AT a recent workshop on ethnic relations with local university undergrads, I was struck by the earnest energies and the willingness to engage and debate each other across differences of ethnicity, class, sex, religion and culture on issues that confront us as Malaysians.
On deeper reflection, however, something else occurred to me. The young women were bright and passionate, but unlike the boys, many shied away when it came to presenting the outcome of their group discussions on their own.
For me, that was yet another piece of evidence that all the indicators trotted out to say women have made it – skyrocketing university intakes, this top politician or that chief executive officer – ring rather hollow when confronted with young women who feel unable to simply stand up and speak, bereft of the easy, public show of confidence expected of boys.
More evidence stares me right in the face on a daily basis: the young woman in Kuantan who told me she had been denied a job in a construction firm because she was a woman; a worker at a loss over how to cope with sexual harassment in her office; the girl who has to keep her homosexuality under wraps. They, too, feel unable to simply stand up and speak.
Under an All Women’s Action Society programme called Writers for Women’s Rights, a bunch of women have discovered the power of speaking out against sexism and bigotry in all forms.
My friends and I have learned to articulate our anger and frustrations at the injustice we see and experience by writing about it.
We have come to recognise that if we don’t speak, we are complicit in perpetuating those injustices.
It has not been an easy process. But we have gained a certain power in being able to speak the unspeakable.
We have also been forced to question our own ingrained biases and prejudices, a challenge we constantly struggle with.
But in a Malaysia where difference is so often used as a tool to frighten and divide, we choose to see our diversity as a blessing.
Ultimately, we are learning to value our voices when so often women’s voices have been undervalued, even unheard. Just take a look at history books and count how many women appear in them.
History is written by the victors, they say, but we believe the “losers” of history are those who have been silenced. So through our writing and our speaking, we are creating our own space in the Malaysian text.
When so much is at stake for our future, we hope more will join in. Malaysia needs more voices of change.
Abigail de Vries is programme officer for All Women’s Action Society (Awam). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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