Being empowered

After a very lengthy campaign,Senator Hillary Clinton has agreed to end her bid for the White House and instead has agreed to back Senator Barack Obama. I may be miles away from the US,where the real battleground lies,but out of interest for world affairs and the like,it is natural for me to find myself leaning toward one of the candidates for the Democratic party,and in this instance,my support had been for Hillary.

Why? For one thing,and a very simple reason it appears to be,because she’s a woman. This may seem like a pretty lame reason,but by supporting a woman candidate,it is just my way of honouring a woman who has gone very far and done well for herself in the tough world of politics.

The progress of women in the world (how much advancement in terms of women’s rights and achievements) is a strong indicator of global well-being. It’s true that over the past few decades,women have made significant progress in advancing their status and becoming more involved in areas traditionally dominated by men,such as business and politics. Other than those countries where women are holding key leadership positions in politics (such as Helen Clark,PM in New Zealand; Angela Merkel,Chancellor for Germany),it remains a fact that many countries are still reluctant or unable to grant their women a place as leader of the nation. And we’re not even talking about those unfair and terrible things they do to women in Third World countries.

Hillary is no doubt a very strong contender for the seat in the Oval Office. She has experience of being involved in politics,she is a strong woman with an indomitable spirit,and she has shown herself to be capable of garnering strong support from key demographic groups in the electorate. But perhaps the fact that she is a woman has caused her to lose it. It is regrettable to note that the image of a strong and powerful woman,with all the superlatives to boot — too strong,too hostile,too powerful,too aggressive,too good–is still a tough one for most people to stomach. This is a clear indication that people are still more attuned to the idea that women should take on the more nurturing role,should stay at home,should not appear in a fashion that’s too overwhelmingly powerful and domineering. Throw those superlative labels onto a man,and the image instantly gets transformed into a male who comes across as capable, adept,likeable and very charming indeed. This disparity in treatment and regard between the sexes takes place everyday,in most parts of the world,and for it to occur as a pretty obvious undertone in the prominent stage of US politics is a sign that prejudices are hard to eradicate,not even after nearly half a century of women’s rights movement. The superdelegates apparently bought into that idea of deciding to back a man instead of a woman too–his skin colour doesn’t matter,as long as he’s liberal and he’s biologically a man,that’s the better deal to go for.

In my country,women largely have access to education and voting,and as subjects of the economy,our degree of freedom to partake in civil life and political life is pretty admirable,at least on the surface. In business,we have women CEOs leading some of the most profitable corporations,and in politics,we’re seeing more women entering a predominantly male sphere. It is certainly heartening progress. This could be why it is still shocking that I sometimes still hear male friends passing remarks such as,”Women shouldn’t be such over-achievers,you guys should just stay sweet and nice and let us do the work.”He could have meant it in a endearing way,but all I got was ‘Chauvinist!’ screaming in my head. I get mortally offended when people make such comments. It clearly shows that they are incapable of dealing with being in the company of capable and ambitious women,and that is a very disturbing sign. I sometimes think that is why it appears to be increasingly difficult for highly educated women here to meet their potential spouses,simply because men here are unable and unwilling to date or marry women who are doing better than they are,or earning more than they are,or are just better than they are in a general sense.

This uneasiness with a woman in high position points to the conclusion drawn from a discussion group conducted by a women’s advocacy group here,where the topic for discussion was ‘Is Singapore ready for a Hillary Clinton?’ The answer is no. Some observations included the fact that we don’t even have a female minister in the Cabinet yet,and hence for the electorate to really be convinced enough to vote a female into office for even higher positions to lead the nation would take some years. Again,it’s perhaps not so much about prejudices in this instance,but about being used to a status quo. For many years,we’ve had males telling us what to do,proposing and introducing policies to improve our lives,going so far as to telling women how many children we should have! The faces that represent Power that we see in the media belong predominantly to males. It is not hard to become a victim of the patriarchal order,and unconsciously buy into the whole ‘girls-shouldn-be-this-and-that’ mode of thinking.

In the traditional Chinese rituals that we carry out at funerals or weddings,this tendency to stick to what has been done all along (meaning:for the longest time that the elders can remember) is very evident. For instance,when my grandmother passed away last year,and we had to follow these Taoist rituals at the wake,all of us family members were arranged in such a way that the males were right at the front,and the females at the back–it was gender over age and seniority. That irked me a bit,but I couldn’t possibly have said anything in the face of everyone else’s grief and my own. The interesting thing is that I brought it up grudgingly to my female cousins,and they saw nothing wrong in that arrangement where males are favoured and regarded with more importance.

The act and meaning of reading comes in at this point in time,and I don’t mean the simple act of reading for pleasure. The action of interpreting many of society’s pre-conceived notions and prejudices and status quo that’s taken for granted becomes a political act in itself,because it challenges us to question the long-standing patriarchal order and question why power belongs where it is now. It brings us more awareness about how the society we live in is dominated by what powerful men tell us to think,and how they think we should behave. And the question remains: Why should that be so? And apart from fighting for rights, (which I think we’ve got quite enough,but it’s never enough) we should also be thinking about how we can change the status of the less privileged women and children in society. And in order for us to do that,we must either throw our entire selves into charitable works,or become established and respected individuals in our own right and use that to our advantage to bring about change. Which is exactly what Hillary has done,and for which we should be extremely proud of her.

I shall end this with a quote by the President of the women’s advocacy group when I attended their writing workshop last year,

“You never become second-rate,that’s what loving yourself is all about.”

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