Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Re-booting feminism: Deeds not words, where have all the women gone and Angelina Jolie (yes, the Angelina Jolie Effect, to be precise)

Keynote Address by Johan Jaaffar at the SoLLs.INTEC.13 International Conference, The School of Language and Linguistics, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, on 2 July 2013

What does Angelina Jolie want? That is a tantalising question.

What has that got to do with today’s conference, you may ask? Nothing or perhaps a lot.
Jolie, you may be aware, is one of the prettiest (which is subjective, of course) actresses roaming Planet Earth today. And she’s certainly one of the grittiest, outspoken and bravest ladies in show business.

Of her movies, in which she discarded the Barbarella-type image, Lara Croft: Tomb Rider (2001) and Salt (2010) come to mind. Not since Sigourney Weaver brandished her massive gun and trounced aliens (in the Aliens series from 1979 to 1997) have we seen an action heroine being applauded by movie-goers. We also hailed Jennifer Lawrence for being a cuddly yet tough girl in Hunger Games (2010) and Jessica Chastain who played the determined CIA agent hunting Osama Laden in Dark Zero Thirty (2012). These ladies are rewriting the history of movies.

Jolie went on to direct Land of Blood and Honey in 2011, probably one of the most daring and disturbing movies about the Balkan Wars. We may not approve of some of the scenes in the movies – lambasted by some as demeaning to women and portraying them as mere pawns in the games of war.  War is not pretty and Jolie is not about to portray a Hindi-type love story in the film. She shows guts. That’s the kind of movies even hardened male Hollywood directors would not dare make.

She got away with it because she is a woman? I don’t think so. That’s what Jolie wanted.
Kathryn Bigelow directed a largely male cast in The Hurt Locker (2008) to win her the Best Director Award, the first for a female director. I cannot imagine a man at the helm coming out with a more personal, harrowing and intelligent movie on the chase and killing of Osama Laden as in Dark Zero Thirty. The CIA agent, a lady, is vulnerable, but with true grit and ferocious intent, she found the most wanted man on Earth. Pure fiction perhaps, too at ease with torture techniques, but Bigelow made it so arresting, so compelling and so stylish that we can’t simply ignore the end result. She has, in fact, rewritten the rules of engagement regarding the portrayal of women in movies.

Jolie does not shy from controversies. Well, for someone married to the first male face for Chanel No 5, Brad Pitt, what would you expect? This lady is one to watch, literally and metaphorically, I must add.    
It is mind-boggling what she did to her prized possessions (one of her prized possessions actually). The double mastectomy not only places genetic testing in the spotlight, but her reasons for doing it. To quote Time magazine, her choice revealed calculating risk, cost and peace of mind.

Choice. That is the key word.

What is personal and represents the entire “womenkind” has now become a major cause for arbitration. For Jolie at least, there is no necessity for her to portray a successful career woman as one to endure a tormented private life. She is extremely successful. She looks happy. And she’s devastatingly in love with Pitt. And she’s rich. What more can a woman ask for?
Thus, she is free to choose what to do with her body. As much as the decision for the double mastectomy is purely hers, it was certainly an emotional and personal decision, perhaps even a painful one, literally.

Much has been discussed about the matter. In fact, it has created a new catch phrase, “Jolie’s Choice” as argued by Time. It is perhaps less tougher than the choice that had to be made by the character played by Meryl Streep in the movie Sophie’s Choice (1982), yet it is a choice nonetheless.

And of course, there is now a case for “The Angelina  Effect.” The question for many women is, “to do or not to do.”  For someone like her, doing what she did seems preposterous to some, a necessity to others. The reality is murkier that that. And certainly more confusing.
If I may, I would like to quote from Time (verbatim): “She has long been a symbol of the feminist ideal – which in its shorthand sense has meant feminine beauty. Her body has been a key dimension of her fame; now it is an even bigger dimension of her influence.”

Jolie wrote something about her choice and her reasons for doing that in a newspaper. Again, to quote Time, “The loveliest and most resonant passages in her op-ed piece come during her brief description of her breast reconstruction: The results can be beautiful, she reassured, adding that her children can see small scars but other than that, everything else is just Mommy.”
Are we not convinced? Is she redefining beauty?  

