23rd Febuary: Women’s Rights

Date and Time: 23 February 2013, 1.15pm – 4pm
Venue: E1-09, Humanities Room
Present: Lee Si Yuan, Lim Yi Herh Ansel1, Ng Ri Chi2, Soon Hao Jing2, Tan Yong How Jonathan, Tian Junfu2, Zhou Ruohua
Absent (with reason): Lim Yi Fei, Stanley Quek Tee Kai

1Denotes moderator        2Denotes recorders

DETAILS OF DISCUSSIONS

Pursuant to a motion passed at the end of the previous meeting, it was decided that today’s discussion topic would be ‘women’s rights’. Ansel gave a brief introductory speech to open the discussions. He spoke of discrimination against women as part of a problem affecting many countries, and the empowerment of women as a part of a solution to many of today’s socio-economic problems. Speaking about the claim that ‘Educate a man and you educate a person, but educate a woman and you educate an entire nation,’ Ansel spoke of education as helping to reduce the difference in status of the two genders, and also a means by which to liberate women. Mentioning the emergence of more female political leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany, Park Geun-hye of South Korea, Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Ansel asked whether women’s rights might be further boosted by the rise of women in politics, and stated his hope to examine women’s rights today to understand its importance.

On what immediate short-term measures there might be to help reduce the most egregious forms of discrimination against women, especially in third world countries, members instead chose to approach this question by taking a longer detour. Members crafted a coherent narrative to help us understand why today’s societies and systems seem to favour men, or are dominated by men. The rise of agricultural societies and the emergence of nation-states and feudalism were factors that also engendered patriarchalism, or chauvinism. Agricultural activities were exhausting and also required much human labour. Hence men, whose physical strength was stronger than women’s, were more highly valued. Also, patriarchal families and societies had an incentive to control women’s reproductive capabilities, so that families would not die out and societies would not run out of agricultural labour. The frequency of military warfare, even up to modern times, also meant that men were valued over women in another manner – whereas men could be relied upon to fight for the king, later the nation-state, in organized militaries, women could only be homemakers who were also an important liability that men had to protect (from other men).

Members then examined the economic value of women as members of societies. Junfu pointed out that in India, many less well-off rural families tend to abort female foetuses or practice infanticide to get rid of daughters, due to economic reasons. Families marrying off their daughters in India are widely expected to provide substantial dowries [officially outlawed] to the groom and his family, so that the groom can care for his wife’s well-being. Less well-off parents may view daughters as unworthy investments (they are married off to the groom, and will benefit his family instead). Also, it might appear that these women are also viewed by grooms’ families as economic burdens, to the extent where daughters-in-law have to come with their own store of personal belongings and finances to ensure the groom’s family does not lose out. Jonathan Tan raised the point that now, women, who are increasingly being educated, are expected to contribute economically as workers, not just homemakers. It was questioned whether such education provided to women was truly liberating for them. Jonathan also questioned whether men’s standards are being unfairly imposed onto women, who have additional duties to their families, and whether societies might actually lose more by putting women to work, because women might no longer be able to tend to their households (homemakers do bring about economic benefits for society, although these aren’t usually quantified) as well as before.

Ansel refocused the discussion on short-term measures to combat the symptoms of excessive gender discrimination. Members proposed several ways to curb excessive sexual discrimination: (1) empowering women financially while not hindering them from caring for their households, by offering the option to participate in cottage industries, or work from home; (2) improving law enforcement and expediting police and legal processes to encourage women to seek redress for violence against them through law courts. Out of concerns about the long-term demographic effects of large-scale female infanticide [cf. ‘missing women’ in India], stronger measures to enforce bans on revealing foetal gender through ultrasound scans was also proposed – though members quickly realized that desperate parents would still find other means to rid themselves of female babies. Members then discussed if making it a duty for husbands to pay their housewives salaries, thus empowering them financially – however, members could not see extraordinary merits in doing so. In concluding this segment of discussions, members largely agreed that short term measures, defined as quantifiable measures, especially enforceable ones, cannot ‘cure’ the underlying causes, which can only be changed through education and public discourse.

