Gender equality - everyone should speak up

I'LL get straight to it this week.

It's time men spoke up to call for women to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

It's about time men like me - men who have been enjoying the privileges of a society skewed in our favour - speak up along with women in their call for equality.

And it's about time men like me step up and openly issue an unconditional and open apology to the women we have offended over the years, either through crude locker room humor that demeans or objectifies women or through the perpetuation of sexist stereotypes of a "woman's role" through overt act.

Or by failing to speak up when we should have.

And that is something that I am guilty of myself, and this is why I am taking the step here to apologise to all the women I've offended for all my personal missteps over the years.

I am truly sorry for all the crass and insensitive humour and conversation topics, not speaking up for you when I should have and underestimating and demeaning you when I should have known better and stopped, indeed for abusing my privilege as a man to get away from censure.

Writing this week's In Your Face would be an act of hypocrisy and gross negligence if I didn't openly face up to my own past sexism and openly resolve to put a stop to it.

I have had this topic on my mind for a couple of months now, ever since a conversation in August triggered an awakening in me. I was buying something from a re-seller who deals through Facebook and Whatsapp and I mentioned that I was currently out of the country on an overseas assignment.

While I won't name him, I'll share the conversation.

He sent me a message that asked me how the "chicks" were, and I was taken back for a second. Did he mean what I think he meant?

Sure enough, he did. And when I tried to point it out that it was sexist and demeaning to refer to a woman as a "chick" and not a person, he tried to wave it off by saying that "it's a norm".

He then sent me a message that basically equated women to food I could order to have served to me by nationality.

It read, among other terms; "American-Chick. British-Fish & Chips. Vietnam-Poh Piah. Thailand-Tomyam. China-Peking Duck."

And that struck me as something so very wrong - aside from the racial connotations -  and at that moment a chain of thoughts was triggered in me. I replied that women are people, and not to be demeaned by being equated to food to be ordered to be served to me. And the trigger didn't stop there.

I couldn't help but wonder what could I do to speak up, to do my part to create a Malaysia where more people are seen equals and as people, regardless of their gender. After all, this wasn't the first time I had encountered this kind of sexism.

The spark ultimately grew into a fire with Nepal joining the ranks of nations to have elected a woman as their Head of State when the president of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) Bidhya Devi Bhandari was sworn into office on October 29.

I was also reminded of the HeForShe campaign of the United Nations, which calls on all genders to work together to bring about equality and end discrimination.

And as always, this got me speaking to the experts and activists who have been working in this area, such as Lawyers for Liberty legal/campaign coordinator Michelle Yesudas.

Yesudas had a very solid point. We have to start with the basics at the grassroots level.

"There are stereotypes and socialization processes that produce inequality such as child marriage or discrimination in education. We have to work on the ground and start with the basic idea that girls and women deserve equal opportunities for education and employment," said Yesudas.

She gave a practical example of how men could speak up to bring about a more gender-equal Malaysia.

"Men need to be more critical of policies, legislation and legislators - when your Member of Parliament makes sexist statements especially in their capacity of being a MP. It would be very powerful if men stepped up to show they have zero tolerance for such sexist acts, comments or even laws passed," said Yesudas.

She added that education was also important in working to improve gender equality in Malaysia, saying that schools need to be equipped to recognise and teach gender equality.

"Teachers should not promote gender inequality, and should always call out on sexism and bullying - it should be part of the curriculum. We already have subjects like Moral and Civics, it would only take a little tweaking to improve the syllabus and promote better relationships between children of different genders," she said.

Yesudas suggested that fathers can be more involved in school activities to build a more gender-equal curriculum.

"It is very important for both men and women to work together to create a better environment, more room for dialogue and engagement which would then lead to improved policies and an improved, safer environment for all genders," she said.

She did add that there was some good news in this arena for Malaysia, pointing out that Malaysia has shown itself to be capable of producing high numbers of female graduates.

"From what I've seen, there are quite a few men in Malaysia who are very keen on working towards gender equality. Credit must be given where it is due. Of course we can always improve - there is civil society participation, there is the participation of legislators, said Yesudas.

She also had a message for the media - one that I'm certainly going to take heed of as a media man.

"Pay attention to tell men very basic things, such as to stop stereotyping, and to take sexual harassment and sexual violence seriously. Civil society, government institutions and social institutions need to work together towards gender equality," said Yesudas.

And she has a point, taking it all in. We - and by "we" I mean everyone  - definitely have our work cut out for us. All of us must work together.

Because a fairer, more equal society that does not discriminate will make us all stronger together. Can we make that step forward together? 

Tan Yi Liang

Tan Yi Liang believes that people have more positive power in their hands than they realise. He wants to prove this - and challenge readers by speaking to experts, and getting right "In Your Face".