Let's Talk: Do we all need to be feminists?
By Lisa Twang, Apr 08, 2021
In our final story of Dayre celebrates International Women’s Day series, “What I'm Choosing to Challenge in My Country”, we dig deep and ask why we need more feminists in Singapore.
On paper, Singapore feels like a great place to be a feminist: in 2020, our country was ranked 11th in the world for gender equality by the United Nations.1 Last year, our government also called for a review of women’s issues to make gender equality a fundamental value of society.
Feminism is defined as the belief that individuals of all genders should have equal rights and opportunities, and that this has not yet been achieved in society. To put it simply, a feminist believes in equality for all genders.
But there’s also a lot of confusion about what it means to be ‘feminist’. It can be negatively associated with being aggressive, man-bashing, anti-feminine. In anti-woke culture, some people also mock feminists for being social justice warriors: shallow, insincere, and making too much of a fuss about gender equality.
We talk about why calling ourselves feminists is so important, and why we should all care about living in a more gender-equal society.
Am I a feminist? Yes, I am: but I also know that not everyone understands what it really means to be one.
To me, a feminist believes women deserve equal rights and opportunities to men, and that we should not be discriminated against because of our gender. I believe that unfair patriarchal stereotypes like ‘women are the weaker sex’ shouldn’t have a place in society at all. I’m also inspired by amazing feminists like Michelle Obama, who famously said: “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.”
As a mother, I’m raising my five-year-old daughter Tully to challenge gender stereotypes. I tell her girls can do whatever boys can. Sometimes, she comes home from school and tells me girls can’t do this and that, and I show her it’s not true. When Tully told me, “Girls can’t build houses, right?”, my husband and I showed her a YouTube video of a young woman who built a house from scratch. I saw how excited she was when she realised that being a girl wouldn’t stop her from accomplishing something.
I want for my daughter what I want for all women: to be seen as an unique individual, who is more than her sex or gender. That’s what being a feminist is to me: believing that we can all be seen and treated equally.
The true meaning of feminism has become complicated over time, because there are so many flawed beliefs about it.
Kelly Leow, 30, Communications Manager at AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), believes there are plenty of misconceptions about feminism in Singapore.
“For example, people may believe feminism is about granting women more rights and opportunities than men; that it is about “hating men”, being ‘too angry’, ‘too radical’ and so on,” she says.
“These ideas can unfortunately obscure the fairly simple definition of feminism we’ve mentioned: wanting equality for all genders.”
As a feminist, I certainly don’t “hate men”. Some man-hating women may identify as feminists, but that doesn’t mean all feminists hate men in principle. Neither am I “too angry”. Sure, I get angry when I read yet another article about a local woman who is sexually assaulted, while her assailant gets off with a slap on the wrist. And I was indignant when I found out recently that four in 10 women in Singapore face sex discrimination at work.2 But feminism, to me, isn’t about hatred or pure anger. It’s about taking that righteous anger about sexism and misogyny, and using it to bring about true gender equality.
Naysayers believe problems like gender inequality don’t truly exist, and that feminists are making an unnecessary fuss. In Singapore, a survey showed that 47 per cent of people believed gender equality had already been achieved here, and that men and women were treated equally.3
“This leads AWARE to think many Singaporeans are fairly apathetic to feminism: if you perceive that gender equality exists, you would not see a need to fight against oppressive systems, laws and practices,” says Kelly. It’s no wonder feminists can be seen as radicals, if many believe we’re needlessly pushing for gender equality when we already have it.
“However, there are major areas of gender inequality in Singapore. For example, there’s an uneven share of unpaid care and domestic work (women in Asia Pacific spend 4.1 times more time on household and caregiving work than men)4. There is gender discrimination at work, such as a 16.3 per cent unadjusted gender pay gap.5 These are areas that have not seen significant practical improvement in years, and require urgent attention.”
Though I believe in feminism and gender equality, I sometimes struggle to stand up for my beliefs, and avoid using the word ‘feminist’ in daily life because it can feel aggressive.
