“Feminism, as one of history’s more important social movements, confronted and challenged the most fundamental and intimate of human relationships: the relationship between men and women, between husbands and wives, between parents and children.” Constance Singam, one of the foremothers of Singapore’s women’s rights movement, writes about local feminism.
Many men and women feel threatened by feminism. This may seem surprising given the merit of feminist objectives the world over. But there are reasons for the bad reputation of feminism.
First, feminism, as one of history’s more important social movements, confronted and challenged the most fundamental and intimate of human relationships: the relationship between men and women, between husbands and wives, between parents and children. It has challenged patriarchal institutions, such as the family, governments and religions.
In simple terms feminism set out to change values: from a value system of dominance to one that is egalitarian and democratic. Consequently, it has aroused the hostility of powerful vested interests that see feminism as a threat to age-old traditions, structures and patterns of everyday life. In Asia this threat is compounded as many dismiss feminism as a Western idea, even as they enthusiastically embrace other Western ideologies, such as democracy, socialism and communism. [Editor’s note: and capitalism!]
Second, extremism in any movement can be threatening and unpleasant. Feminist extremism has been exploited by the media and exacerbated by stereotypes and bad publicity. Yet women owe much to the extremism and early radicalism of the feminist movement. Extreme feminist fervour and action won us both the right to contraception and the right to vote, rights that we now take for granted. Without the activism, the intellectual rigour, and the hard work of a century of feminists, including and especially the vocal and militant ones, women would not enjoy the freedom and the rights that they have today. Reform has to be fought for. It is rarely handed to you for the asking.
In Singapore today we take for granted many rights: the right to equal opportunities in education and employment, the right to own property, the right to security in marriage and of divorce. However, a reading of history reveals that these rights are the result of battles, big and small, fought by generations of women before us. In remembering their history we celebrate their achievements and pay them tribute.
While the term “feminism”, in its contemporary sense, was first used in late nineteenth-century France, the ideology and actions that it refers to have always existed. There have ever been individuals, in Asia as in the West, who have spoken out against gender inequality. Increasingly, Asian feminists are reclaiming forgotten stories of feminism in Asia.
Constance Singam was President of AWARE in 1987-88, 1994-5, and 2007-8. In the last 30 years, she has worked on behalf of women’s rights and migrant workers’ rights. She has been described as the “mother of civil society”, an inspirational leader who spearheaded many of the projects and initiatives that shaped Singapore’s civil society, and which continue to do so.
Arora, Mandakini, ed. Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore. Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.
Featured Image: Women’s Action