Not too long ago, I attended a session with prominent women leaders. It was informative, and the exchanges and people who were present indicated a growing awareness, desire and need for feminism in Malaysia. Or maybe, just a recognition of it.
But I couldn’t help but wonder about the term feminism. If I were to discuss the concept of feminism with kampung men and women, would they understand it?
I know enough that when you enter the kampung, you cannot speak in the manner or language that we normally do. You must speak in their’s.
How am I to explain postmodern feminism, Judith Butler and Christine Pankhurst to them? Would they be able to grasp the concept or would they think I’m a nutter?
The concept of feminism has been evolving since the 1800s.
The Western world saw one of the first events in the history of feminism in Christine Pankhurst’s fight for the right to practise law. She was a fellow alumni of The University of Manchester’s Law School.
But to strip it of all definitions, the core of feminism is a woman’s freedom to do whatever she wants.
Feminism encompasses many things. A woman probably does not need to have a successful career to embrace feminism. She only needs to be able to do what she wants.
This means that it is perfectly okay to want to be a housewife. But it is obviously not okay for a woman to allow herself to be physically and psychologically abused and accept it. That is where efforts should be channelled to boost awareness of the fine line that exists between feminists and non-feminists.
I realise that, all this while, feminism has been instilled in us. We may not realise it, but if you look for it, it is there. It can be found in Malay tradition and much can also be said about Chinese Hakka women.
As a proud Kelantanese, Cik Siti Wan Kembang is a fine example of an indomitable woman whose presence is felt in the East Coast. She is represented in the Kelantan state emblem in the form of a kijang, her favourite animal. A distinguished female warrior, she went into battle on horseback with sword in hand.
Even if she was nothing more than a legend, her acceptance and recognition in today’s conservative Asian society holds significance. She is equal in rank, in terms of admiration, with Hang Tuah. It tells us a lot about our society that once was.
In the south of the peninsula, you will find Negri Sembilan’s Adat Perpatih — a matrilineal culture that emphasises the importance of a woman in a family, because its pride and dignity originates from the mother.
Its focus on the mother instead of the father, is very familiar to those who believe in the Western idea of feminism. It also fits with the idea of equality, where a woman is treated as equally important as a man.
As for the Hakka women in the region, Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter proudly writes of herself as a Hakka descendant — strong and hardworking women who would stand guard with guns as their husbands worked in the mines.
It reminds me of the images that decorated the pages of my Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia Sejarah textbooks — women in baju kurung and tudung with senapang in hand, led by the late Ketua Kaum Ibu Khatijah Sidek, protecting Malaya from its enemies.
Today, it needs to be said that feminism is present in Malaysia in its own unique way.
As an example, women in hijab dominate the fashion scene. Vivy Yusof, a woman who has become the Malaysian face, icon, and an idol to many hijabis and mothers have redefined the meaning of being a mother in 2016.
The emergence of Lean In Malaysia and events organised by women for women seem to indicate growing strength in today’s Malaysian women. There are also other highly successful women in the arts and culture industry that have made their mark in Malaysia and abroad — Yuna, Zee Avi and Nicol David.
The fact of the matter is there is evidence, though slight, that feminism existed in our culture before the arrival and recognition of a Western defined feminism in Malaysia.
Perhaps the idea of feminism is subjective and different from one person to another, which probably would explain the changes in the definition that has taken place from time to time, and the emergence of different kinds of feminism in academia, from postmodern feminists to radical feminists.
One thing everyone might agree on is that, at the very least, we might have a slight hint of feminism in Malaysia, an awareness of the importance of women embedded in our culture a long, long time ago.
One that permits us to say: “Who said feminism wasn’t culturally available before the Western ideas and interpretation were recognised in our nation?”
Tengku Nur Qistina Petri is a granddaughter of the country’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj. She is a fresh law graduate trying hard to find her place after spending some time in northern England at The University of Manchester. Always probing into discussions, she most often regrets not doing Politics, Philosophy and Economics