That is also the feminists’ argument all along: their bodies are their bodies. Their bodies are their own – the metaphors and symbolism included. That idea has been bedeviling the feminist discourse since the days of Mary Wollstonecraft  and pursued by the feminist sisters later on – Elaine Showalter, Toril Moi, Kate Millet, Michele Barret, Gayatri Spivak, to name a few.
And what do women want? That’s the question.

Jolie’s body, or body parts to be more precise, is no more personal, it has become political. The “personal is political” dictum is now back in style, and with finesse  This is also about redeeming the women’s domain, so much misconstrued, misinterpreted and stereotyped. It is not about her personal choice anymore, it is women’s choice as a whole.     

I assure you this keynote address is not just about Jolie. That’s my dilemma today. I was mulling whether to talk about my favourite subject – postmodernism and my usual argument on the “otherness of the Other” – but my daughter, Syahida, convinced me not to go into familiar territory in a conference like this but to venture into something a little less familiar, a lot more controversial, such as feminism or something like re-thinking, re-booting and re-appropriating feminism.

I have my doubts, seriously. Let’s call it the Ruthven Complex – a male looking into the wilderness, a realm so fascinating, so complex yet so relevant as the discourse on women and particularly feminism. It is interesting that this discourse continues to be on track and is puzzlingly gaining momentum, and there appears to be no sign of fatigue.

K.K. Ruthven became a minor celebrity when he wrote Feminist Literary Studies: An Introduction in 1984. A brave attempt indeed. The book is said to be one of the first major books on feminism written by a male scholar.  Remember that back then feminism in academia was a craze. Among other things, Ruthven believed that in a male-dominated society, literary language, conventions and forms are shaped by masculine biases. He was in line with the ladies but he had his detractors, of course. 

Gender study, feminism or the like were hot in academia. So much so, a scholar Peter Brooks cynically observed at the time, “Anyone worth his salt in literary criticism today has to become something of a feminist. The profession has become feminised.”

Harold Bloom, who later became famous for his book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1995) once wrote, again perhaps too cynically, for the need of “the School of Resentment” as an umbrella concept for so many “critical theorists that proliferated in universities at the time.”  He named the Larcanians, Deconstructionists, Foucault-inspired New Historists, Semioticians and the New Marxists, and last but not least, the latest-model feminists.  

How did it all start? Well, blame it on Freud. Sigmund Freud.  Women have been beguiled, devastated, humiliated, provoked and even inspired by Sigmund Freud and his legacy, psychoanalysis, and the idea relating to female sexuality.

