Male Feminists: A Roundtable Discussion

UNMC, 11 April: Organized by PHIR NOTT and Projek Dialog, the male feminists roundtable discussion addressed relevant topical predicaments of feminism such as toxic masculinity, rape culture, the role of men as feminists, and the recent #metoo and #timesup movements. The panel comprised of Rizal Rozhan from EMPOWER, Kelvin Ang from WAO, Netusha Naidu from IMAGINED MALAYSIA, UNMC students Saran Anandan and Neda Al-Asedi, and moderated by Projek Dialog’s Victoria Cheng. 

The discussion started with Victoria directing questions at the panelists, relevant to their work,  to better understand their role in Malaysia’s feminist movement. 

Kelvin Ang from WAO 

Left to right: Rizal, Kelvin and Victoria

Kelvin Ang introduced himself as a community engagement officer from Women Aid Organization (WAO) which is an organization mainly focused on violence against women. They run a hotline, provide shelter, social service officers, and psychological support.  

When asked the reasons behind WAO’s focus on domestic violence and its importance, followed by whether WAO handled cases of rape and psychological abuse, Kelvin addressed the question with what he titled “a crash course in domestic violence”. Kelvin cited 5000 police reported cases of domestic violence around the country, pointing out that WAO believed that these were likely underreported. Moreover, he stated that two thirds of the victims were female, whereas one third were male. Kelvin explained that these statistics did not merely indicate and report on the gender of the parties involved but also the type of relationships they were involved in; father and daughter, husband and wife. A third of these statistics were of men abusing other men, sons abusing fathers, or father abusing sons, for example. This poses the question of why do men feel empowered to enact violence on their family members. 

On the importance of WAO work and achievements, Kelvin cited WAO opening their first shelter in 1982. Evidently, domestic violence was common in Malaysian society. Kelvin went on to declare that WAO’s next step is to have social workers work within the society. He pointed out that the change needs to come from within the society, to force the society to recognize it. Another area WAO is striving to make a change in is stalking which is not outlawed in Malaysian law currently. He remarked that preventing stalking from escalating is preventing possible future physical violence.  

When it comes to psychological abuse, it is a new area for WAO, yet they do have social workers who are there to help victims access medical attention, crisis centers, and counseling. As for rape, he indicated that it is part of domestic violence and unfortunately marital rape is not criminalized in Malaysia. In this regard, WAO is needed to address gender gaps in domestic violence, raise awareness of non-physical domestic violence, and network with other NGOs to address these issues.   

Rizal Rozhan – EMPOWER  

EMPOWER work revolves around increasing equality in politics by encouraging women’s political participation. 

He first touched upon how to increase the numbers of women in leadership and decision making roles. Rizal started by providing a relevant statistic – women make up 10% of the Malaysian parliament. Rizal suggested that for a systematic change to take course, the mindset of the society at large had to change. This will be facilitated by the reeducation of the public. EMPOWER strives to achieve this through advocacy for gender education in public schools as well as holding workshops for adults where they educate men and women on the importance of female leadership in society. He noted that this education was not exclusive to men as women have internalized patriarchal doubts of their leadership abilities.  

Netusha Naidu – IMAGINED MALASIA 

Left to right: Victoria, Netusha and Saran

Netusha, a second year PHIR student founded IMAGINED MALAYSIA, an organization that looks at alternative histories. It introduces forgotten and less-known historical knowledge, organize forums, workshops, and their first journal is coming out this year.  

Netusha was asked to share the parts of Malaysian history that are hidden and do not appear in textbooks, such as histories of women and LGBTQ people. Netusha presented various examples of this discarded part of Malaysian history from archived articles and photographs. She revealed an article of the riots that preceded the Malayan Emergency during the 1940s, when it was common for the police to attack and kill the workers involved. During this incident, the police attacked the workers, the majority of which were Indians preparing for Thaipusam, and joined by their families and children. The women had fronted the lines of these struggles, throwing hot water and chilly powder at the police in defense of their children and families. 

Then she showed a picture of two women giving a speech during a Malayan Union protest and revealed that women had an adequate space during those episodes to speak up, were well-read and articulated when it came to Malaya’s politics. Netusha noted that often feminism was pitted against Islam, however, it should not be seen as an opposing force. She presented an evidence of this in the form of AWAS, the female political wing established by Malay left wing party PKMM’s first chief, Dr. Burhanuddin Al-Helmy whose ideal was derived from Islamic reformism, was an advocate for the mobilization of women’s rights.  As another piece of evidence of Islamic thought being pro-feminism, she presented an article in an Islamic Reformist paper which encouraged women to leave their houses and take an active role in society.  

As for queer history, Netusha gave a number of examples being concealed which she attributed to it being thought of as a taboo. She gave an example of the Bugis community who believed that the soul had five genders and who considered transgenders and gender fluidity as a sign of spiritual elevation and piety.   

Left to right: Netusha, Saran and Neda

Neda Al-Asedi 

Neda, a third year student of ICS with English is the Performing Arts editor at IGNITE. 

