By Arveent Kathirtchelvan
Kuala Lumpur saw hundreds of people gathering for the annual Women’s March over the weekend and, predictably enough, this led to some derision on the part of the masses due to certain perceived abhorrent acts. In this article, I shall try to bring some enlightenment, but one must bear in mind that I am no expert in the matter and my points are gleaned from my lived experience.
Firstly, the Women’s March exists in the first place as a platform to put forward issues relating to women that needs addressing. These can range from concrete demands, such as an increase in minimum wage, to more abstract questions relating to how women fit into the social fabric of Malaysia, which can include questions challenging the definition of femininity or even critiquing language that may impart a certain dominance of men over women.
It must be noted that issues that are important to one group may not affect another or may not even be important to those observers outside the sphere of concern in the Women’s March, yet it does not take away the fact that these are issues that have to be addressed.
Many are finding certain demands in the Women’s March unpalatable. One such picture that has been shared a lot on social media shows a woman carrying a placard stating ‘Let My Nips Be Free’ alongside a drawing of nude breasts. The outcry has focused on pictures such as these, decrying feminists for not talking about proper issues during the march.
However, what is confusing is that these very issues were raised. Minimum wage was demanded to be increased to RM 1800, homemakers’ contributions were demanded to be made visible in the GDP, equal rights were demanded for domestic labourers, underage marriage was demanded to be made illegal. Refugees, migrant workers, disabled women and indigenous women were included. Yet none of these make a significant part of the discussions. The question is, if indeed all these critics are about the ‘real issues’, why are they not speaking about it?
The crux of the matter is this. Women’s movements and feminism in general is alien to most in Malaysia. When something is alien, we tend to reject it. We find faults in it, however miniscule, and blow it up to be so prohibitive, the whole picture gets thrown out. This is unfair and dismissive of the movement. To those who put on the guise of being progressive and pro-women, I advise you to actually practice what you preach. These women who come out to protest and bring their struggles to the public eye do not deserve your scorn just because some of their points rub you the wrong way. Simply put, if you really care, do something about it. Otherwise, don’t comment.
With that out of the way, let me wade into the more obvious waters; the presence of pro-LGBT rights groups in the march. What we might not understand about women’s marches is that they are almost always intersectional. This means all women from all walks of life get to participate. As I had mentioned before, the march included Orang Asli women, refugees and the like. This is usually an open platform for a variety of women to put forth what they are fighting for. Hence, for trans-women and lesbian women to be there is not a mistake or as Mujahid Yusof Rawa and Wan Saiful put it, a deliberate attempt at usurping the open space available for women on the part of the pro-LGBT individuals. They were supposed to be there and they were fighting for their rights.
Obviously, this would not be acceptable for a lot of people, even some women who are against LGBT rights. Should their space be corrupted by these individuals? This is not the right question, simply because the space is large enough to include both struggles. For example, there may be some women in the march who do not agree with refugee rights. Would this invalidate the march in any way or should the refugees not be there in the first place? There may be women’s marches in other countries where Muslim women’s struggles may be pointed out to be against their cultural norms. Should they be excluded?
What do we gain by excluding individuals from expressing themselves openly in a peaceful manner? They are simply exercising their democratic right, surely. What is Malaysia if not on open democracy? When the government of the day speaks of democracy being abused simply due to the inclusion of certain individuals they do not agree with, where are we heading with Malaysia Baru? Let’s stop to think about this for a bit. The government is saying anyone can participate in democratic acts except those who they deem cannot. Is this what we call democracy?
Whilst it is no secret that I am a defender of LGBTQ+ individuals and their rights, this is not even a matter of accepting them. One can reject certain individuals and still accept they have the right to state their case peacefully. This is exactly what happened for the anti-ICERD rally organised by PAS and UMNO last December. Many people, me included, did not support their cause but respected their democratic right to gather peacefully. I even congratulated them on a rally well-done afterwards. This is what civility is.
What it isn’t is shoving people we don’t agree with away from their democratic space. In fact, this doesn’t even make sense if we think about what was fought for by the pro-LGBT rights groups. They were highlighting the rising violence and marginalisation against them. Should we then advocate for these people, these human beings, to be mistreated and be inflicted violence upon?
I am disappointed for two reasons. One, the myriad of issues raised by the Women’s March fell on deaf ears for more sensationalised, politicised talking points. Two, even those points which were sensationalised were dealt with without any finesse or nuance such that truly ignorant views become the mainstream. The aforementioned ‘Let My Nips Be Free’ placard was taken as meaning feminists asking for bare breasts to be allowed to be shown in public. Is this view correct? There are many ways that phrase may be uttered. Maybe it is a critique of the imposition of bras to be worn by women constantly, even when they hurt them or cause discomfort. Maybe it is tongue-in-cheek where the nipples themselves are used as a shock factor to disturb conservatives but the message is to mean let women be free. Even if it was part of the Free The Nipple campaign, the whole point of it is to show the hypersexualisation of a female body-part associated with breast-feeding. Are we having these conversations to understand each other?
The demonization of certain women and the pro-LGBT rights groups shows an inability to rise above one’s own biases to look at the matter at hand in its entirety. It shows an inability to try to understand, learn and grow. There are those who still say they are pro-women and anti-violence against LGBT individuals but only seem to fixate upon parts of demonstrations like the Women’s March that irked them whilst not paying any heed to the other parts. In fact, there has been so much focus on why ‘real issues’ were not addressed by certain individuals, that the individuals actually focusing on these issues never got the attention they deserve. The word for this is hypocrisy. There is no other.
I’d usually sign off at that last sentence but there seems to be a huge disconnect between real-life struggles of women and minorities such as the LGBTQ+, I am obligated to attempt a course of education. Please check out organisations like the National Council of Women’s Organisations, Malaysia, Women’s Aid Organisation, Tenaganita and Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor for women’s issues. For LGBTQ+ issues, try Pelangi Campaign, PT Foundation, KRYSS (more towards freedom of expression within a gender lens) and Justice for Sisters. I have also provided some analysis in Liberasi, but bear in mind they are preliminary. In any case, please do approach this issue with compassion and understanding. We owe that at least to each other.
Arveent Kathirtchelvan is the Chief Coordinator of Liberasi, an organisation committed to revising the outdated concepts plaguing society.
**Featured Image from Says.com**