have more frank conversations about true equality, be it in the form of wage gaps or gender representation. But in the meantime, there is something that we all can do to drive this feminist movement as individuals — that is, not to shy away from gender-related topics that matter.