Victoria inquired about Neda’s thoughts of the spread and rise of the #metoo and #timesup movements. Neda pointed out that though the #metoo movement had started since around 2006, it has only gained attention recently after the Harvey Weinstein case and predominantly in the US. She acknowledged the need for efforts to spread it in Malaysia. Then, Neda interestingly noted the lack of active male participation in the movement which she attributed to the probability that men thought of sexual harassment and abuse as a women’s issue. She implied that they were disinclined to speak up in fear of further marginalizing women. Nonetheless, for the movement to make any meaningful impact, men need to speak as well for themselves and for women.   

Saran Anandan 

Saran, a final year student in Biotech from UNMC, is the science and technology editor in IGNITE, currently running an investigative series on sexual harassment on campus.  

Saran addressed whether it was important for men to stand together with women in feminist issues, and why. This question was significant because of the men’s fear of subtracting from women’s space to speak and the need for men to speak on issues that affect not only women, but everyone such as toxic masculinity and patriarchy. Saran made an interesting point that men should act as allies as opposed to critics of the movement. They need to learn to listen and support women when they speak before beginning to criticize and attempt to direct the movement with their own opinions. 

Roundtable Discussion 

The first topic the table addressed was toxic masculinity. Netusha began by holding the media liable for a large portion of this issue. She explained that the media had the largest role in promoting and projecting gender stereotypes into the public. She humorously acknowledged that she was also not immune to this effect, having spent 200 ringgits in Sephora, trying to keep up with beauty standards.  Rizal then applauded her for showing that even those aware of this media influence, were affected by it.  

Rizal brought back the point to men, saying that it was due to men’s lack of reflection. Maryam Lee, a prominent writer and feminist on social media, added to Rizal’s point that reflection was not a necessity for men as much as it was for women who faced oppression throughout history. It was at this point that Netusha interjected, stating that in order for nuance to be added to the discussion capitalist forms of oppression are unavoidable. She also explained that men of color were oppressed by colonialism, specifically by the white colonist male. This has continued to this day in the form of the man possessing more capital oppressing the working-class man. Netusha ended her point by stating that men are oppressed by society’s expectations of them supporting their families and accomplishing social and financial success.  

Then Maryam Lee resumed her point to which she added that by centering the discourse of toxic masculinity around men would be to deny that it impacted women more gravely than men. She continued  by highlighting that this is a representation of how the world is built on patriarchy. She clarified that she does not deny men’s pursuit for opportunities, rather that the society tells men they do not need to struggle for opportunities. This was the conclusion of the diverse but informative thoughts on toxic masculinity.  

Q & A session 

During the Q & A session, Rizal was asked his opinion on the reason why men felt threatened by feminism. He answered that it was society’s patriarchal system of thought. He stated that this did not affect only men, but women as well. During EMPOWER’s Women Empowerment workshop, the most prominent struggle they had to deal with is that women could not conceive that they had the ability to lead. When engaging with other men on social media, Rizal noted that they were unable to understand the lack of accessibility to equality women faced, believing that equality between women and men was already achieved. Neda added that men had an irrational perception of a male feminist being a slave to his wife. 

The next question dealt with the concept of a bad feminist which generated different responses from the panel. Neda stated that the image of a bad feminist, an extreme man-hater was irrelevant to the movement, and even damaging to the reality of feminists who are understanding and open to discussion. Netusha on the other hand believed a bad feminist was one who lacked kindness. An example she gave was of prominent feminist figures in powerful positions who attacked other feminists for having different views or simply feeling threatened by them. Another example she provided was feminists who were intolerant of others’ personal convictions that did not line up with theirs. 

Rizal on the other hand disagreed with the legitimacy of the term and perceived it as a tactic used to dismiss the feminist movement to which Victoria agreed with. Victoria stated that she believes there is no such thing as a bad feminist, because every feminist has perhaps been a bad feminist at one point. She made an interesting point that there were different understandings of feminism depending on the different meaning of empowerment for women. For example, Orang Asli women had rather different conceptions of rape, in that rape is not a valid fear for them due to the lack of perpetuation of a fear of men but it is a fear that dominates other cultures, particularly western culture. 

During the Q & A, an interesting discussion began on how many interpretations of texts or laws are by men and primarily in the interest of men. Rizal gave an example in the form of polygamy in Islam and how while the Qura’n actually discourages it, many Ustaz have taken a nonchalant attitude towards it. An audience member interjected that in fact Qura’n conditions men to be adequate financially, physically and psychologically before taking a second wife. Victoria added that one scholar has interpreted the condition of fairness between the wives as being impossible to achieve as fairness is defined differently from man to man and has no way to be measured.  

Answering a question on how rape culture was perpetuated, Kelvin answered that he believes parent and surrounding environment and people were the key reason in establishing and continuing rape culture. Saran indicated that movies, particularly Indian movies, sports and video games where scenarios of men stalking women, rape jokes and rape used as a common expression in sports fan lingo contributed to the normalization of rape. As an audience member interjected that rape was about a sinister manifestation of power relations, Rizal revealed that during war, rape was used as a weapon, where raping an individual was a metaphor for raping a country.  

 Written by Rzan Mohamed

Photographed by Anne Marie

"They say that great minds think alike, but also fools seldom differ"

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