I’ve been self-censoring myself for too long. Mostly out of fear of being poor again and of losing out on opportunities. But then I realised, much to my despair, that one can never win as a woman in academia, especially in Malaysian academia.
It shouldn’t take long to identify sexism in academia. But it requires an appetite of a beast to name it when it is the noxious air one breathes. In light of the male backlash against historian Fern Riddell’s request to be addressed as ‘Dr.’ to honour her academic expertise (see here), I feel empowered to say a few things:
1. I’m a tough person. But structural sexism in academia can eventually take a toll on a person, however tough she may be.
2. Writing about sexism in academia is hard. To quote Sara Ahmed, by pointing out a problem, one *becomes* the problem. This means writing about sexism in academia frequently results in the punishment not against perpetrators but its victims; the latter are deemed a bad team-player, can’t hack the work culture/status quo, and “weak”.
2 a. Writing about the problems within academia/my discomfort at work has resulted in friends of my head of department reporting back to her of my “bad behaviour” online. After a while, I became so careful of what I say (constantly agonising, “how will this come across?”) to the point of silencing myself.
3. With the exception of one person in my workplace (the gender studies dept), everyone is supportive of sexual harassment victims. But one is too many. Many women, sadly including those who call themselves “feminist”, are unlikely to support other women. The sheer number of friends who’ve evaporated/I’ve have to drop to preserve my mental health is quite remarkable for a village like KL.
4. I sometimes wonder why I’m seldom called to write/speak about gender and/or religion in local public forums while other people with less expertise are called and end up not really talking about gender or religion. I’m not invited to meet other international feminist scholars who visit my city. Maybe I don’t put myself “out there” enough and too modest. Perhaps it’s related to point #3.
5. Male early career researchers are hailed as “star” scholars and “most promising” academics “in the country” when they have only published little and/or in non-reputable local journals/less prestigious publications. Women scholars of similar rank and who have published more do not get that kind of recognition.
6. FEW people actually care about my research. And the few mostly reside outside Malaysia. NO ONE in my workplace/faculty wants to listen about my research or my publications.
7. Finding female collaborators within/outside academia is challenging. Often, one must either be a non-critical, non-threatening friend or a threatening competitor.
8. Think about it, why aren’t there any female versions of Farish Noors or Syed Farid Alatases, and as many? How many women have crashed and burned by sexism before they could be tenured professors?
9. The day that ‘gender’ is “niche” and “for women” is over. Gender underpins and encompasses all human activity and relations, get over it. Same goes with the urgency and intellectual significance of the “private”, “intimate”, “domestic” and “family”.
10. Just because YOU as a woman have had more opportunities, ease, and success in academia does not mean that sexism in academia does not happen.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’ve never doubted the support and friendship of those who stayed and still *talked* to me despite my stormy two years 2016-2017. Let’s make academia better, in ways small and great.
I discovered your blog probably about a year ago and have been a silent reader since! Thank you and extreme kudos to you for writing this post. I thank you as a female Malaysian undergrad aspiring to be a historian for informing me of this sorry situation, which unfortunately doesn’t surprise me. (I bemoaned only last week the fact that Farish A Noor, who I look up to, isn’t a woman! Would’ve been perfect if he was, I thought.) Please continue to speak out, I support you. And would love to meet you and learn more, actually.
Thanks so much for reading! Academia is a really complex institution that benefited and held back by layers of history, privilege, and structural sexism and racism that every individual who enters as a professional, admin, grad student or undergrad, will be differentially impacted. Luck and self-care meanwhile are not institutionally recognised as crucial elements to academic life. And by luck I mean being born male, straight, middle-class, and privy to the right kinds of contacts.
#6 really hit me. Thanks for writing this. It echoed many of my own feelings I had even as an undergrad. My solidarity is with you as you trek through the forests of academia.