The Undercover Feminist
It took me approximately 22 years and 7 days to reconcile with the notion that I might have always been a feminist at heart.
Feminism is an uncomfortable subject to broach in Asian societies, where social hierarchies are perceived as the chief means to attain the ultimate goal of harmony. Everyone has a pre-destined role to play from birth to death; playing outside of the rules stirs discomfort at least and incites social stigma at worst. Granted, Asia has myriads of cultures and traditions, but among them a common thread can be easily discerned: Men are rewarded for pursuing their ambitions far and wide, while women are admired for keeping a good household and submitting to their husbands. Submissiveness is the highest virtue in a hierarchical society and the fragile, delicate thing known as a woman is the best ambassador of such. Even now in the 21st century, the concept of feminism is unimaginable in some parts of Asia because it upsets the power balance that has long been ingrained on the continent.
I consider myself very fortunate to have been born and raised in Hong Kong, where the living standard is excellent and women have not been denied schooling and career opportunities. I was able to read law at university. I was encouraged to think for myself, dream big and strive for my goals. There seems no apparent limit to the kind of life I could lead. People I know (particularly members of the opposite sex) have wistfully commented on occasions that it is incredible, intimidating even, that women’s rights should be so fully developed in my hometown as to produce a generation of opinionated female leaders who are unafraid to stand their own ground.
My point, however, is that despite this glamourous facade, I have struggled for years to come to terms with my rights as a woman.
The education I received was self-contradictory by and large, much alike greater Hong Kong society. On one hand, I was given rigorous training in academics and encouraged to pursue my ambitions. On the other hand, I was expected to fall in line with the rest of society and conduct my life at the same pace as everyone else did. While I was free to look up to strong and intelligent women who saved the day in books and movies, my social circle, the media and even my own family made it quite clear that only compliant and physically attractive girls were the most lovable.
In university, where talk is chiefly centered on romance and gossip, I further learn that having ambitions itself may already be an original sin in the eyes of some men: the common consensus is that girls studying nursing, speech therapy or liberal arts are desirable wife material, because they are perceived to have a caring and unassuming nature. Furthermore, if being ambitious is treated with distaste, then openly confessing yourself to be a feminist is positively repelling. The image which “feminism” conjures in the minds of both sexes is a bunch of rowdy and antagonistic women vowing to crush all men under their feet, and no one wants to be associated with these miserable outcasts. My girlfriends would joke together with the guys, exclaiming over how ambitious (ugh, the sound of that word) a certain female was, and I would go with the flow from time to time, all the while wondering why we had to put an individual down for wanting to go far in life. Yet I rarely expressed any strong opinion on the subject. I was fearful of doing or saying too much which would make me seem overpowering to my peers. I was also constantly embroiled in self-doubt: Do I need to tweak my personality and my goals? Is no man going to accept and love me as I am?
The truth is, gender equality is never a substantive reality in Hong Kong. I’ve begun to think that it is a curse rather than a blessing for women in Hong Kong to be highly educated and successful in their careers, because women in general are judged harshly by society. In the eyes of many, it is all very well for women to be emancipated, so long as they maintain their womanly graces and perform their womanly duties at the same time. As an expert on gender studies in Hong Kong commented, “Hong Kong is where East meets West. On the one hand, women have more opportunities than in many other countries, and there are many prominent female leaders. On the other hand, it’s a very conservative, traditional society, where gender stereotyping is common.” Women are encouraged to work as living expenses and property prices soar, but this by no means detaches them from their presumed responsibilities in the domestic domain. As a child, I observed day-to-day how my mother juggled a full-time job, housework and my sister and I’s education 24/7, while my father only pitched in irregular efforts around the household once in a while. In a 2009 survey commissioned by the Women’s Commission, interviewing 1,530 people aged 15 or above, 50.1% of interviewees agreed that women should put more emphasis on family than career, and taking care of the family was considered the most important among women’s contributions. Many women perceived motherhood as an “invisible filter” that prompted them to opt out of the workforce, as mothers were regarded as high-risk employees and often had to work extra hard to prove that they were still eager to perform professionally.
What disheartens me most, however, is how women voluntarily devalue themselves to secure the prospect of marriage. This may sound like a commentary directed at a time when marriage was the only means for women to ensure that they would have a roof above their heads, but it is a reality very much alive in Hong Kong today. In recent years, a reality TV series showing single women in their 30s (termed as shengnü: “leftover women”) undergoing “transformation” to recommend themselves to men had been hugely popular. The candidates sought advice from dating coaches to improve their mannerisms and image, and went on dates with various men in search of a good match. It was absurd enough to watch one of these dating coaches offer advice such as “gaze at men while leaning forward at a 45-degree angle and refrain from showing excitement during the conversation”, but even more bizarre to witness how enthusiastically women had embraced this show. It was as if all of their pent-up pressure and fear of social criticism could finally be relieved through putting down other women’s mating potential and lamenting on their slim chances of finding a husband. In view of how easily the subject of finding love caught the attention of audiences, two similar shows were subsequently aired, despite some criticism disapproving these shows for promoting narcissism, reinforcing gender stereotypes and stigmatizing single women.
Disappointed as I may be, I cannot bring myself to blame my own sex for defeating their inherent worth. Women nowadays finish schooling later and have limitless opportunities to experiment with, but they are still expected by society to find a man and settle down by 25-30, or risk being known as “leftover”. Thinking about female empowerment is not as pragmatic as visiting salons, boutiques or cosmetic surgery clinics, and planning the next speed dating event when youth is still in your favour.
I tried to fit in, as I do want to get married at some point in the future (again, feminism does not mean man-hating), but I realized that I kept returning to the inner voice of my heart that this whole unhealthy ordeal was not for me. I do not want to run the risk of looking into the mirror one day and seeing a person with a gorgeously made-up face and docile manners, but entirely out of spirits and passion for what life has in store. No matter what social expectations on women are, I know I will always be lively (occasionally cheeky), impatient (bordering on being easily annoyed), forgetful (always losing possessions here and there) and free-spirited (eager to venture into the wild). If my partner could not fall in love with my mind and soul, he wouldn’t be a person whom I esteem enough to be my husband in the first place. Between conforming with social expectations and following my heart, I must choose the latter to preserve my sanity and dignity.
Life is too short to be worrying about how we dance to the rhythm of others.
Therefore, on turning 23 this year, I’ve decided to admit to myself openly that I am a young woman who is intent on becoming her truest self and actively pursuing all that life has to offer. In doing so I may attract the criticism of many, defy the expectations of some, and even resign myself to the fate of being forever single in a society like Hong Kong. But one thing is certain: I will fall deeper in love with myself each day, and that is more than what a lot of people can boast.