Freud has been accused of portraying women as the inferior “Other”. Little wonder that the psychoanalytic movement initiated by his disciples was condemned by feminists as worthy of being relegated to the junk-heap of history and he, labeled by them as the “great mind-shrinker”.
Karen Horney was one of the first critics of Freud’s views on women when she wrote Feminine Psychology in 1967.  She argued that Freudianism is flawed from the start. At its worst, it reflects “masculine narcissism.” She cautions that “psychoanalysis is the creation of a male genius, and almost all those who have developed the ideas have been men.” She argues that what is needed to free women from ‘this masculine mode of thought” is to determine an authentic description of female psychology of their own, and to pursue a theory and language of their own.
 “What Freud really said” is actually an “interpretation” because of the contradictions and gaps in his own writings. The fact that Freudian theory is subjected to various popularised interpretations certainly did not help to eliminate the prevailing misconceptions, ambiguities and biases surrounding it. But it is about the notion of female sexuality that has galvanised the rebellion among women. To sum up Freud’s idea on female sexuality, let me quote Elizabeth Wilson: “He sees women as a problem because they deviate from the male model. For him, women are more vain and narcissistic than men; less sense of justice; less sexual libido; and less capacity to love another human being.”
To say the least, from his arguments, women are seen as inferior, vice-ridden and half-savage simply by virtue of their “deformed, castrated physiology.”
The greater part of the feminist movement has identified Freud as the enemy. Freud-bashing has certainly become one of the trademarks of the feminist movement. It is not clear, however, how much energy would have been devoted to a critique of Freud if there had been such a thing as “a feminist renaissance” as claimed by Adrienne Rich in 1973.
Books are in abundance about women writing and “the suppression of their writing, about their silence and madness, marginality and invisibility, negativity and difference.” They have written about femininity and feminine writing, about identities and communalities, affirming what Andre Lorde called “the interdependency of different strengths” in feminism. It is now possible for the feminists, says Sheila Rowbotham, “to look back at ourselves through our own creations, our history, our theory.”
In “looking back”, the feminists have articulated their desires for the expressions, means and modes of their very own. Some like Elaine Showalter, Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert, among others, have marched forward to break new ground in this discourse. But there are many others who are still entangled in the Freudian trap, by either becoming vociferous critics of anything Freudian or struggling in the attempt “to reclaim” Freud.
Freud talked about women as an enigma (thus his famous question: “what do women want?” – didn’t I ask what Jolie wanted earlier?) and he saw women as a problem because they deviate from the male model. His notorious statement, “anatomy is destiny”, is downright sexist and appallingly unbecoming. Bisexuality is central to his theory. It is for Freud part of the mental and physical life.
So, why are the women devoting so much time on Freud?
That was then.
What has happened since the angry 1970s when feminism made an indelible mark on academia and the consciousness of the masses – of both men and women?
Let me come closer to home. I found this feature in the New Straits Times in May 2013 interesting, a few weeks after Malaysia’s 13th General Election (GE13), said to be the Mother of All Elections.
The heading speaks volume of its intent: “Where Have All the Women Gone?”  With 50 per cent female voters and a 40 per cent increase in the number of women (168 out of 1,900 candidates) who contested in GE13, women made up about 10 per cent of the candidates who won. However, only two women have been appointed ministers and five appointed deputy ministers. Put it simply, the political participation of women in Malaysian politics is still low.
The easiest conclusion is, of course, that Malaysian society remains male-dominated.  I can understand the unhappiness among heads of women think tanks and NGOs. Ivy Josiah of Women’s Aid Organisation did not mince words: “…Men don’t give up political power. We can’t wait to change men, but commit to studying the analysis and recommendations as to why women’s representation is still low in a country with many smart women.” She is insisting on quotas and reserved seats since the level playing field is unequal.
Ho Yock Lin of All Women’s Action Society says, “The reality is that women continue to face discrimination and marginalisation in various fields, including politics. Historically, women’s concerns were kept out of the public domain… we had to fight hard and endlessly to make the issues mainstream.”
As Chairman of a public listed company, I realise that the discourse of “appropriating” women in boardrooms and in decision-making processes is still as relevant today as it was many years ago. I tend to agree that women have been largely overlooked and underpaid, and that equality in the boardrooms is still far from satisfactory.

That brings me again to a Time magazine’s cover story on Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, this time with a curious heading, “Don’t hate her because she’s successful.” Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of one of the most talked-about companies in the world, Facebook. She’s hardly 43 and is the second most powerful person, male or female, in the RM217.8 billion company. She is also listed by Fortune magazine as one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business. It is interesting to look at her statements about women that have created so much reaction.

Is she rethinking feminism or taking the movement to a different level? Or rewriting the gender war? But behold, this is not a feminist sister lambasting the Freudian excesses. She is a very successful woman who’s telling her sisters that they are at fault themselves. She blames women for their mistakes or misfortune.

She argues that women are not aiming high enough, they are always underestimating their capabilities, compromising too much or sacrificing their career goals for “partners” and children. Her crusade is well documented, not just a one-off power-point discourse on women emancipation.

Sandberg has published a book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. As the magazine puts it, she is embarking “on the most ambitious mission to reboot feminism and reframe discussions on gender since the launch of Ms magazine in 1971.”

She has every reason to be audacious. She is in a class of her own – together with some very powerful women at the helm of very powerful and admired companies. They have proven that women can – if given a chance. Let me rephrase, they can be successful on their own accord. Some of them have turned fledgling companies into great brand names while others rebranded old, tired companies into flashy, hip and bubbly ones, making tons of money for the shareholders (and for themselves). Names like Meg Whitman (formerly of eBay who later joined Hewlett-Packard), Indra K. Nooyi (PepsiCo), Virginia Rometty (IBM) and Sheri S. McCoy (Avon) come to mind.

