The concept of women’s rights is fairly new in Singapore and the issue of feminism in Singaporean society is one mired by conflicting societal expectations.
With economic changes in the last 40 years, the position of women altered significantly more than that of their male counterparts. With social change, women’s mindsets evolved. Through access to higher education and the pursuit of careers, women gained financial independence and consequentially relied less on their male counterparts. This new found freedom liberated women who began to view themselves as equal to men. The mindset of Singaporean men, whose positions have remained somewhat the same through these changes, remained static. This created a disparity between reality and the male psyche.
On the surface, the infrastructure is in place for true equality between the sexes with no obvious discrimination between men and women. There is no evidence of any widespread practice of violence or abuse against women. Males and females have equal access to education and there are many successful women in the workforce. With the enacting of the Women’s Charter in 1961, legal equality for women came into being. It also ended the age old practice of bigamous marriages and gave women entrenched rights in marriage. In addition, there is no legal bar to the participation of women in political life.
Singapore has also acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) is active in the proliferation of women’s rights and empowerment in Singapore.
Behind this facade of equality, it is evident that despite the metamorphosis of our economy, which has altered the roles of women, our long held perceptions on the roles of women have not caught up. Society is confused by what to expect of a woman. She is the caregiver, the homemaker, the subservient wife and mother but yet, also a breadwinner. In so doing, she has encroached on that once male dominated sphere!
While the passage of time will no doubt ease this uncomfortable tension, there is a further issue to muddy the waters.
There appears to be confusion between the quest for equality and the idea that women want to be “the same” as men. Many who have denounced feminists do not actually understand the concept of equality within the notion of feminism. Behind the women bashing jokes and locker room banter is a real fear that feminists are trying to propagate a new world order that reverses traditional gender roles. Few have taken the trouble to lift the lid off this “scary” idea to try and understand.
While there are some who have interpreted feminism as the emasculation of men, most feminists are a rational lot who do not view it as their life’s mission to prove the superiority of women.
Men and women are indeed different and like it or not, there are clear distinctions between the sexes. The most glaring dissimilarity lies in physical attributes. Men are generally stronger and women remain the only ones able to give birth. However, despite the undeniable differences between the sexes, it is possible to treat women fairly and equally.
Feminism does not equate to women wanting to be men or the same as men. Rather, it recognises and accepts the divergent attributes between the sexes but distinguishes between situations where one’s sex is irrelevant.
Take the work environment for example. Modern women are just as well educated as their male counterparts. In fact, many are better qualified than their male peers. So, if the differences between the sexes do not actually hamper a woman from doing the job, women should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sex. Take the issue of female pilots in Singapore Airlines for instance. The internationally renowned airline has to date not recruited a single female pilot. Successful female applicants are instead offered jobs with its subsidiary, Silkair. This unofficial policy is apparently justified by costs as a result of women going on maternity leave or the family obligations of women. Silkair on the other hand flies only short haul flights and are deemed more suitable for the ‘fairer sex’. This begs the question, is the supposedly justified practice justifiable?
A pilot’s job is to fly a plane and to get its passengers to their destinations safely and punctually. Does one’s sex come into the equation? If the costs argument is raised, does that not unfairly penalise women for being the sex able to give birth? It also unjustly presumes that women are unable to balance the demands of a high powered career and a successful family life, a misnomer that has been proven wrong time and time again. It further assumes that all women want a family life over a career and that each of these desires are mutually exclusive!
Even within the confines of generally accepted differences there are exceptions to the rule. While men are by and large physically stronger, there are always women who rise to the occasion. A good example would be the samsui women who toiled tirelessly in early Singapore. What this exemplifies is the pitfalls of generalisations.
True equality is when we view people as individuals irrespective of their sex. Individuals are by their very definition unique. I believe that even the staunchest misogynist would agree that society should treat individuals fairly. So why the confusion when the individuals become the collective “women”?
Is it the fear of change that makes certain aspects of Singaporean society resistant to the concept of equality? Perhaps, in their fear, they are reluctant to explore and understand what the concepts of equality and feminism truly entail?
Fear not for there is nothing to be feared! The concept of feminism is one based on sound logical reasoning. It is not an incomprehensible and radical idea. Feminism does not insist that men and women are the same. Indeed it embraces the differences between the sexes. All it asks for is that in that difference, there be equality.