Members explored the sex trade next, and how it might victimize women. The trade in this part of Asia is fuelled by criminal syndicates who sometimes exploit weak border controls and corrupt officials to traffick women sex workers, in order to satisfy customers. Members then discussed if prostitution was entirely dehumanising, as although some may view it as exploitative, others might view it as a legitimate kind of work for women who choose so. There was also the question whether it is a woman’s right to engage in such sex work, citing the existence of freelance workers in the trade. Members also noted that with better law enforcement and better public knowledge, women could avoid being cheated by criminal syndicates into travelling away from home to seek ‘better employment’. Members then noted that strict border control, improved protection of women, better security as well as stricter enforcement and punishment of traffic offenders goes a long way in protecting women.

Later on, Ansel briefly shared an article discussing the psychological effects of discrimination. While experts affirmed in the article that [because one’s self-esteem is based on others’ valuation of oneself] discrimination against victims or groups of victims could harm victims’ perceptions of self-worth, thus disempowering them, experts also raised the possibility that victims might instead also gain a means to ‘discount’ certain personal failings, by instead blaming their shortcomings or circumstances on external factors, such as those perpetrators of discrimination. This was followed by a series of brief considerations about other matters.

A quote was shared: ‘Educate a man and you educate a person. Educate a woman and you educate an entire nation.’ This quote reveals an underlying belief that whereas men can be expected to fend for themselves economically, as individuals, women play a different role in society – as nurturers, they form the axis of families, which are the units of societies. Si Yuan pointed out a concern about the nature of the ‘education’ referenced by the quote – if this education is merely technical, and moreover influenced by gender-discriminatory beliefs, such an education can at best integrate women into a workforce and economic system that is dominated and dictated by men.

Regarding a thought-provoking question (also the title of a book), ‘What if women ruled the world?’, members shared some views about what women might be able to bring to the table in terms of governance and politics. Whereas members hoped that women politicians, who might be expected to form a greater proportion of legislators and leaders in future, would bring to bear such ‘feminine’ qualities as cooperation, reconciliation and caring in the fields of governance, a member argued that in men and masculine traits – aggressiveness in defending interests, a desire for control, objectivity – were still needed in ‘realpolitik’. That member also wondered if, with women leaders in power, politics would become ‘all talk, no action’, as women, with a preference for cooperation and sharing, would be indecisive in making political decisions and ineffective in controlling and moving the course of developments in their preferred direction. However, members put forth a genuine doubt about whether or not this would happen at all. It was noted that thus far, most women political leaders might fit Margaret Thatcher’s ‘iron lady’ mould [or else be related to powerful male political figures by marriage or kinship]; members believed that it would require a total rewriting of politics, and the acquiescence and active participation of men in order to reshape politics and governance to accommodate female leaders and feminine qualities.

This finding was echoed in a quote by a feminist, ‘If you think equality is the goal, your standards are too low.’ This quote could be taken at face value to be a sexist statement by an ultra-feminist, who might harbour thoughts of avenging womankind on men through reverse discrimination. (It was suggested that ‘gender equality’ was a goal that feminism hoped to achieve. it was also suggested that whereas gender equality was such an ideal, feminism harbours more than just simple desires to elevate women to the same standing as men, and instead seeks to make women ‘more equal’ than men, as in Animal Farm [‘All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’].)However, if thought of differently, this statement by Laura Ehrenreich could also be taken as meaning that women should not simply acquiesce to be part of a system that discriminates against them, or even assimilate into that system, but actively change it so that gender discrimination can no longer happen.

MOTION PASSED REGARDING TWO SUBSEQUENT MEETINGS

Before this meeting was adjourned, Ansel tabled the idea of ‘Disabled Persons’ as a minority group whose rights and conditions could be discussed. However, members were ambivalent about it, and it was proposed that instead, the working poor and ‘economic underclass’ in general could be explored instead. This topic would have significant relevance to Singapore and would also be generalizable, as the working poor exist in every industrializing and industrialized state, even the US. However there were some objections to this, and it was also proposed that the issues and interests of the rich, as a minority group, should be explored. In opposition, Ansel put forth the idea of exploring indigenous communities’ rights. At first, there were concerns about this topic, due to the potential discussion of sensitive issues, including race in Malaysia and Singapore. However, members added to Ansel’s suggestion by agreeing to focus on social, economic and political rights and circumstances of minority groups in countries like New Zealand, Australia etc. It was agreed that these topics, ‘Indigenous Communities’ and ‘Economic Underclasses’, or ‘Inter-class Dynamics’, would be pursued in separate meetings, in that order, due to the breadth and depth of their scope. ■

RECORDERS                                           

NG RI CHI                              SOON HAO JING                               TIAN JUNFU

CO-PRESIDENT                      

ANSEL LIM

24 Feburary 2013

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