On feminism – an essay

I would like to open this blog post, stating my belief that many – if not most – feminists across the world are good, kind-hearted people.

And I am writing this post from my position as a non-feminist.

This topic has spawned numerous conversations and debates, and sometimes I’m really interested in some of such discourses. Many issues across the world, pretty much, have something to do with this concept. Issues as brutal as rape, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, or other kinds of sexual assault, or those as mundanely quotidian as gender wage gaps, working hours, female labor force participation rate, workplace discrimination, opportunity and access gaps, or maternal leave, are themes that I have frequently encountered through articles or videos in Facebook that were shared by some of my friends or news magazines. Occasionally, in order to partially kill the curiosity itself, I checked its related statistics, or facts and figures, in order to research further about such questions.

As frequently as many people have voiced their concerns and/or expressions about the need for gender equality, nonetheless, certain minorities within this movement have done so in ways that can be perceived as annoying, or even disconcerting. If we have to be honest, the words “feminism”, “social justice warrior”, as well as “political correctness” have been used interchangeably, particularly by Western-dominated mass media. Certain speakers have been banned from giving talks because of their legal views towards certain rape cases that they were immediately derided as “rape apologists”. Conservative speakers who wanted to talk about abortion were immediately banned from campuses due to the pressure from these groups. Universities have been forced, occasionally, to apologize simply for inviting those speakers. There have been criticisms that these groups of individuals seek to enforce a logic that only their own arguments matter, and anyone else disagreeing with theirs would be labelled in as many negative terms as possible. And then there are certain militant groups – like, Femen – where those female protesters would no doubt undress themselves in public, all the while demanding rights to be respected. And just to inform you, one documentary from Al Jazeera (that Qatar-based news channel that Saudi Arabia wants Qatar to dissolve) illustrated the nasty extent to which a ‘gender war’ can take place, pitting radicalized feminist activists vis-à-vis equally radicalized ‘men’s rights activists’, as is the case in South Korea.

My university friends once recounted to me their classroom experience of being taught by a professor who also happens to be a feminism activist, and probably a very outspoken one as well. In a very emotionally agitated language, one of them complained to me about the professor’s notions of a mandatory leave – or even salaries – for housewives. “What the hell is the idea of a mandatory leave or salaries for housewives?” he told me in a somewhat angry tone. “Are we losing the essence of what a ‘mother’ supposedly is?”

To be completely honest, sometimes I have been left more confused than inspired by the things that these certain individuals have done. Sometimes I also have debates with some friends of mine – some of whom are also themselves feminists – about the true essence of this concept, one that I still continue to explore and contemplate occasionally whenever I come across on any news articles. Disagreements aside, however, we never had – nor do we want – open confrontation or verbal clashes. Instead, I learn to understand their perspectives, and so do they. Some areas of contention are better left not debated, as I do not want these issues to wreak a significant havoc on our relationships.

And I am not myself a wise person per se. A sudden change of mindset and declaration of myself as a ‘feminist’ does not necessarily make myself suddenly wiser, nor does being none. My position on the concept of feminism, to be frank, remains undecided. I agree with many of the ideals being fought by this movement – equal wages, equal opportunity, equal access to education, healthcare, and other public services, as well as equal treatment – but I also have significant reservations about how certain people apply this concept – sexual liberation, abortion, and overly enforced political correctness in particular. These are the values that I personally oppose, but in the end, who am I to force the world to bend things according to my own conceptions?

This is why sometimes I am worried about social media nowadays. Algorithms are increasingly learning better about us, that they would simply present to us – either in our news feed in Facebook or better-optimized search results in Google – anything that would validate what we have read, or what we have searched. There come conservative bubbles, liberal bubbles, centrist bubbles, feminist bubbles, men’s right bubbles, sadomasochist bubbles, etc., and as though these bubbles are heading into a huge collusion. It becomes difficult to forge a dialogue, or a conversation, for people of contrasting viewpoints.

Still, as much reservation that I have, I pretty much agree with many of the values that are advocated by most feminist movements across the world. Issues already mentioned above, such as rape, gender wage gaps, glass ceilings, lack of equal access, or female genital mutilation, remain seriously concerning. This is where the movement is stepping in to continue their fight.

Moreover, as far from the envisioned ideals the current condition is, now is massively much better than in the past, and undeniably, much of the societal progress we are seeing taking place would not have been made possible without the presence of thought-provoking feminist thinkers. A woman who happened to live in both 1010 and 1050 may never expect the society to shift their attitudes about women; nor would most women living in both 1910 and 1950 have the same expectation, except for those living in more developed parts of the globe. However, those living in 2010 – and potentially up to 2050 – will see massive changes in our human society, almost universally spread across the planet. Technological advances are growing at an exponential rate, so fast that gender differences no longer matter. Women can learn to code, create their Arduino-based devices, do 3D-printing, or even build robots, as much as their male counterparts do, and with more open-access technologies available, everyone will soon be able to learn on their own. The chief scientist for United Arab Emirates’ official mission to explore Mars is a woman. Many of the engineers responsible for creating India’s low-cost rocket program to Mars are also women.

