Undressing Feminism

International Women’s Day
March 8th, 2018
Salon Night #7

When we started 1880, we knew that an emphasis on women was a key tenet. There is more depth to a woman than we can ever know, and we want to inspire authentic interactions that challenge those existing notions. On International Women’s Day, we invoked discourse through a multi-faceted panel and provoked the audience to grapple with their own definitions and understanding of female empowerment.

In a day and age where freewill and personal choice are celebrated, Choice Feminism seems to be a satisfying and liberating philosophy of female empowerment. When Emma Watson, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, exposed part of her breasts in a Vanity Fair photoshoot, was she exercising her right to make decisions about her own body? Or was she objectifying herself?

Sukki Singapora — burlesque artist, activist, and 1880’s Global Ambassador, believes that women own their bodies. Growing up, she was prevented from being artistic and expressive. That suppression crushed her body confidence. In her later years, she in turn crushed the mould placed upon women. Sukki challenged the cultural stereotypes of her community, and campaigned for burlesque to be made legal in Singapore. She won, after a four-year battle with the government. To those who disagree that empowerment is synonymous with having her clothes off, she has this to say, “if men want a striptease, they can watch one. 80% of my audiences are women. Burlesque is by women and for women.”

Corinna Lim, Executive Director of AWARE Singapore provided an added dimension of feminism, which incorporates the social movement towards equal opportunities to education, financial successes, and a world devoid of gender-based violence. Equality addresses intersectionality — different classes, different races, different genders; it does not pander to platitudes of choices. “In 1992, there were laws in Singapore that were blatantly discriminatory. In the civil service, men — as the head of the household — could get medical benefits. Women could not.” While progress has been made since, we can accelerate the process by engaging in conversations.

Nestled in between these layers of perception is a clarion call for deeper dialogue to take place. They need to happen on two fronts:

First: women need to speak up
Second: men need to be involved

While the #metoo campaign exposed the brutality of the male libido and ego, it revealed the tenderness of the female psyche. Women rehearse the detrimental consequences of our actions in our heads, and that paralyses us. The Weinstein saga produced a ripple effect only because of one woman’s courage and a second woman’s brave concurrence, which empowered many other women to share their stories. Lurata Lyon, survivor of kidnap, rape, abuse, and the former Yugoslavian conflict, shared that “victims of abuse and sexual harassment will always feel ashamed and question their actions. ‘What did I do? What did I wear? Did I smile? Did I wink?’ It is only instinct. The truth is, you don’t have to do anything.” #metoo gave women who were plagued with guilt and shame a voice — a collective spirit that overcame fear.

We acknowledged that the fear of reporting is a genuine problem. Women struggle with the dilemma of justice and guilt. “I feel that something needs to be done but I don’t want to destroy the careers of these men. They are good at their job.” Even when one woman mustered up courage to report her male colleague for sexual harassment, she was subsequently asked to leave, while he received a promotion. The culture of victim blaming and endorsing male behaviour with no apparent punishment further aggravates this fear. In the Eden Ang saga for instance, men (and women) accused the victims for naively walking into the lion’s den. Women who experience sexual assault are also criticised for their choice of clothing.

There is still a great disparity between the number of women who feel like they can relate to a #metoo story and the number of men who wonder if their actions have ever crossed the line. Matthew Spacie, founder of the Magic Bus Foundation in India and 1880’s Global Ambassador, shared that the media glorifies a man’s obsessive persistence with a woman, giving rise to harassment in the country. Saying no in this culture ironically means “yes, give me more.” In Bollywood films, this stereotype is further emphasised when a woman says no to a man and his persistence is a romantic overture to getting the girl. 75% of Indian men also believe that women should not earn as much. How do we promote women into leadership positions who can revamp culture and laws? Globally, only 10% of the judicial political network are women, and in India, less than 2%. What is missing from the dialogue is the male perspective. Males and females need to reclaim this essential conversation and work together to reverse this phenomenon.

Undressing Feminism, 1880

The dignity of men and women very much depend on our ability to respect and empathise with one another. One member shared that “as a man I want to listen, I want to understand. I have two daughters and I’m getting schooled everyday. I’m listening. I’m frustrated but I’m trying. For those of us who are trying, we need to be given a little bit of grace to try and get there.”

As we engage in discussions, we are pushing the conversation on female empowerment forward. The values and perspectives we hold today will shape the way we educate the next generation. The collective female voice is empowering. But we do not want to just stop there. We want to include men in open dialogue to build empathy and mutual respect. We want to abandon the status quo and keep evolving this conversation.