On March 8, my male taxi driver surprised me by wishing me: “Happy International Women’s Day!” We then went on to chat about women’s rights and female empowerment.
Later, I realised that at no point in our talk did I refer to feminism or call myself a feminist. I realised I’d unconsciously done that because I didn’t want to be seen as aggressively pushing the agenda of feminism.
While talking to most people on a daily basis, I usually fall back on my standard line: “I believe that men and women should be equal, and that women deserve equal rights.” It’s a safe statement that’s unlikely to be challenged, at least in polite society (some dark, sexist corners of the Internet are a whole different story).
The ‘feminist’ label can feel limiting. For many, it represents an entire movement they can’t fully agree with, even if they believe in gender equality.
While writer Jemma Wei (Dayre user @jemmawei), 28, proudly calls herself a feminist, she understands why not everyone wants to be known as one. “People hesitate to associate themselves with labels, because it's difficult to find a label that aligns a hundred percent with your personal and ever-shifting, maturing ethos,” Jemma points out.
“Labels can be very good: they can consolidate conversations and power, and propel movements forward. But a label like ‘feminist’ is also a signifier that attracts assumptions, strips nuance, and cannot possibly hope to fully convey the same meaning for everyone. So it's natural to resist labels, even if your beliefs and actions are aligned with them.
“Perhaps you believe in equal rights, but you aren't comfortable with the activism aspect of feminism. Or you're not willing to engage in debate with someone who doesn't believe gender discrimination exists, and can afford to avoid the trouble.”
Lina Marican, who is 36 and a managing director for public relations firm Mutant Communications, agrees that she prefers not to call herself a feminist, though she’s an advocate for women’s rights.
“I don't label myself a feminist as the term itself invokes an aggressive, one-sided perception of fighting for gender equality,” she says. “For me, it’s good to have conversations about gender equality and feminism, because that’s how change starts. But for people in positions of power, like politicians or business leaders, it’s important to follow up with real, structural change so women get a fair shot in whatever path they choose to take: such as providing flexi hours for working mothers who want to pursue a career.”
Being called to defend my beliefs as a feminist can be daunting. It’s another reason why I don’t always want to call myself a feminist: I feel the pressure to talk the talk, and walk the walk.
By identifying as a feminist, I’m aligning myself to an ideal and cause that’s so much bigger than myself. How can I ever hope to speak on behalf of other women: slightly more than half of Singapore’s population of 5.7 million? In such a diverse group of women: citizens, migrant spouses, mothers, singles, divorcees and so on, our needs can be radically different. Speaking up for myself and other women here seems like an impossible task.
Sometimes I feel guilty calling myself a feminist when I’m not an activist. I don’t campaign for women’s rights, lead women’s organisations, or donate to them. I’m just one mother, raising a daughter who will hopefully call herself a feminist too, someday.
Still, I’m learning to be more confident about calling myself a feminist. Since I believe in feminism and gender equality, I want to own the term ‘feminist’ and what it stands for.
In her landmark book and TED talk, We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made her case for why we should reclaim the word ‘feminist’. “‘Feminist’ is so heavy with negative baggage. You hate men, you hate bras… that sort of thing,” she says.
“(But) a feminist is a man or woman who says, “Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it. We must do better.”
I’m not out to force people to agree with me that gender inequality is a real issue. But I do think it’s possible and important to gently persuade people and help them understand why feminism is important, and hopefully help them see why they should care about it.
"In my experience, many people in Singapore find feminism an abstract concept; or they think that Singapore is already very progresive in terms of opportunities for women, so there should not be anything to fight for,” says Huifen Zheng, 38, a board member at AWARE.
“But when we relate feminism to everyday issues, like workplace discrimination, or the burden of caregiving on mums, it becomes more personal for them. They see how gender equality affects them and the women in their lives, and that's when the push on gender issues becomes real and relatable."