Sarah Amiri, chief scientist of Mars mission program for Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Do not judge a book by its cover: never mind the sari clothes, but these are Indian women engineers that have designed the low-cost satellites for exploration to Mars. Indeed, one can observe how even more colorful the celebration has been!

Also, much of the “political correctness” discourse – from my own opinion – has been disseminated largely by the Western media, and, ironically, most of the world happens to read Western-based media on a daily basis (myself included). My epistemological understanding is that if we look at different media sources, their perception, opinions, and attitudes about feminism would also largely differ. At least one illustration here would be Wangari Maathai: a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize awardee (quite honestly I always have skepticism about Nobel Peace Prize winners), she has helped to empower Kenyan women while simultaneously worked to preserve the country’s natural habitats. Indeed, I would highly recommend you to read Half The Sky, a very good book authored by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife – and also a fellow journalist, Sheryl WuDunn. This book offers a very broad perspective about efforts of female empowerment across various developing countries, ranging from microfinance to female education to efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation.

For me, the face of ‘feminism’ is not only about Emma Watson promoting #HeforShe, or female rights protest movements worldwide one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump (proof that I’m still reliant on Western-based media). It may feel so negligible, but do not forget that there are also millions of migrant workers – both male and female – who have left behind their families in Indonesia, the Philippines, and other developing countries in order to toil really hard in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere. They sacrifice the time they could have spent with their parents, husbands, or their own children – oftentimes lasting for years – in order to earn enough incomes to fund their families, children’s education, or at least for their next offspring to afford a better future than they themselves could. Isn’t that feminism? What about hundreds of millions of migrant workers within China, who have left behind their hometowns, in order to work in factories, predominantly, to earn enough money for their families? And you assume that their parents are doing this willingly at the expense of the children’s mental well-being? Most people – except for an ‘exceptional few’ – would never do that. And can we expect ‘feminism’ itself to end such injustices? I am afraid not. The least we can do is to honor the sacrifices they have made for their next generations.

Beyond the feminism phenomenon, relatedly, another ‘shock’ the society is dealing and adjusting with is the fact that even the concept of ‘gender’ is becoming increasingly fluid. Our mental construction, our conscious understanding on the concept of ‘gender’ is increasingly freed of its binary nature, straight male or straight female. National Geographic, in one of its special editions titled ‘Gender Revolution’, identified no less than 21 different terms to describe gender. In particular, the “LGBT” phenomenon (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) is increasingly tolerated by many communities in different parts of the world. The half-empty picture is that over 172 countries have yet to legalize same-sex marriage; indeed, in many parts of this planet, that is punishable by death, imprisonment for life, or torture. The half-full picture, however, is that over 23 countries, since 2000, have given same-sex marriage a full legal blessing, mostly in North America and Western Europe. Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage based on its Constitutional Court ruling in May 2017. Can a gay or a lesbian, if he or she happened to live in 1000 and 1017, ever imagine such a ‘rapid’ development?


The progress, if we look at it from a broader space-time continuum (say the last 10,000 years of human civilization), is hugely exponential, but the fact that it is so rapid that as though it leaves almost no time for societies to adjust makes me concerned about the increasing ‘clash of values’ between people who are effervescently on-the-march progressive, those who are in the center, and those who want to retain the status quo, or maintain the current values. Again, as I have emphasized before, we have the problem of ‘bubbles’ due to how social media algorithms have reconfigured our thought patterns. And for me personally, as a person in the center, I am partly open to such possibilities, but I am also simultaneously worried about whether even I myself can fully cope with those massive, unexpected, fast-forwarding cultural and social shocks.

But, as much as I have a certain degree of reservation on feminism, I personally think that feminism itself can help dealing with the shock generated by gender fluidity that is gradually taking place in our society. Can we stop gender fluidity in the first place? I doubt it. Certain governments may impose authoritarian policies and enforce very tough measures, but I think this will only, in the long run, embolden – rather than permanently suppress – the sentiment that the authorities seek to remove. The question is whether we, in general, are ready for acceptance, no matter how painful it may be for our long-held traditional values, the values we have been inculcated in for most of our lifetime.

Even our concept of a ‘romantic relationship’ may – like it or not, sooner or later, depending on where you live – undergo a complete overhaul. The conventional ‘big picture’ is that a relationship has always been cast in this way: the male is normally portrayed as physically stronger than a woman, emotionally stoic, and has a tremendous responsibility to protect not only the female, but also a household in general. A male counterpart must be a breadwinner, while the female stays at home, nurturing children and doing household chores. Or, in a slightly revised ideal construction, women will do part-time jobs, all the while prioritizing the nurturing of the children, and completing household-related tasks, with men taking up full-time employment. Even if the big picture is increasingly rendered obsolescent in more and more parts of the world, it has not completely disappeared.