But all is not well in the state of Denmark – in terms of women at the top. In 2003, hardly 1.4 per cent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies were women. In 2013, the percentage stands at 4.2 per cent. Ten years ago, 14 per cent of board members in those companies were women, today the percentage stands at 17 per cent. The phrase “slight improvement” is an insult really.
There was a survey done in the UK about women at the helm of companies or in the boardrooms. To put it brutally, it simply says, women were “overlooked and underpaid” and “barely inching towards equality.” The study found out that if a woman and a man started at about the same time, were promoted and attained the same level of seniority, by the time the man retired, he would have earned very much more than the woman. The study conducted on 38,843 executives had caused quite a commotion.

Another report stated that women are doing “reasonably well” in UK companies, yet hardly 12 per cent of FTSE100 companies’ directors are women. Looking at a broader spectrum of FTSE250 companies, the percentage is even more alarming: 7.8 per cent. To ensure a target of 25 per cent women in the boardroom of FTSE250 companies in 2015, hundreds more women will have to be appointed.
Would that be possible? The argument is that there are not enough women to fill in the positions. Some would argue the debate is academic. It is a matter of substance over hype and politics. But the truth is, progress has been painful if at all.

I attended the Chairmen’s Power Breakfast organised by the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development in Kuala Lumpur not too long ago. It was to refresh the government’s commitment that women must make up 30 per cent of the top decision-making positions in companies and elsewhere. The deadline is 2016. We were told that public listed companies (PLCs) must set out the percentage of women they plan to be on board in the next five years. In short, the government is looking at stronger women participation in Corporate Malaysia to ensure gender equality and diversity.

The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Razak, pointed out that while 62 per cent of students at tertiary level are women, it is not easy to have women taking up 30 per cent of decision-making positions in the country. He called upon government-linked companies (GLCs) and government-investment companies to promote at least one woman to their board of directors. He believed his government’s transformation plan would not happen “if less than 50 per cent of its people are not empowered.”

Let’s face it. The world of politics has not been fair to women. There are 3.5 billion women in the world today living in 192 countries and territories, yet only 17 have women as heads of state. Of course, there are names such as Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, and more recently, Park Geun Hy, Helle Thorning-Schmid, Dilma Rouseff, Yingluck Shinawatra and Angela Merkel. Some are heads of states in almost ungovernable places. Look at Merkel, the new Iron Lady of Europe. The future of the European Union (EU) literally hinges on her shoulders.  

Poor Julia Gillard, the former Prime Minister of Australia! Hardly three years at the helm and she was ousted by her party. There has been furious discussion about her physique, her nose, her voice, and even that she knitted a red kangaroo for Prince William and Kate Middleton. She can’t knit because she’s a prime minister? She can’t show her domestic (feminine) side? Come on mates, you can’t get any more misogynist than that!

Again, it is a gender issue. It is one of appropriation. One that defines women today. Where they are, who they are. It is also about their history, their claim to legitimacy. And more importantly, their “history” – I mean H.I.S.T.O.R.Y should be re-looked. History after all is HIS story not HER story, the “misogyny” in the discourse must be discarded. It is insulting to look at history as we know it from a jaundiced premise.
The argument has always been that women have been rendered second-class citizens in the reading of history. Some feminists agree that one of the crucial points of revision in the history of feminist thought is the notion of representation.

History is after all written by the victors, not the vanquished, and women have always been at the periphery playing supporting roles to the other sex. Feminists have been arguing about their own HER story. There have been arguments and counter-arguments, some conspiratorial in nature, trying to look at history differently. I found Elise Boulding’s book intriguing to say the least, entitled The Underside of History: A View of Women Through Time (in two volumes). It is written to “correct a massive injustice” perpetrated against women. The author argues that there has been regrettably “a wholesale omission of recognition” for women’s contribution to civilisation.