While Singapore is a safe, progressive country, it’s clear that we can still do better for gender equality. We need more feminists who can help tackle the big issues women face: workplace discrimination, insidious gender bias, the burden of caregiving, our wage gap, and unequal representation in politics (only 29 per cent of our parliament is female). And we can look at new ways to help women, such as passing laws granting women who’ve gone through miscarriage paid maternity leave, as New Zealand did recently.
We also need more men to be feminists. Creating a more gender-equal society isn’t just for the good of women: men stand to benefit, too.
More gender equal societies report higher life satisfaction, better health, and lower levels of stress.6 People feel less weight from gendered expectations, such as men having to provide financially for the household alone, or women needing to spend an unequal amount of time on caregiving.
Knowing this reminds me that feminism isn’t about putting women ahead of men. It’s about working together so we can all be more free to be ourselves, and not be limited by gender roles.
At an AWARE meeting on Zoom recently, I noticed two men in a sea of female attendees, who asked how they too could support women like their wives, mothers and daughters. I’ve been so used to talking about feminism with my female friends, I often forget we need men as our allies too.
I’m encouraged by the fact that there are male feminists here, who believe in gender equality and want to help. And I’m hopeful that their numbers can grow, so we can all work together towards gender equality.
To live as a feminist, I think actions speak louder than words. It’s not enough to believe in gender equality: we can also do our part through simple daily acts.
Being a feminist and advocating gender equality doesn’t always have to be so formal and involve volunteer work, or grand speeches. Perhaps it’s typing a supportive comment to a friend, who shares her frustration about casual sexism she’s experienced on social media. Or telling our stories when we struggle with workplace discrimination against women, so we don’t have to suffer in silence and can find comfort in others who’ve had similar experiences.
We can create safe spaces for women to have conversations, and show kindness by offering a listening ear or calling out negative gender stereotypes like: “Girls are bad at math”, when we see them
At the end of the day, if you believe in gender equality, then you are a feminist. And I hope more of us will not only call ourselves feminists, but take action to create a gender equal society for everyone.
As Singaporeans, we’ve been raised with meritocracy as a core value: that each of us should be valued based on our talents, achievements, and efforts. And this desire for equality for all is at the heart of feminism. “I think many people in Singapore believe in equal rights and opportunities, but may not use the word ‘feminist’,” says teacher Xiaole Hu, 34.
“I think people who are afraid of the word ‘feminist’ often don’t really understand what it means. If they know the definition of feminism, are secure about themselves and their abilities, and believe in meritocracy, what’s there to be afraid of? Equal rights and opportunities are the way to move a society forward, and I think both men and women will benefit from this.”
As Chimamanda says, we should all be feminists. I want to reclaim that term, knowing that to be feminist means we believe in gender equality.
I may not lead conversations going, “Hi, I’m Lisa and I’m a feminist”, but I’ll carry on talking about gender equality, and why being feminists is something we all ought to aspire to. To me, that’s what feminism is really about.
1 The United Nations Human Development Report 2020 (Gender Inequality Index) surveyed 189 countries.
2 The Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry survey on gender issues in the workplace, conducted from November to December 2020. Close to 400 people in Singapore took part in the survey.
3 The Ipsos and AWARE survey on gender equality and sexual harassment in 2019. Over 1,000 Singaporeans and PRs were surveyed.
5 The Ministry of Manpower Comprehensive Labour Force survey in 2018, of full-time workers aged between 25 and 64 from 33,000 households.
This is the sixth and final part of our six-part International Women’s Day series "What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country".
Click here to read our story on normalising periods in the United Kingdom, here to understand why transgender women in Malaysia need our help, here to read about the fight against child marriage in the African continent, here to find out about supporting working women in Hong Kong, and here for our op ed on how we might be inadvertently victim-blaming and how we can do better and be better.
Photo by @mentatdgt on Pexels.
My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve shared how I stopped my husband from using negative stereotypes like saying my daughter Tully “runs like a girl” when she’s uncoordinated, and how much I appreciate my mother’s sacrifice to become a stay-home mum to my brother, sister, and I.
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