There was an article in the Star online today about pressuring the government into making sexual harassment a crime in Malaysia. 11 NGOs stressed the urgency since the rising numbers of incidences are making public spaces not only unbearable but increasingly dangerous for women and girls. But the language in which harassment or any gender-related issues for that matter is used is most often in sedate legal terms and in official statements that are supposed to engage equally sedate government officials.
It seems as if no one can really talk about feminist activism in Malaysia without mentioning various relevant NGOs in the country. This is mainly to do with how the dominant discourse on feminism in Malaysia works. But first, what is discourse? Discourse basically means the ways in which a particular topic is talked and discussed in the public and private arena. This includes the rules of what makes something “true” or “false”, important or not important. In the case of the discourse of feminism in Malaysia, a feminist or gender-related issue needs to be framed as an NGO issue to be regarded an important issue, at least important enough to get news space in the mainstream media.
Before anyone thinks that this post is a hate-on of NGOs, it’s not. Far from it. If anything, constant pressure on the government to make public spaces safer is of utmost importance all the time. As part of civil society, feminist NGOs form an integral aspect of building non-state and non-market interest in raising awareness to societal concerns, like everyday justice and discrimination. But the voice of the ordinary public is often missing from the picture; women and girls who fear walking the streets on broad daylight on their own are not figured in discussions on sexual harassment. Men have little to say about how harassment affects their lives and the lives of others.
The most detrimental effect of depending on the legitimacy of NGOs to make a feminist issue important is that it excludes many people outside NGOs; many other women and girls, and men in particular, from being part of a bigger movement. No one will feel that they have a stake in creating social change if they’re not being listened to. The ultimate danger is that feminist issues become exclusively women’s issues and nothing that concerns men. Even though men will walk in solidarity with women under the banner of anti-discrimination and violence, it is not a discourse that men can enter.
The dry and staid language used in the discourse of feminism in Malaysia also exclude many younger feminists in Malaysia who are inspired by the creativity, irreverence, and upbeat spirit of new feminism. An example of new forms of feminist expression in combating violence, harassment, and victim-blaming is Slutwalk. To delegitimise Slutwalk as irrelevant, offensive, and self-defeating is to miss the bigger picture; that younger women are serious about rape and slut-shaming. Do we all need to funnel our anger and disaffection down the narrow and dry language of statistics, referendums, statement letters, and petitions to be taken seriously?
To diminish the legitimacy of younger feminists who do not use the language of NGOs and the insistence that feminist issues must be a point of engagement with the government will marginalise many who do not have class and power-based access to creating change. Malaysia is mired by a culture of deference to the hype of status that will never help status-less young and so-called unqualified people from being heard. In sum, the challenge of addressing harassment and victim-blaming lies little in the hands of the government and a small coterie of NGO activists, but the entire public. And it is important that as many people as possible have access to and legitimacy in discussing the gender-related fears and anxieties that affect their everyday experiences.