She believes there is a need “to recover women as part of history” so too, “the underside of human experience.” History, she argues has never been fair. Women depicted in history were merely queens, lovers and concubines. History as we know it has nothing to add to celebrate “the dynamics of equality.”

There were powerful women in literature and history, of course, but they were few and seldom iconised.

Boulding believes history has never been fair and truthful in representing women: the celebration of individuality applies only to men. Little wonder, in landmark publications such as Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, Michele Barret’s Women Oppression Today , Toril Moi’s Sexual Textual Politics to Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, women are portrayed as victims of patriarchal societies.

Boulding even questioned the method of writing history – history has a serious sampling problem. The so-called “liberal West” looks upon itself as the centre of the universe. “The history of humankind has been written as if it were the history of Western men,” she argues. Women were lumped as “The Other” – which includes everyone else other than the Western White Men – Asians, Latin Americans, Blacks, Hispanics, you name it.

On her part, Boulding includes thinkers, reformers, intellectuals, adventurers, artists, farmers, villagers, servants, gypsies, spoon makers, entertainers, whores. She touches on the women of Greece, Egypt, China and those from the Muslim world.
Inclusivity? You can’t fault her for that.

Last but not least, she argues for the case of “the social order ringed by a women’s culture.” In short, the dynamics of the oppression of the patriarchal construct have yet to be addressed.
We can’t fault anyone for being cynical about women’s progress in today’s world. We still talk about violence on women, women trafficking, poverty among women, women’s rights, polygamous men, not to mention an array of issues ranging from women’s standing in society to representation of women in the corporate board. As I have pointed out earlier, progress has been made but too painfully slow.

There are many issues bedeviling women here in this country – violence against them is one.  Poverty is another. Perhaps there is no one phrase that has been thoroughly politicised as ibu tunggal (single mothers). In a patriarchal society, it is incumbent upon women to prove their helplessness if they wish to get aid or help.

Our religious establishment has been notoriously unfair to women. Our legal system too – especially the syariah courts – needs rethinking. In this country, it is increasingly more difficult to voice out contrarian views about anything – we are simply too divided by politics.

Even sensible, clever and open views from Sisters-in-Islam are eyed with suspicion. The voice of the moderates, despite the prime minister’s obsession about the Coalition of the Moderates and taking the wassatiayah route, is stifled, marginalised. The noisy few are frightening everyone.

The holier-than-thou positions, the need to play to the gallery, the fear factor as not to offend the traditionalists, and many more, are endangering the route to fairness in the gender war. Women are losing. 

I always believe the status of women in society is the crucial marker of how “society is doing.” Dominance is the dirty word in explaining gender politics. But as Boulding suggests, women need to search for alternatives to dominance and hierarchy in social organisations and human relationships in order to eliminate the injustices inflicted upon them by society. 

Again, what do women want? The media, I must confess, has not been helpful in finding answers to that question. The media has been accused of thriving on beauty, glamour, sex, lies and democracy, though not necessarily in that particular order.  But the portrayal of women in the media – and now in the creative content industry – has not changed much over the years. If Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives are the indicators, we are still positing the image of women as glamourous, amorous and feeling utterly deprived. Liberation is redefined by the producers and writers as that of women feeling free to choose (mostly men) and succumbing to the pressures of modern life.

What happened? What went wrong?

The last time I checked, the feminist sisters have been at the forefront to address issues of inequality in societies. Or is it too confined to academia that very little has trickled out? Out there, it is still business as usual.
Whatever happened to the voice of women’s own? The feminist discourse is not only obsessed with the idea of a language of their own from the linguistic perspective, a dictionary of their own, but also modes and approaches of expression concurrent to the movement. The French feminists are the ones who give an entirely new meaning to the concept of feminist language.
Julia Kristeva set out to deconstruct the old disciplinary barriers between linguistics, rhetoric and poetics in order to construct a new kind of field; semiotics and textual theory. From Gayatri Spivak we begin to understand the feminist treatment of certain terms deemed insulting to women. Luce Irigaray’s critique of “phallocentric identity” is certainly most powerful and persuasive. Christine Holmund pointed out to the role of metaphor, language and experience in her work, and the role of history, ideology and politics.
Feminism in the fervent effort to find “itself” has not only to posit a strong, “self-righteous comparison,” but also an equally forceful rejection of “Others.” The men are accused of demonstrating male chauvinist and misogynist tendencies in their writings: At the height of the feminist movement a decade ago, the feminists rejected even the institution of family and marriage. The so-called “lunatic fringe of radical feminism” reaches its climax when sperm is labeled as a “virulent poison” and sexual abstinence is considered as one of women’s “political goals”.

