Every year, International Women’s Day is celebrated on the 8th of March. It is celebrated all over the world to commemorate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also serves as a rallying cry for women’s equality.
The earliest recollection of Women’s Day being observed goes as far back as the early 1900s. However, it was officially recognised during the second International Conference of Working Women that was held in Copenhagen in 1910. Over 100 women from 17 countries were involved in the conference and they unanimously approved 8th March as International Women’s Day.
Break The Bias
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias – to call out the bias, stereotypes, inequality, and discrimination that women face in their lives. Bias, whether intentional or unconscious, makes it difficult for women to advance. But it is not enough to recognise bias; action is needed to achieve a gender equal world.
Here in Malaysia, it is unfortunately still pretty common to experience and hear stories of how women are being treated unfairly or perceived with a certain stereotype that hinders our progress. Whether they’re cultural and societal expectations (and yes, even from fellow women) or biases that lead to lost opportunities just because a person is female, these things shouldn’t keep happening anymore.
In light of this year’s International Women’s Day theme, we asked Malaysian women to share with us their stories of discrimination and bias that they have encountered in their lives. Some of them also shared how they manage to persevere and break the bias they faced.
1. “My grandmother told me that girls don’t need a lot of education…”
I used to live with my grandmother who’s as traditional as you can expect, and the biggest “discrimination” that I received was that she constantly told me that girls don’t need a lot of education. Instead, they must know how to hold a broom – because we had to be domestic and be a good wife. If I didn’t know how to hold a broom (apparently a pre-requisite for all household chores), I wouldn’t be able to marry, or essentially my marriage will fall apart. The discrimination was that she still thought that girls should only be “domestic wives” and be secondary to men.
How I overcame it was by telling my grandmother that I wouldn’t get married. I had a lot of help from my mum, who thankfully isn’t traditional, and had me schooled and everything. It also took a lot of believing that I was meant to be more than a wife.
2. “In the medical line, girls shouldn’t strive so high…”
This happened in 2019. He was a professor in medical school. We were having class with a group of 16 of us – 13 being female. And somehow, future career came up. So that’s when he stated his opinions on how girls are not as smart as guys (even though our class comprised of 13 girls). That in the medical line, girls shouldn’t strive so high, and guys are the ones that can attain higher positions, become surgeons, etc. Then he commented on how all the girls look very well dressed and we should continue like this as it should be our goal to please our husbands. I skipped his class as much as possible after that.
3. “If she gets married and have a baby, it would disrupt the team…“
Although I’ve not personally encountered discrimination or bias based on my gender, I heard this from a friend who worked at an MNC. He told me about how his team leader was building a new sales team, but he was hesitant at first to include one of his female employees. FYI it would be considered a promotion if she joined the team. His concern was that she is in a relationship and if she gets married and have a baby, it will disrupt the team and affect their performance. I am also acquainted with the female employee and know for a fact that she is good at what she does. She was eventually added into the team, but it was horrible to know that she would have been excluded for such an absurd reason. Unfortunately, I’m sure this is pretty common – women getting overlooked for career opportunities because their ability to carry a child is considered a burden.
4. “I would be judged or viewed negatively when my date finds out that I’ve had more lovers than him…”
I’ve been online dating on and off for the past 10 years. Online dating is awkward as it is, and it is also very much focused on that first impression that you make. One of the things that I absolutely do not enjoy is the double standard that I have faced whenever I meet someone new. On one hand, I want to be honest and truthful in all my conversations. However, I have faced times where I would be judged or viewed negatively when my date finds out that I’ve had more lovers than him or that I’ve been in more relationships. What usually ends up happening is either one of these – they think that my pants are easier to get into or they become judgy and insecure. If it was the latter, I wouldn’t be expecting (or wanting) a second date. But if it was the other way around and the guy was the one who had more partners, they wouldn’t get the disapproval or criticism that I have faced. They would get pats on their back and encouragement instead. It is disappointing but it also feels inevitable that this is how things are.
5. “The society finds a way to sexualise the way women dance…”
Being a woman dancer comes with a lot of stereotypes of how our bodies should look like. You’ll be called fat if you’re curvy, a stick if you’re too thin, unsexy if you have a small chest or butt, but if you have it and flaunt it, you’re revealing too much. And when a woman decides to dance and express her emotions in ways that accentuate her body, she will probably be told that she is being slutty and too much. It doesn’t matter that she did a difficult dance that required a lot of strength or whether she was fully clothed. The society finds a way to sexualise the way women dance. I used to care a lot about what people thought of my body and second guessing if I was being too revealing or too much when I dance.
But I realised all of these are just categories we placed on ourselves to fit in desperately. Dance is meant for everyone to enjoy, love, and discover themselves. We don’t need to fit in to dance, we just need to be authentically ourselves. With no fear, no judgement.
6. “She told me I got what I deserved…”
I was sexually harassed when I was 15 years old by a church member. Not only did he not apologise, I spoke to the lady pastor of the church and all she told me was, “Forgive, forget and don’t wear too revealing clothes.” Even though I was wearing a checkered shirt and long black pants. She told me I got what I deserved because I wasn’t “acting” like how a woman should be.
What can we do?
These stories are heartbreaking to hear and it is evident that there is still so much work that needs to be done if we want a gender equal world. Well, you can start by supporting the women around you and actively call out the gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping each time you see it.
Together, we can #breakthebias.
Read more about past International Women’s Days with this: