If we consider the major strides women have made and continue to make in education and employment in Malaysia, we think, ‘we’ve never had it so good’. Pro-women policies from the ground up; from the changing attitudes at home right up to the corridors of power, have placed women at the focus of many ‘development’ and nation-building projects. Men, on the other hand, are believed to have always enjoyed the advantage of being considered socially superior to women. But forget for a moment the myth that men have the supposed birthright to be leaders and women are meant ‘serve’ and ‘assist’ them; not all men are doing so well and not all men are the boss. While women are becoming more empowered, the already empowered men are assumed to be happy with that. Under the banner of ‘Women’s Issues’, women’s progress in society is always reported and analysed, much like an intensive health check-up to see if we’re doing okay.
Meanwhile, men’s status in society is considered to be unchanging and frozen in time. Yes, there are still more men in powerful places and still more women who are redressing that gender imbalance. Though I’d like to think that women’s increasing social independence must mean something to the male of the species. If being a woman today means not ever going back to being a woman of the past, then this must impact on what being a man today means. The attack on feminism suggests a resentment that more women will run the show, have more control, have more say in things, and all this may leave men thinking that they now have less control, less power, emasculated even. So it is not surprising in the least that feminism is referred to as man-hating by men themselves, as if feminism conspires to overpower the male race and take over the world. The anxieties of potential female domination are also felt by self-professed liberal men, particularly when expressed in the cautious rhetoric about what gender equality should mean, or what I call the ‘mansplaining of feminism’.
I’d like to call for a sensitive analytical focus on men and masculinities in Malaysia. Call it men’s issues if you like, and the focus should be on all types of men, not men as a monolithic group. What I mean by men’s issues is nothing like the male version of women’s issues. It’s not about working towards giving more rights to men above what women already or do not have. It’s about casting a careful look on how women’s changing roles in society impact on modern masculinity and about making gender equality a project that concerns not women alone but a dialogue between genders. I’m hoping that men’s issues make it a point to raise male privilege as a subject worthy of investigation to be studied and discussed by men and women alike. Only by making these issues visible can we demystify men’s fears and anxieties about what genuine gender equality means.
I’d like to finish with a quote from Rafidah Abdullah’s interview with The Nutgraph:
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I want a Malaysia run by a political party with a “lelaki” wing, and this is the wing that handles food, drinks and menial labour for all the party events. And I want a Kementerian Pembangunan Lelaki, Keluarga dan Masyarakat, which will run workshops targeted at preventing boys from turning into rempit, rapists and incestuous fathers.
Honestly, it’s a losing battle working on women’s issues when people won’t even acknowledge men’s issues