Again, let’s get back to reality and look at the current situation. To be honest, women have their own voice now. Even in places where women are not even allowed to vote or drive a car and girls not allowed to go to schools, things are changing albeit slowly. Women are never taken for granted now. The audacity of Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl who defied the Talibans and was brutally shot, was heart-wrenching as much as it was uplifting to the spirit. She survived.  To you and me, education is for all, including girls. Even the Bangladeshi girl (Fatima Sheikh) chosen to play her in a forthcoming film is faced with death threats.
Not all girls are lucky. Not all women are lucky.

Yes, there are reasons for celebration. I wouldn’t be too alarmed by this book though, The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin. The blurb says, men have been the dominant sex since the dawn of mankind. But this is no longer true. We are at an unprecedented moment in history, claims the author.

Tell that to Yousafzai and the women oppressed and without a voice in many countries in the world today.

I don’t have any problem in there being a new world order with regards to women. And yes, “the rise of women” will have a profound effect on marriage, sex, children, work, families and society. We are ever ready to make adjustments. But it is not all about celebrating the fact that women are no more playing catch-up with men, there is also the need to look at millions of those forgotten women – enduring male dominance and misogynist mindset to live a reasonably happy live.

And the question: Are women happier now?

I found this news item interesting, “Feminism is dead, study claims.” It says, feminism is dead and most women believe they have achieved equality with men, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) of the UK proudly announced. It said a majority of women despise new equality laws as no more than “artificial engineering.”

The report says, an EOC study – commissioned to mark the 75th anniversary of the extension of the vote to all women – appears to spell the end of the brand of feminism that blossomed at the end of the bra-burning era of the Sixties. Another report gleefully mentioned this, “today’s bras are too pretty and pricey to be burned en masse, as some activists purportedly did in the era of the failed Equal Rights movement.” Others argue feminism is now a spent force.

There is another piece alongside the findings of the EOC study. It is about the demise of feminism. And interestingly, there is also a review of a new book by one of the ideologues of feminism, Noami Wolf.

The title, Vagina.

Seriously, where do women go from here? I have no answer to the question.  But I also believe that the demise of feminism is an exaggeration.  I have great respect for feminist thinkers abroad and at home. I am happy to know of the likes of Dr. Ruzy Suliza Hashim and gang who have helped to revitalise some ideas on the discourse. I understand it is not easy to even to teach a full-fledged subject as feminism in a university in Malaysia.

Feminist studies or gender studies have helped raise women’s consciousness on their existence and identity. Long before feminism became a catchword, the question of women emancipation has always been a contentious one. If you look at the rise of Malay novels in this country, the first few were about women and progressive women at that. Mind you, Hikayat Faridah Hanum (Syed Sheikh Ahmad Al Hadi) and Iakah Salmah (Ahmad Rashid Talu) were written in the 1920s.

Feminism has helped redefine womenhood – their liberation, regaining their identities and voices.

I wonder what the future holds in these times of same-sex marriage and greater demands for transparency in matters pertaining to policies regarding women in many countries. Yet, there are many issues pertaining to women today that demand more than a discourse in academia. These thoughts must be permeated and trickled down to the masses. It is eventually about men and women working together for the betterment of societies.

I agree with Sandberg that women must acknowledge true equality still eludes them. And both men and women have “to understand and acknowledge how stereotypes and biases cloud our beliefs and perpetuate the status quo.”  She argues, instead of ignoring our differences, “we need to accept and transcend them.”

Cynicism won’t help.

That is the biggest lesson I learned in my years of experience trying to understand women issues – as a journalist and an editor, with a pinch perhaps, of the Ruthven complex.