Those who challenge the status quo must inevitably deal with anger and discomfort. AWARE was no different. Lenore Lyons writes about the tensions that AWARE faced from the public, and from amongst its own members.
Public skepticism when AWARE was first formed
“There were many women who were against us. Whether it was women whom we worked with, whether it was other women outside in other women’s groups. They were very much against us. They didn’t understand what women’s issues were all about. They thought that we were being very difficult. We had problems with the media. We had a lot of coverage because we were controversial and we spoke up a lot.” (Zaibun Siraj, 2005)
“Every single issue that we took up was fresh to the public, fresh to the media. They were uncomfortable with the issues we were bringing up in public. Like violence against women in the home. I remember when I went to parties, MPs would come up to me and say, “Why are you doing this? It’s actually only a small percentage of women who get beaten up. Why are you creating such a fuss?” And other women would come up and say, “You’ve got a good marriage, why are you upsetting the apple cart? Why are you digging up these dirty things to talk about? Haven’t you got better things to do?” We put a different complexion on what women’s organisations were doing and thinking, what women are and ought to be. We were the first to look at issues.” (Lena Lim, 2005).
The “Blueprinter” Controversy
AWARE is an organisation characterised by a diversity of views and perspectives. Inevitably, differences will, on occasion, lead to tension within the organisation. [In 1994-95, a group of women within AWARE released] a discussion paper titled “AWARE Blueprinters’ Suggestions for Future Directions and Strategies”… to consider AWARE’s future directions after one decade of activism. […] the discussion paper was released at an Extraordinary General Meeting in July 1995.
The paper was rejected at the meeting. Some members objected to the document, believing that it prescribed just one way of being feminist. Others insisted that AWARE was not and had never been a “feminist” organisation. Those who had written the Blueprint argued that they were not prescribing one way of being feminist, but wanted to explore the “feminisms”. They were shocked by the suggestion that AWARE was not a feminist organisation.
The Blueprint episode proved to be a painful moment in AWARE’s history. Many members were emotionally upset by the confrontation, and some members resigned. The issues raised by the episode remain important. With time, AWARE has grown less worried about associating itself with the term “feminism”. But the Blueprint episode acts as a powerful reminder to AWARE that while it seeks to represent women’s interests generally, it must recognise that women’s interests and views can vary widely and that its policies and processes need to allow for the expression and debate of these views.
AWARE and SCWO – different ways of doing feminism
In 1993-94 AWARE and SCWO jointly set up the Singapore Non Governmental Organisations Committee and organised public forums called “Road to Beijing – Let the Women Speak”, in preparation for the Beijing NGO Conference.
Part way through the preparations, however, disagreement developed between the AWARE-dominated organising committee and SCWO, which is an umbrella group of all women’s groups in Singapore. Because of AWARE’s explicitly feminist platform it was accused of being “strident and confrontational”, and of “provoking negative and counter-productive reactions from the establishment” (Wang, 1995). AWARE members later resigned from the organising committee and AWARE chose not to take part in the official Singaporean NGO delegation to Beijing. […] The dispute between AWARE and SCWO was played out in the public spotlight and brought home the ideological differences between the organisations.
Difficulties in international relations
In 1998 the Singapore media began to report that large numbers of ethnically Chinese women were being raped in Indonesia during racial clashes between indigenous Indonesians and Chinese people. These riots were sparked by worsening economic conditions as a result of the Asian financial crisis. Chinese Indonesian businesses were often targeted because of their perceived wealth, and Chinese women were often the targets of brutal assaults. […]
AWARE felt that it needed to react to the violence against women to educate the public about rape as a weapon of war. It organised an exhibition at the Women’s Centre showing photographs of women bloodied and tortured, and first-person accounts of the systematically organised rapes. […]
More than 20,000 people visited the exhibition at the Women’s Centre over two weeks. So overwhelming was the response that AWARE volunteers agreed to keep the exhibition open during the weekends. Visitors could pen their thoughts on large sheets of plain paper on an “Expressions Wall”. Unfortunately, the wall became a place for the expression of racial prejudice and AWARE found itself at the mercy of wider social forces that used the exhibition to spread hatred rather than compassion and understanding.
These issues came to a head several weeks later, when AWARE presented a petition containing 40,000 signatures to the Indonesian Embassy decrying the treatment of ethnically Chinese women, and calling for an independent commission of enquiry. In receiving the petition, a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Embassy pointed out that Indonesian women were frequent victims of violent abuse while working as domestic workers in Singapore, and called on AWARE to address these issues in its own “backyard”.
Professor Lenore Lyons is internationally recognised as the leading scholar on the feminist movement in Singapore. She also maintains a long-standing research collaboration with Associate Professor Michele Ford on the Riau Islands of Indonesia, and migrant labour activism in Southeast Asia. Before Professor Lyons’ appointment as Honorary Professor to the University of Sydney, she was Research Professor in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia (2009-2011) and Director of the ARC Key Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies (CAPSTRANS) at the University of Wollongong (2005-2009).
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: James Hudnall