The complete overhaul could be that rather than the male being the sole ‘protector’, the approach may transition into one that has both the male and the female committed in protecting the relationship. Rather than the male always being expected to remain emotionally stiff, the counterparts may have to start being emotionally honest with each other. Rather than relying on the male alone to provide the income for a household, or a family, both the male and the female begin to financially support each other. Or that there may be no such obligatory need for a couple to get married to solidify their relationship. Most of these descriptions are becoming an increasingly common reality, but is our ideal construction of a romantic relationship evolving as well?

Or perhaps we can simplify, in the first place, what feminism actually is. I recounted a conversation I had with another friend of mine when we were going out for a dinner. She was asking me – in response to chat discussions we once exchanged in our Whatsapp group – about my stance, and I explained mine to her. And there she responded, “Well, for me, feminism doesn’t have to be very complicating: I would simply define it as the freedom for a woman to make her own choices.” I still remembered her line very vividly: it doesn’t have to be very intricately defined or preconceived. I personally would have a better consensus with her in defining this concept. When it comes to ‘making her own choices’, it can be limitless possibilities. A woman is free to pursue her education as high as she aspires to be; a woman can pursue a corporate career trajectory, hopefully to shatter the existing glass ceilings. A woman aspires to build robots. A woman who has no fear wearing bikinis in the public, but also has no fear of wearing religious attires (say, a Muslim veil). For a constantly changing world – and one that is changing at an accelerating pace, this will inevitably reshape the society of the future that we will be building and living in. Once again, however, the question remaining unanswered is how far the current society – a complicating mix of people who have lived for most of the 20th century, and those who are recently born, say, from 1980s to the beginning of 2010s – is prepared to withstand waves and waves of cultural shock. Can different generations in the current societal structure reconcile their views? Is the older generation willing to accept that certain changes are inevitable? And is the current generation also willing, to a limited extent, to at least understand the viewpoints of their elders?

Nearing the conclusion of this post, let me highlight this: changes are constant – as well as inevitable – within the human society. Many ideals remain yet to be accomplished, but the society itself remains a constant work in progress. Many of the values in the past generation were no longer existent in the current, and many of the current values will also be non-existent for the next generations. Probably the next generations, either in a not too far or distant future, will no longer categorize themselves based on ethnicity, race, gender, religion, nationalities, or other defining social and physical attributes. The thing is, nobody can ever know what the future will look like. On the question about feminism, although I would consider myself to be on the same boat for some issues (namely equal opportunity, equal pay, or equal access to public services), there are certain values that I am not ready – nor am I willing – to embrace for now. I still oppose the concept of sexual liberation. I also disagree with the notion of abortion, unless the mother-to-be is in a very severe and threatening health condition that abortion becomes a Hobson’s choice. To a certain extent, I am still not willing to support overly celebratory events on themes like lesbian or gay pride events. But, in the end, who am I to ban these things? As much as I disagree with and oppose those conceptions, who am I to regulate other people’s bodies, or how they use their bodies to express themselves, or to tell them what are the ‘right methods’ or ‘proper interaction’? My disagreements simply stem from my partial unwillingness to fully embrace these values. You can even have your own choice to completely disregard my opinions.

But even individuals are not permanently dogmatic about their own thoughts. Societal attitudes shifted as waves of generations inherit this planet. What were once intolerable are now cause celebre; despite my concern about bubbles, as already mentioned in the first few paragraphs, I still believe that most people, having been exposed to something brand-new that is beyond their conventional understanding of social values and norms, will gradually learn about them, and probably will try to make some adjustments. Here, I emphasize that constant dialogue is needed to bridge the understanding gap. It is never easy to change people’s mindsets; that, oftentimes, can take generations. That’s the half-empty perspective. Yet, from the other half-full perspective, societal progress continues to take place. It’s just that the pace of change can be unpredictable, wildly varying within timelines, and within different communities across this planet.

Even I myself can hardly guarantee whether the same mindset I have right now will stick to me permanently. If I am, say the least, in a relationship with someone, my mindset may likely change. If I get married and/or have children – sons or daughters, my perspectives will undergo through some adjustments, too. Future events, depending on the extent of their personal impacts, may also shift my attitude from what I currently perceive at things. My point is, I simply keep myself open to possibilities. As constantly opposed as I am on certain values that I find disagreeable, my mindset may or may not change in the future. I would, in most circumstances, stick myself to the center. At the very least, I am open to constructive dialogue with people of various and opposing viewpoints, because everyone’s arguments – myself included – have their own pros and cons. At least with regard to definition, I would stick with my friend’s ‘freedom-to-have-a-choice’ alternate.

In the end, changes never come without friction. As waves of values diminish in one generation, they will be – gradually or rapidly – replaced with sets of new values by the next.